Tag Archives: public speaking

Booklist | Rhetoric in Public Life from the head of NYT/former leader of BBC

The book had me at the sub-title; what’s not to love about a book exploring political rhetoric from the former head of the BBC/current leader of NYT? Even better: the book comes from a series of lectures on the “art of public persuasion” Oxford. Good stuff.

Beyond British and American politics, Thompson covers a wide range of additional subjects. He discusses the classic Greek elements of rhetoric, including logos (argument), ethos (the character of the speaker) and pathos (emotion), along with other Greek rhetorical concepts. He talks about the punchy, Trump-like language of Vladimir Putin and the theatrics of Silvio Berlusconi. A whole chapter is built around George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” He punctuates his discussions with sweeping summaries like this one, in reference to social media: “The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius — a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill — is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art but as algorithm.”

Source: Mark Thompson’s New Book on the Use and Misuse of Rhetoric – The New York Times

Tagged , ,

A New Frame for American Power


Facing “a world in disarray”–the term used by Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. President has some work to do. On his recent trip to Laos, however, President Obama draws from his rhetorical toolbox to reframing the discourse on U.S. power and foreign policy history. His critics see it as weakness, or worse. But speaking truthfully about American past misdeeds can be a powerful strategy for building influence.

Mr. Obama’s series of speeches reviewing historical trouble spots highlight several unusual facets of his worldview. They fit within his larger effort to reach out to former adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar. They assert his belief in introspection and the need to overcome the past. And they highlight his perspective that American power has not always been a force for good.

According to Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, reported in the NYT:

none of Mr. Obama’s comments constitute apology. … Rather, these speeches touch on a longstanding domestic political divide over the nature of American power.

“It gets back to this issue of national identity,” she said. Some Americans, including Mr. Obama, emphasize democratic ideals of humility and self-critique. Others believe American power is rooted in unity, celebration of positive deeds and shows of strength.

“Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” Mr. Obama said in March in Argentina, referring to a 1976 military coup that had received tacit American approval. “The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies, as well, and its own past.”

Source: Obama, Acknowledging U.S. Misdeeds Abroad, Quietly Reframes American Power – The New York Times

This strategy strengthens soft power–even as the Obama Doctrine has relied on hard power significantly.

Tagged , , , ,

Terry Gross on How to Talk to Anyone

Diplomats, salespeople, missionaries, and journalists all talk to people. Some do it better than others. But nobody does it as well as Terry Gross, the NRP interviewer par excellance–who kept me informed and entertained as I worked a painting conservation job in college, swabbing dirt inch-by-inch across a gigantic, room-filling canvas. Foam-covered 1980’s era headphones attached to a Sony AM/FM/cassette Walkman were my lifeline to a world of fascinating ideas and people, thanks to Gross.

So when I saw this piece by Susan Burton on the art and craft of WHYY in Philadelphia’s master interviewer I wanted to see what could be learned. One insight: it takes a lot of work (and a little luck) to get a “real moment” in a hard-earned conversation, and it can be uncomfortable:

When the interview ended, Gross and her producers asked themselves, ‘‘Are we going to keep that in the edit?’’ Yes, they decided: ‘‘Maybe there’s not a really satisfactory, conclusive answer,’’ but ‘‘it felt like a real moment.’’ Gross went on: ‘‘Even if the real moment isn’t somebody being really honest and forthcoming and introspective, a real moment of friction, a real moment of tension, is still a real moment.’’

Occasionally the ‘‘real moments’’ can be awkward for Gross. In July, in an interview with the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Gross began laughing in response to a story he told about being yelled at by a teacher. ‘‘See, it sounds like you’re laughing because, like, it’s funny if you’ve never been in the environment,’’ Coates said. Some on social media pegged Gross as a clueless white lady. But the exchange was constructive. Gross was simply reacting, and then listening as Coates explained his perception of her reaction. In doing so, he illuminated an experience of growing up in a culture of fear and violence.

Source: Terry Gross and the Art of Opening Up – The New York Times

Tagged , , , ,

 Requirements for Freedom and Civil Discourse: Courage and Tolerance


02/11/1999 - NYK04: SPECIAL, NEW YORK, 11/FEB/99 - British journalist Christopher Hitchens in his publisher's office in Manhattan on February 11. Special number: 048188 pm/Photo by HELAYNE SEIDMAN FTWP. 02129Y02.IPT

“Toleration makes difference possible, difference make toleration necessary.”

