Everything Old News is News Again

Style is to Substance as:

Form is to Content, as:

Soft-headed is to Rigorous, as: 

Acting is to Honesty, as:

Rhetoric is to Truth.

Common associations. Let’s inspect them. Maybe it's time for an update.


A few days ago, at my second annual faculty meeting, I am introduced to a senior faculty member, whom I remember from the year before, but did not meet face-to-face. Upon learning, that I coach public speaking, he remarks cordially, « I bet I could work on that! ». For some reason, I always feel put on the spot by this response, (even though it’s not an uncommon response when people learn that I work on voice and speech). I acknowledge his comment politely (I hope), and then we chat a bit: I confirm my recollection that he is a finance professor (finance people, I’ve learned are anxious about communicating their expertise to people who are not in finance). Then, I recall his cordial remark from a few moments ago, and as I’m taking this in, the dean is starting the meeting, and my new acquaintance, he says: « I was watching this guy give a talk the other day, and he spoke so well that I stopped hearing what he was saying…I guess, that’s the danger… » I didn’t have time to come up with a response then, but what to make of this?


My first take: Is he teasing me? A little, I think. Is he inviting me to conversation? I think so, because of that initial,  « I bet I could work on that! ». And he is, I think, expressing a certain uneasiness about the tension between personal presentation and authenticity.  My colleague was distinguishing himself as someone concerned with substance over style: finance, not frippery. And yet…He’s a teacher, so he has to be concerned with how he communicates. But what kind of person would that make him, to self-conciously work on how he’s communicating, rather than the substance of his communication? What sort of person risks being heard and admired without being understood?


My second take: the exchange is a thin slice from a very long dialogue. In Gorgias, Plato/Socrates likens rhetoricians to cooks who have no concern for the healthiness of their cuisine: they are apt to make bad arguments taste as good, or better, than valid ones. 

Yet the ideas that stick, that nourish us, that have an impact, are delivered in well-considered forms. We’re familiar with the recipes: Proverbs, verse, and story; Elegant equations. They embody character and ideas - revealing and shaping the world as it is at the same time.

We all desire to be heard and understood. Especially those of us who like to teach, or to lead, (which requires learning and teaching simultaneously).  I like Deirdre McCloskey’s response to this perceived gulf between style and substance, from The Rhetoric of Economics, (2nd ed.):

« Rhetoric is not everything, but it is everywhere in the speech of human persuaders ». 

So, why not embrace it, instead of holding it at arm's length? Or pretending that it isn’t even in the room?


My final take, (with apologies to the imminently cliché « the take away is… »): 

How we argue with, persuade, and inspire our audiences, whether it is with data or with metaphors, is bound up with our character. Aristotle called it ethos. Sounds like old news. But, when John Zimmer and I teach Public Speaking and Presence to our next batch of executive MBAs, at UNIL, John will put ethos front and center as he teaches how to prepare a persuasive appeal. And I'll have my own two cents to add about character. It’s the one constant, the ever present part of any appeal. This hasn’t changed. It won’t change as long as we want to share our learning and get people to act on our ideas. 

Rhetoric, in common parlance, in newspapers and in the mouths of commentators tastes bad, it smells of manipulation. « Acting », « Performance », these words, too, when not referring to a staged event or sports, often carry the same taint. 

However, rhetoric and performance, once at the center of education, now often neglected, has been getting a lot of attention lately.  In business schools and executive training, rhetoric has re-emerged under the yet-to-be sullied headings, executive presence, leadership presence. It is also grudgingly accepted under the condescending rubric, « soft skills », that harkens back to the old analogies and Platonic suspicions. Those who really consider such matters "soft" are mistaking rhetoric for a fascination with smoke and mirrors, rather than seeing the harder truth: Rhetoric is holding up the mirror to our own characters and our own persuasions, so everyone can see.

I "Coach" TED Talks #2 - Excellent Energy and Spooky Stillness

If you subscribe to updates on TED talks, then this talk on Quantum Biology, by physicist Jim Al-Khalili, recently appeared in your inbox. If you're curious about the ultimate nature of reality, but didn't get the hang of advanced mathematics, like yours truly, then it's good to listen to someone like Mr. Al-Khalili. And if you do understand advanced science, then Mr. Al-Khalili is a good example of how to talk to a general audience.  

