Slowly we are discovering that distributed intelligence can be a lot more powerful than the declarations of an elite. Humanity+ faces tough problems. To solve and act on them needs the best possible level of mass discussion, but, despite us all having about 83 billion brain cells, most are effectively silenced or pretty much silence themselves.
How we engage all the computing or thinking capacity we have to be the most fruitful and not fatuous is the basic challenge in resolving our planet’s and people’s problems. That demands much wider and more fluent public debate. We have got to build one another’s capacities.
I have trained up teams of 11 and 12 year olds in West Ealing, Southall and Brent to win borough-wide public speaking competitions. I got a state school to beat the private sector for the first time.
I’ve spoken at the Oxford Union, 90 minute sessions at Speakers’ Corner, been president of a students’ union, and taught ‘Presentation Skills’ at UWL.
Please use what you like of these points:
a) Our first fear of joining in public debate is looking like an idiot. For me the key is remembering that people are far more obsessed with themselves than with you. Whatever glitches you come out with will rankle with yourself when other minds have wandered on to the next attraction. The occasional public screw-up, taken well, makes you more attractive (and likely to be listened to). Who actually likes the ostensibly omnicompetent? Mostly what you say will be good enough or good – it’s a trivial downside and a massive upside (which we’ll come on to).
b) You don’t have to start as a shy introvert with a childhood stutter, but overcompensation is powerful. Your average martial artist began by getting beaten up. It’s more important to start and learn on your feet than securely read about this stuff until you feel totally comfortable. Some people can start by diving in the deep end but mostly you motivate yourself (and others) by starting with small asks – put your toe in the water.
c) Toes in the water could be – seconding a motion, any conversation with more than two new people (how to start? There’s books and blogs on this). I find bus stop queues and longer train journeys let me get round to economic reform. You don’t start with Modern Monetary Theory, you go from neutral to finding what the person feels financially miffed about, how they see it, then your perspective – and solution.
d) Asking a question can be a gentle entry. Okay half of all questions are pretty rhetorical but a simple admission of ignorance builds plausibility. ‘What does ‘dispositive’ mean?’ or ambiguously, ‘What do you mean by ‘dispositive’?’ ‘Where can I get (or, can you give me) a copy of that data? (Not, ‘You’re a liar.’) If you don’t know something you can bet half the others there don’t either and will be grateful for someone going for clarity. Most activist meet ups, and nowadays large corporates, create ‘break-out’ groups where up to eight people discuss an issue and afterwards a note taker feeds back to the whole group (plenary). Speaking personally, most feedbacks are imperfect, but they’re better than not doing it.
e) If you hesitate to put your opinions on the line at first giving a report on something is a good ‘way in.’ So maybe volunteer for something that will sometimes demand that.
f) When you are sitting in a large group there is an art in catching the chair or facilitator’s eye and being permitted to speak.
- Most people hesitate to put the first point after a main speaker. If you prepare your brain during the initial talk – What could be the question? What’s the consequence? What’s overlooked? How can you build on this? Is there a weakness? – you will be more ready to speak at once, and more likely get chosen.
- Remember the chair or facilitator (I’ll just use ‘chair’ from now; it’s shorter and reflects Labour’s norm) doesn’t want a blow up, so sitting there obviously simmering won’t get you chosen fast. Figure what expression you can plausibly do – intelligent interest with slight puzzlement works for many – and don’t let that change too fast if you’re not getting chosen.
- Most chairs don’t scan the room very well. They tend to look forward and slightly to one side and see people about seven rows back to start with. Don’t put yourself where the chair will have to move their neck to see you. Chairs try to be fair by being demonstrably random, but they don’t understand that random is more clumped than evenly distributed. So if you are sitting with a bunch of people all signalling to speak your chance of being selected is lower. When I go to a meeting with my son I insist on us sitting well apart. In some situations you may judge that you’ve got more chance of being chosen if you’re more informally or formally dressed.
- Chairs don’t do telepathy. It’s better to keep your hand irritatingly up until you get an eye ball & nod acknowledgement from the chair that you are in the queue – even if you infer a flicker of irritation at your persistence. Weak chairs let people just burst in. In some cases interpolating up to five words (say a counter example) may be legitimate if it doesn’t break the speaker’s flow but if the chair is just letting whoever calls out first seize the floor then you also will have to be pragmatic about choosing your own timing if you want to be heard. Still, remember, it’s pointless grabbing the air time if you are brassing everybody off.
g) Fairness implies equivalent ‘air time.’ If there are 40 people present why should you speak for more than 90 seconds in any hour? In reality equivalence never happens in groups above eight. Some of this is reasonable. The Secretary may have a ton of stuff to communicate. If I have little knowledge in an area I’m happy to stay schtum and learn from someone more informed. But plenty of us have raised our eyes with neighbours while the speaker articulates the obvious at length. If you are going to go over your [time ÷ people present] allowance, be pretty clear why you think your input is better than others wanting to speak.
