Take a look at this article from salon.com, written by UC Prof Mike Davis. The words that came to mind when I read it were succinct, witty, provocative, and well-researched. He manages to capture the essence of what has led our civilization to the brink of collapse in just two pages, packed with data, rhetorical questions and persuasive argument. This is the kind of writing that moves people to action, to change their minds, and to pass along the essay or its contents in conversations with others, virally.
Davis is, I expect, preaching to the largely converted. His work is rhetoric, which despite its modern negative connotations means simply persuasive, effective oratory (the word predates the printing press and hence initially referred to speech, not writing). Whereas some people believe that debate is the best means of persuasion, I have come to believe that most people will only accept an assertion or idea if they’re ready for it. If they’re not, a debate will only tend to polarize their view, put them off. Rhetoric at its worst can inflame ignorance, but at its best it can inform and stimulate those who are already inclined to believe something, so that they can then decide how to act on it, and pass on their learning, rhetorically, to others who are so inclined.
A rhetorical question is not (necessarily) one for which the answer is self-evident, but rather one presented for persuasive effect, to provoke thought consistent with the arguments the speaker has just made or is about to make. It is intended to evoke emotion, either positively or negatively. If the audience is ignorant, inclined to groupthink, insecure, frightened or incapable of critical thinking, it can be dangerous (“Are we going to let these people take what we worked so hard for?”)
If the audience is informed, independent, self-confident and thoughtful, however, such questions are powerful and useful, because they force you to think, and sometimes to challenge conventional wisdom, to think differently. They are often preceded or followed by another useful device, the rhetorical or oratorical pause. Such a pause (which many speakers are afraid to insert into oratory in case it merely causes audience discomfort) is intended to cause tension, to force the audience to try to anticipate what will come next, or to reflect on what has just been said that was presumably important.
Davis’ article is so compelling, I think, because of a combination of new information, provocative questions, and great rhetoric.
Recently I’ve been listening, paying more attention to conversations: their flow, their pacing, their iteration of ideas and comprehension and meaning, the power politics often present inside them, their effectiveness. Because Generation Millennium has somewhat rediscovered (texting notwithstanding) the oral culture of the pre-Gutenberg era, I’ve been listening to them practice conversation. Their ability to achieve comprehension (largely by successive approximation, iteratively, Q&A, action and reaction, until consensus is reached) is extraordinary: very effective and hopelessly inefficient, but done so quickly that it succeeds. But it is the opposite of rhetoric. Good rhetorical oratory rarely contains the most frequent two words in Gen Millennium speech: “I mean“.
I also find that modern conversation contains few rhetorical questions or pauses: There is simply no time for them. And there is little time for information. When information is presented that is new, and not consistent with the worldview of the listener(s), and not presented in the context of a simple “A or B” dichotomy (“Is Obama better or worse at…?”), it is as if the audience simply doesn’t know what to make of it. If you listen to this speech (thanks to David Parkinson for the link) you can see how new information that makes an oversimplified debate more complex leaves the audience (in this case mass media talking heads) utterly dumbfounded. If the new information doesn’t fit, it is discounted, ignored, considered as outrageous, an affront. You didn’t answer our simple dumb question!
Which of course it is: It is intended as an affront (literal meaning of affront: in your face). While this may not work in the context of dumbed-down mass media reporting, it can be extremely effective when the audience has the patience, curiosity and self-confidence to be affronted.
Generation Millennium has learned one traditional (and now rare) conversational skill: storytelling. They have discovered that the easiest way to create a context for understanding is to tell a straightforward (“and then...”) story, instead of preparing and presenting an analysis. They ‘get’ that if they understood what happened, and what should be done about it, then so will the audience if they hear an accurate narrative that ‘recreates’ the speaker’s learning.
Recently I’ve learned of another effective means of communicating information in a presentation or conversation: the use of simple visuals. I would highly commend to you Dan Roam’s new book The Back of the Napkin, which explains how to use elementary visuals, skilfully sketched by hand on a napkin or whiteboard while the audience watches, to convey information and to persuade (the illustration above is from that book, and a video explaining the ideas in the book is here). It draws on the fact that we are all programmed, in our pre-civilization DNA, to learn, discover and understand visually, not by reading text. One of my most popular conference presentation subjects is Adding Meaning and Value to Information (largely through visuals), and most of my presentations now have no bullet points, just pictures that I talk to.
So in short I think there are five techniques that can be used to make a point effectively, in a conversation, presentation or written article:
All of these things take practice. There is no better way to get better at them than by putting yourself out there, and asking your audience for their honest assessment of what you did well and how you could do better.
How would you score yourself on the use of each of these five techniques? I think I’m pretty good at #1. I don’t do #2 nearly enough, or well enough. I’m still poor at #3 (I need to craft and memorize my stories). I’m getting better at #4 but I need to practice sketching, and making my visualizations clearer and less dense. Dan Roam says: “All good pictures do not need to be self-explanatory, but they need to be explainable.” And my rhetorical skills need a lot of work: I still often lack the courage of my convictions, and I tend to be too serious and too long-winded.
How about you (that’s a rhetorical question)?
Category: Conversation & Language
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
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The Job of the Media
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The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
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Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
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On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
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Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
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The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
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