Aristotle Was Wrong
We want to persuade people to do something new. It’s one of those fundamental – and fundamentally important – human acts. And, it’s a tall order.
But it is the essence of speech making: to move people to action. Anything else is wasted effort, because people simply don’t remember much of what they hear. It’s not a good format for imparting information. It is a good format for persuading people to believe in or act on something.
And just to drive a stake through the heart of one evil demon: Contrary to popular belief, Power Point slides don’t increase retention rates much, if at all. Indeed, most Power Point presentations are in fact speech outlines put together for the speaker’s benefit, not the audience’s. The result is a distraction that actually drives comprehension down, as the audience tries to match the words on the screen with what is coming out of the speaker’s mouth. You’re giving the audience twice as much to do and two places to look. Bad idea.
Aristotle got it wrong. He said there were three kinds of speeches: informative, persuasive, and “decorative”—speeches of praise and ceremony. But there really is only one kind: the persuasive. When the Secretary of State gives a briefing to the press on, say, the war in Afghanistan, is that an informative speech? Not really. What’s actually going on is that the Secretary of State is persuading the press that she’s in control, in command of the situation, and that the war is going well. To be sure, some facts, some bits of information, are conveyed from speaker to audience. But the primary purpose is a different kind of show. And the extent to which the Secretary is aware of her real purpose, and can focus on that, is the extent to which she will be successful. If she thinks that her purpose is exchanging information, then she’s inevitably playing a game of “gotcha” with the press. She gives out information, and the press tries to prove her wrong.
If instead she’s being a persuasive leader, then she doesn’t have to know all the details. She can turn the briefing over to someone else for areas of expertise she doesn’t possess. All she has to do is act like the person in charge.
An important shift takes place as soon as you realize that you’re seeking to persuade, not inform. In all cases. The focus has to shift to the audience, because “persuade” is a verb that calls for an object: persuade whom? Information can be given out but not received. Persuasion requires a party of the second part.
This insight works just as well for presentations to five or fifty people at internal organizational meetings as it does for public officials. As soon as you set yourself up as someone who has all the answers, you invite people to raise objections. If instead you seek to enlist your audience to work with you to achieve a goal, one that involves action on the audience’s part, then you invite people to help you make your ideas work. It’s a subtle shift, but an enormously powerful one.