h) Primers on public speaking have a lot to say about delivery but less about content. Rhetorical flourishes are lovely but we are here to make a difference and move things along. ‘What a good speaker’ is less use than ‘When do we do it?’ (or maybe ‘Let’s not’). Reading the paperwork beforehand (the agenda + docs), pondering and anticipating, happens less than it should. Sure, you won’t always have the time or bandwidth, and being there and familiar to people counts for more.
i) Reading the paperwork (skimming is better than nothing) also emphasises the underrated value of sticking to the point. Beware of being only a one topic / solution / theory person. You are likely to get blanked. I believe in Land Value Tax (or something similar) but I know a few enthusiasts who get blanked because others expect the same diatribe every time. It’s also worth thinking about where your opinions come from; an article in the Observer last month which half the room has read too? Your favourite Youtuber? The third Chapter of ‘Kapital 1’, before you started skimming? The third chapter of Mankiw’s ‘Principles of Economics’ before you decided Econ 101 was something to drop? What that irritating person said at the last meeting?
j) To persuade in a pluralist culture you need to show understanding of the opposing case. If you can’t articulate Conservative values in a way which a Conservative would agree with you won’t get your election majority. It’s standard debating practice to begin by acknowledging the opponent’s case, identifying any commonalities (more specific than motherhood and apple pie is good) then either illustrate the counterfactuals or ‘build on’ what they have said. This links to the oldest pick up line in the world, – ‘You and I are cool, enlightened, whatever. They are a joke, evil, dumb. Maybe wiser to identify this than use it?
k) Manuals also talk about getting the, yes, yes, yes mindset. You start with a small ask which everybody agrees with, ‘Let’s try to be fair here’ (preferably next year) and build up, ‘It’s not much work, really.’ Preachers I know seem to be trained to overdo this, ‘Does anybody else watch television/ feel uncertain / like sweet things?’ (Insert blatantly obvious empathy seeking common behaviour.) Don’t overdo this.
l) Debate and discussion isn’t simply a zero sum game. To persuade it helps to indicate a willingness to be persuaded. Winning a vote may feel sweet even if not much happens, but ultimately we are here to educate and elevate one another. It’s effective to acknowledge other people’s contributions. ‘It’s amazing what you can achieve if you let the other chap take the credit.’ – President Truman
m) This links to one of the harder things to do in a public discussion – listening. Obviously you generally prepare what you are going to say, running it over in your mind. But it’s easy to be doing that so hard that you don’t absorb what the immediately previous speaker said, which may nullify what you announce – or be embarrassingly similar.
n) Plenty of people avoid engaging in discussion through fear of criticism, being misunderstood or wrongfooted due to their lack of grasp of what has contemporarily become a key issue. Moderate feedback is to be valued but there is also outrage and fake outrage and those two are more of a spectrum than a polarity. We amplify our feelings of distaste because it can make good rhetoric. Also it can be quite fun to get worked up about things. Sure you should express some emotion quite often; just don’t get hammy.
o) So you’ll just have to take the possibility of offence with a pinch of salt but stay sensitive. If there’s someone you can’t empathise with that could be more your problem than theirs. However, if you’ve never had anyone gunning at you when you feel innocent just wait. All sorts of reflections can help with this. There’s no point taking it too personally when a dog barks, a seagull screeches (or worse) or a toddler swears at you. You can frame an over-the-top response in the same category. Knowing that aggression is often displaced from another area may help you to sympathise. One pupils’ mood management course suggests you imagine the respondent shrunk to the height of a rabbit, with similar ears – works for some. Another reflection is that OTT responses generally condemn the attacker in the eyes of the audience more than the attacked. Dealing with it well is an opportunity.
p) ‘A soft answer turneth away wrath.’ My mouthy little terrier bossed my neighbour’s rottweiler around while he was a puppy. A year later after Rex had ignored his yappy tirade Fluffy leapt and bit the skin of his neck. Rex remained sitting and actually looked down his (rather short) nose. My dog desisted from then on.
q) Sure sometimes you will be wrong. After Einstein held up the progress of cosmology for five years by refusing to accept that the universe was expanding he ‘fessed up to it – and got respect. ‘Thank you for that,’ sometimes gets a laugh. Don’t be afraid to apologise – it’ll stun (and deflate) them.
r) Media training and plenty of speech advice says only make three points max – the rest is typically forgotten. People remember the start and end of a list best. Think how much of everybody else’s contribution you can quote after 24 hours; how might what you say be different? Education works hard at enabling students to make abstract generalisations so when they e.g. say ‘moral hazard’ it conjures up a multitude of faults that they imagine everyone else gets too. You’ll be lucky. If you can’t cite a few telling concrete examples maybe the generalisation isn’t so great. Really concrete, not ‘most bankers,’ more like naming the individuals at Barclays who got off scot free for a fraud when their Icelandic colleagues got four years for it over just one tenth the money. Making a small number of general points doesn’t stop you piling on the concrete images. (Three, slightly variegated, repetitions there.) Stuff which appeals to the senses gets remembered best. Statistics are powerful but should also be grounded.
