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Avoid the Curse, understand the Situation: 2 principles of powerful public speaking

“You can improve your value by 50 percent just by learning communication skills – public speaking.” – Warren Buffett

Google “public speaking tips” and you’ll get about 50,300,000 hits. That may be less than typing “LeBron” gets, at 70 million+, but 50 million isn’t bad for a generally unremarkable daily activity like talking.

What may be surprising, though, is how many of those 50 million links seem only incidentally about public speaking. Primarily, they consist of public speaking advice sold as pop therapy for your inner fears. “Banish fear of speaking,” one promises. (“The truth is, this fear could be hurting your professional and personal life.”) Find the “art of manliness” through speech training and “soar into the C-Suite.”

These are Digital Age variations on the Charles Atlas bodybuilding methods of the 1940s, a regimen through which a “97-pound weakling” transforms into a muscle-bound Adonis of the beach. (“Let me prove I can make you a new man!”)

Alas, I cannot assess the fantasy-realizing promise of bodybuilding. But, I can say that to sell public speaking as life transformative is silly and misses the point. The power of public speaking lies not in its be-born-again promise, but in how it will sharpen the way you do business.

You may not give a lot of speeches, but you lead team meetings, sell ideas to your boss, seek their funding, write emails, meet clients and prospects, sell products and services, draft memos, and try – and sometimes fail – to keep an audience awake through a PowerPoint. All of which are efforts to get a message across clearly – exactly the same quest that Aristotle and the ancient Greeks set themselves to unravel 2,500 years ago. And unravel they did, into a set of communication insights and principles that survive to this day.

Here are two of those principles, which, I submit, will not make men and women swoon, but will help them pay attention and understand your message: the rhetorical situation and the curse of knowledge.

1. The Rhetorical Situation

“Rhetorical situation” isn’t the cuddliest phrase, but it is your friend. It means the facts-on-the-ground you encounter, the audience of one or more you are addressing, the party you are at.  Become aware of the rhetorical situation – which asks, “What do I need to know about this audience to connect with them?” – and you will, in fact, connect better in any work setting.

This may sound obvious. You’re before a room full of bankers, or cops, or teenage girls or automotive engineers.  Different folks, different strokes, and  you’ve been intuitively taking in rhetorical cues since age 2, when you learned that parents are one audience; visiting grandparents = a new rhetorical situation. Adjusting to each may call for a change in lingo, idioms, tone, pop culture references and speaking style (cf. you at a formal job interview; you at a bar arguing Golden State vs. the Cavs).

In other words, different situations call for different persuasive, or rhetorical, tools. The rhetorical situation is the sum total of all those facts-in-the-seats staring at you. It is they to whom you must mold your rhetorical moves.

The existential truth is that you’ll never know the rhetorical situation completely, but reminding yourself that you may be missing a mood in the room will give you enough rhetorical clues to shape-shift successfully. Business interactions usually involve flying blind to some extent. But if you always ask yourself, “What more do I need to know?” you’ll be more on the beam.

2. The Curse of Knowledge

On the flip side of “rhetorical situation” lurks the more intriguingly named “curse of knowledge.” If “rhetorical situation” means awareness of what you don’t know about your audience, the curse is awareness of what your audience does not know.

Why is it a “curse?” Because nothing kills a talk or a pitch or conversation faster than your audience getting lost, left feeling stupid and angry, because you have not adequately explained what you are talking about.  Who has not sat in a classroom lost because the teacher assumed you knew what a “binomial” was or “The Articles of Confederation” or Biff’s problems with Willy, his salesman father? How good do you feel at those moments?

Exactly. That’s why it’s a curse. You’ve lost your audience and irritated them. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s dissection of making ideas memorable, they write, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like to not know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge … because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

What to do?

Go back to Point #1, the rhetorical situation. “What does my audience need to know?” High on that list is their knowledge of the subject and its historical context.  In 2017, few need an explanation of who Ivanka Trump is. But talk about TSCA Reform and the EU (FYI: updating hazardous chemical legislation to comport with European Union regulations), and a few in your audience might be lost.  

And, if you do keep in mind the rhetorical situation and the curse of knowledge, who knows?  Maybe you will become a business rock star – eagerly anticipated by all, adoringly listened to, with a sure ticket to the top. And inner peace.

It could happen. 

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