Substance in public speaking

There is a symbiotic relationship between the propagation of ideas and public speaking.  TED is currently the most prominent platform for this.  I have recently finished reading a book by Chris Anderson, TED chief curator on their “official guide to public speaking“.  Fascinating and thoughtful.  I recommend listening to the talks referenced in the book concurrently with reading it.  They are helpfully put together in a playlist.  Some great minds delivering some powerful ideas.

There is something primordial about the way people are drawn to a person prepared to stand on a shoebox . We can also surmise a social good in amplifying the voice of individuals. Ideas can receive more scrutiny when judged collectively, while the sharing of an idea allows communities to collectively consider (the wisdom of crowds?) and espouse them.

Viewed from the perspective of a professional academic it represents a sobering guide of common mistakes in presenting academic work.  Yet the polished speech is probably not appropriate to academic discourse.  So, in defense of academe and of content rich presentations I would counter that we take for granted that those that attend our talks, seminars or lectures are pre-motivated by their thirst for knowledge and therefore we do not need to keep them at the edge of their seats.  They are taking the time to listen because they are keen to challenge and be challenged.

The core element of knowledge creation via the notion of a debate is absent in the TED format and talks are therefore aimed to impress rather than convince.  Which brings me to the second limitation of the “TED way”.  For academic scholars and authors it is not meaningful to waste time on packaging an idea when pushing the boundaries of science. Digestible communication is the domain of the press release.  And academic talks do not aim to impress with the skill of the deliverer but the inherent value of the insight.  Good British and Continental academic discourse is typically understated for a good reason.  A Kuhnian understanding of scientific discovery implies that very few statements can be ascertained as immutable truths.  Only modest claims are therefore justified.  This is the opposite of a bombastic delivery, premised on cultivating an emotional connection with an audience and using psychology to impress of the speakers honesty.     So, focusing on the skill of the delivery of an argument can conceal the value of the content.  A bad delivery with valuable content is preferable from a skilled delivery just for its entertainment value.

On a personal level, I am often enthralled by great oratory, but invariably weary of the intent of the orator. Wit often hides a lack of depth in thought.  Systems that allow for reasoned arguments appear more fair to me.  And premising substance over the packaging seems more intelligent.

Having made a case for substance, I should also clarify that I am keen to facilitate the development of effective communication skills in myself, my colleagues and my students.  Chris Anderson’s book can act as a good reflection of our faults and potential.



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