— Michael Walzer, via Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech, (FT review by John Lloyd)

Are guns or Islamic radicalism to blame? If you follow the dialogue on Facebook (and who doesn’t?) it is easy to see the passion, sadness, and righteous indignation over the largest mass shooting in the U.S.. But following your feed begs the question: can divergent world views, even conflicting philosophies, on politics and policy coexist? What does that look like?

Tensions between opposing views–mixed in the moment of high stakes disagreement–are the stuff of diplomacy. But they are also the stuff of philosophy, history, and the world of ideas: Erasmus and Martin Luther, Christopher Hitchens and Isaiah Berlin, Vaclav Havel.

A new book by Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, juxtaposes the dichotomy of “spirits of liberty…found unevenly distributed between individuals”, noting that “freedom needs both.”  As a historian, Ash has been a chronicler of repression, in East Germany, China, and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. His book makes that case using maxims that encourage “robust civility” with a broad outlook: “More fee speech but also better speech.”

On Hitchens and Berlin:

Though they tend to distrust, even to despise each other, both these spirits are indispensable. Each has its characteristic fault. A world composed entirely of Hitchenses would tend to intolerance. It would be a permanent, if often amusing, shouting match, one in which there would be neither time nor space to understand — in the deepest sense of understanding, involving profound study, calm reflection, and imaginative sympathy — where the other person was coming from. A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance.

Source: Two Spirits of Liberty – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tagged , ,

Best Apps for Public Speaking

Getting serious about improving your on-stage swagger? Take a look at these apps to address various aspects of your public speaking persona:

Ummo – Speak the speech and get some useful analytics such as time, word count, pace, volume, fillers and clarity. ($1.99, IOS)

Virtual Speech’s Public Speaking for Cardboard uses VR to simulate your audition, TED Talk, interview, or toast–before it happens. (Free, IOS and Android)



PromptSmart Pro – Ignore the Donald and setup your own speech recognition scrolling, voice tracking teleprompter. Only issue? Its expensive ($11.99, IOS)


Amber Light Speech Timer – Keeps you on time with changeable lights/buzzers, but stick with red, yellow and green. ($2, IOS, or see Toastmaster Timer, free, Android)


Keynote by Apple has the ability to connect with your laptop or iPad, allowing you to use your phone (or tablet) as a remote control, viewers, and speaker note viewer. (Apple Watch also has a remote that can control your Keynote or PowerPoint.)


If the mere thought of speaking in front of a packed conference room makes your heart start pounding, there’s now a virtual reality app designed to help curb your fear. Virtual Speech lets users practice for upcoming speeches by putting them on stage or in the conference room (virtually).

More ideas? See: Now There’s a Virtual Reality App To Help With Public Speaking Anxiety | Mental Floss


The Power of Kids Debating: Kings and Queens of Speech

Here’s a pitch: let’s show the power of speech and debate to help kids make it through school (and life). Good news. It exists, thanks to this Sky 1 show following 20 students as they attend an after schoolclubs. And it  ends up in Parliament….brilliant!

The result is an eight-part series from the people behind Educating Yorkshire called The Kings & Queens Of Speech, which tries to transform the children into confident young adults by encouraging them to speak up. The first six episodes each focus on a different British school as teams of pupils are trained in debating skills. The winning team from each school will then travel to the Oxford Union to compete in the semi-finals, with the final being held at Parliament, where they’ll learn a thing or two from the pros (or should that be teach them a thing or two?).

The project is the brainchild of the charity Debate Mate, which takes children who would never traditionally be involved in debating societies and gives them 16 weeks of intensive training. It works in 200 schools across Britain, and claims to help 4,500 disadvantaged students each week.‘Our school did have a debating team, but it was made up of the sort of boys you’d expect to find – the high achievers,’ explains Mr Whiteley. ‘The remit here was to ask different types of boys to get involved.’

Source: The shy boy who’ll make you cry:  It’s another tear-jerker from the team behind Educating Yorkshire, this time empowering timid pupils through debate | Daily Mail Online



Do You Have ‘The Voice’?

If you are asked to give a TED talk, better practice that voice. The one that SNL openly mocked (and The Onion).  The one that sounds off-the-cuff and authentic and polysyllabic and over-annunciated.

It now even has a name (and a face in Ira Glass): ‘NPR Voice’.