s) If you are deadly serious for more than three minutes you are likely to irritate or bore, but straight jokes can be dire or weird. It’s more a matter of tone or irony about context. Likewise pace and volume should vary. Pauses can be cool. Around 15% of your audience will have poorer hearing. Opening your mouth more when you talk – clarity, helps more than volume. Don’t worry over a periodic stutter – it can get you more attention.
t) Everybody tells you to breathe deeply. Try to remember it, at least to calm yourself before you start. The best voice training is probably just singing. Some professionals hum as a warm up. (Unobtrusively?) shaking your wrists to relax works for martial artists, noticing muscle tensions and consciously relaxing is ideal but don’t let it stretch your bandwidth.
u) You have a choice to make about blending in or standing out. When I hitchhike (still happens) if I look scruffy I usually get picked up by a similarly scruffy driver, while a smarter driver is more likely when I’m smart. Whatever you are most comfortable with is probably best. A posh voice irritates some people and reassures others. As a former Mancunian I find bad efforts at a northern accent a wind up. Authenticity is safest. Is it better to exude an atmosphere of legitimacy, even authority and be taken seriously but considered arrogant rather than come over as humble and inconsequential?
v) If you are going to be a ‘sage on the stage’ up front obviously you’re going to plan more. A lot of fluency comes from just talking lines to yourself, alone, running things round in your head. But If you have time to make a draft, then write out each word, learn it and deliver with 100% eye contact that’s great. Still, it’s more convincing to master the gist and look at people than read a text (though if your eyes are good enough you will get away with short spells reading from a phone). People with some dyslexia may have a boost as they have to remember more. If you must read try to read ahead and look at people as much as possible – just over people’s heads around the middle if you get sensory overload.
w) Most people are brighter than most people think most people are. You don’t always have to use verbal inflation to get your point across – too much and you’re taken less seriously. Understatement and pointing to a conclusion rather than hammering it can work as well. You can read all sorts of logical tricks that people fall for in books like Rolf Dobelli’s ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly.’ But the best form of long-term manipulation is being totally straight with people. If you are detected once you’ve blown your credibility and good will – and people are better at seeing our own self-delusions than we are ourselves.
x) Kidding ourself is an inbuilt default; it makes us better liars – but it doesn’t build such effective long term working and learning relationships. If you think you never do this, check something like Rob Trivers’ ‘Deceit and self-deception’ – worthwhile insurance. There’s plenty more you can say about speaking but you’ll learn faster just doing it. Like cold showers, sooner or later you’ll get a high – just watch the addiction. The best book on public speaking is still Dale Carnegie’s ‘The Art of Public Speaking.’ The flaws of some 1930s unconscious assumptions suggest we ponder what in our dialogue will seem offensive or insensitive by the end of this century.
y) Don’t pre-emptively beat yourself up. Perfectionists achieve not much. You’re here to save the world but if you can’t sing or play guitar public speaking can also trigger pleasant approaches. (You want to build your audience’s intrinsic care and motivation, but to get there indicating extrinsic payoffs should help.)
z) Good luck!
Extra points from Sunday’s discussion
1) Linking a point to a personal experience gets attention, so long as you don’t talk about yourself all of the time. Often people spend half a minute evaluating you on appearance so you might just tell them a bit about your background while others are arriving.
2) Just canvassing is good practice in persuasion. Encounter groups like AA can warm you up for public speaking. ‘Shout outs’ of events at the end of a meeting is another warm-up practice.
3) Carry a notebook with your main points, like Jeremy Corbyn.
4) PowerPoint isn’t crucial. It easily gets boring just reciting your bullet points, but printed words or an object to emphasise your point (multisensory approach) helps some listeners. Could you use a puppet, intersperse with guitar and song, wave a report, graph or photograph? (Activity where possible better still.)
5) Plan but be ready to change with the circumstance with new inputs and inspiration. (‘I have a dream..’ was not on MLK’s speaking notes.)
6) Show respect for others – and it gets them echoing respect back to you.
7) Training courses at work or whatever will help. Check funnywomen.com public speaking workshops.
8) Hecklers can make people more interested. You could thank them and/ or give witty replies and/ build it back into your narrative.
9) Don’t be overawed by other speakers. Remember stand-up comics are often shy in their real life.
10) The mike can be a prop for attention. Make sure you’re getting your mouth at the right distance for it to work decently.
11) Quality is better than quantity – better to stop when they still want more.
David Dewhurst, Brentford & Isleworth CLP