From a coaching perspective, sometimes, it's good just to carefully observe a really enjoyable speaker. It gives you a picture of how you want to feel before an audience. But there's also something, well, spooky here....and it's not just in the quantum biology.

This talk is also a good lab for watching how speakers are impacted by the physical aspects of the room they're in and how people change their behavior for the camera.

The Room

At 25 sec - we see the challenges and the assets of the theatre in which Khalili is presenting.

In his favor, there are screens in front of him and to the side, mounted in aisles, so he doesn't have to break contact with the audience to know what the audience is seeing. [Personally, I don't think it's bad if a speaker turns to look at their slide, as long as the speaker remembers not to speak to the slide] .

The challenge - he is on a thrust stage, meaning the audience is on 3 sides - this promotes intimacy with the audience, but it also means that close to 1/2 the audience is off to either side. This means to make and maintain contact the speaker has to move. Whatever the configuration of a room, speakers need to make choices about proximity to the audience. Willingness to approach the audience signals confidence and a desire to connect. In this room, the speaker must be close to the audience, and must move in order to remain present with everyone. 

The Delivery

Around forty seconds we get a nice shot of how strong it is to stand still with the feet shoulder-width apart. It's a great posture to start with and to return to. He is, to borrow a phrase from one of my movement teachers, "free, forward, and up". Movement is possible from this posture because it is easy to feel one's weight on the floor - and it takes energy to move from this posture, so tiny nervous movements are felt as tiny and nervous; this posture promotes self-awareness. To take a step from here takes a deliberate move. 

As he gets into his talk, you can observe: the comfortable pace, released energy - a little bound in the arms, but they're not dead -  he's gesturing rather than erecting an inert barrier at right angles, which many nervous speakers do. Great pitch variation, which follows in the moment from gesturing, but is rooted in knowing where he's going, and composing the talk in an unornamented, oral style. Finally, he also uses stories. At 6:30 he talks about how Schrodinger 'begged to differ' from conventional wisdom in his field. He doesn't just inform us of Schrodinger's views, he speaks of Schrodinger as being in conversation with the ideas. An active style is clear and gives the voice something to do in accenting language. To top it off, the slides are few in number, simple and clean.  

Despite all of this excellent energy, something began to dawn on me about 5 minutes in. It's the Spooky Stillness of his feet. 

After about 5 minutes, I realized: he still hasn't taken a step. Did the organizers put magnets in his tap shoes? Who got to him? The videographer who begged him not to move to help the editing? His own nervous voice telling him to stay planted? Or maybe even-shudder- a voice coach? Or maybe it was a choice - maybe he gets scattered and frenetic if he moves too much.

On the one hand, It doesn't really matter, the presentation is excellent, but it's worth some reflection. I can't imagine the audience in the room didn't notice this and maybe find it odd. In fact, around 9:45 in the speech you can see him twisting to bring in the side audience. I would have said to him, "listen to your feet". Sometimes your body knows the right thing to do. Also, he's really responding to the configuration of the stage - which shows how present and connected to the audience he is. 

Finally, another grace note Al-Khalili hits earlier, around 9:05 is how he responds to the laughter -  he hears it and rolls with it. This doesn't take any great craft. It's just listening and breathing. Nervous speakers 'step on' the laughter - which is like telling the audience 'SHH' I have something important to say!", as they rush to the next idea, trying to exert control over an uncontrollable situation.


The spookiest part of presentations, or performance of any kind, is the audience.  After all of the hard work of drafting, re-drafting and rehearsing, it is the audience that decides what is important.

If you are fortunate enough to elicit laughter from an audience, it means they're listening; it means their breathing pattern is changing, which means ideas are reaching them. Most important, laughter means your audience is no longer just a group of individuals, it is becoming a chorus, inspired to some degree by your presence. That's can be lot of energy to take in and remain present with.