“Was a blog more like writing or more like speech?” Ms. Newton wrote. “Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The ‘sort ofs’ and ‘reallys’ and ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’ that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged; no one was merely confused, but kind of totally mystified.”This style of writing then became most rampant on social media, especially Twitter, where the casual riposte trumps the carefully wrought and where, for fear of resembling a soulless corporate account or stiff elder, users typically traffic in, um, slangy approachability.

Source: ‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves – The New York Times


Even Hitler Practiced Public Speaking

As Roger Poorhouse (and others) observe, Hitler was an absolutely spellbinding public speaker. Newly revealed photos show effective oratory required pratice–and we can see him rehearsing hand gestures, facial expressions, posture, and other non-verbal elements.

We can understand how he was able achieve so much as a speaker, particularly in terms of “psychological coercion” from his own writings in Mein Kampf. He writes:

1. Keep the dogma simple. Make only 1 or 2 points.
2. Be forthright and powerfully direct. Speak only in the telling or ordering mode.
3. As much as possible, reduce concepts down into stereotypes which are black and white.
4. Speak to people’s emotions and stir them constantly.
5. Use lots of repetition; repeat your points over and over again.
6. Forget literary beauty, scientific reasoning, balance, or novelty.
7. Focus solely on convincing people and creating zealots.
8. Find slogans which can be used to drive the movement forward.


Laura Sicola Explains “Strategic Tonality”

Watch this TED Talk for two insights on public speaking that you possibly didn’t know about: how to use “strategic tonality” to say your name effectively, and how to avoid “up-speaking”–a kiss-of-death for career success, highlighted in numerous publications but most effectively ridiculed by BYU’s Studio C comedy troupe.

▶ Want to sound like a leader? Start by saying your name right | Laura Sicola | TEDxPenn – YouTube.

Tagged ,

Commencement Highlights 2015

Spring signals rebirth, improved weather, and the time for commencement–meaning talks that inspire, advise, and occasionally drone on much too long. As a rhetorical lesson, we can learn something not just from the advice (or cliches) that speakers love to direct to the new graduates. One key to making your speech great is to focus on things that really matter:

Today’s spiraling millennials know intuitively that having a sense of one’s purpose in life is the key to well-being. And research clearly shows they are right. In a 2009 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers interviewed 806 adolescents, emerging adults and adults about their purpose in life. A key finding of the study was that being able to articulate a life purpose was strongly associated with much greater life satisfaction than failing to do so.

via How to Avoid Commencement Clichés – NYTimes.com.

Not to say that the rudimentary skills of public speaking don’t matter, as well. Oh, that if we could all polish our skills for say, 30 years on a late night talk show like David Letterman!

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

Mr. Letterman, like Mr. Carson before him, understood this. He never shirked his publicity duties (“let’s show the clip”), and he valued guests like Martin Short and Steve Martin, who came primed with fresh material. But he took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.

When he talked to politicians and other newsmakers, he was informed, even passionate. (As the years went on, he did less and less to hide his liberal political views.) When he baited guests like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, his quips couldn’t totally hide the disdain. When he talked to ordinary civilians — dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, kids showing off their science projects — he was naturally curious, engaged and winning. Whenever a star came on and tried to play him — Joaquin Phoenix in his sullen faux-rap-star phase, for example — Mr. Letterman showed no patience. He didn’t want a performance; he wanted people.

via NYT | “David Letterman Knew How to Talk

Other highlights worth noting from the Commencement 2015 season?

  • Ed Helms takes apart any journalistic respect that Rolling Stone might have previously possessed at UVa:  “It has been said that a rolling stone gathers no moss,” Helms said. “I would add that sometimes a rolling stone also gathers no verifiable facts or even the tiniest morsels of journalistic integrity.” [HuffPo]
  • Kayne encourages Art Institue of Chicago grads to be bold:  ‘I’m sorry’ is something that you can use a lot,” he told the crowd. “It gives you opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again.”
  • The notable documentary filmmaker Ken Burns hits on the issue du jour at Washington University at St. Louis–with Baltimore, Ferguson, and other recent events still simmering under the surface: “Remember: Black lives matter! All lives matter. Reject fundamentalism, wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized.” He also advises, “Be about the unum, not the pluribus.”

Want more? Check out Humanity.org’s list of their top commencement speeches of all time, including a few of my favorites from George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman, and Vaclav Havel.

Tagged ,