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Speech is Influence: Why Technologists Should Embrace Rhetoric

In our world today, the power of words and effective communication cannot be overemphasized.

As a technologist, you may think that you can hide behind a computer screen. Not anymore. The days where programs were made in a dark lonely room are over. It might be the case that you have to teach a software tool to the team and argue on its benefits. Or, perhaps you have to influence the client to adopt a new technology or methodology. It could be that you have the opportunity to talk to the local software community about your work. And sometimes, you have to explain your big project idea to an investor group and convince them to support your endeavour. In all those situations, your ability to talk is determinant to your success. "Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist and poet.

The most important thing we must know about public speaking is that it’s all about the people you're talking to. The subject, the type of approach, the structure of the layout, style, etc., everything is meant for the audience. A Spanish philosopher once said: "A speech is like a feast, in which the fine tableware is made to please the guests, not the cooks." Keep this in mind. No wonder many books and articles on effective ways of presenting, writing, blogging and lecturing always insist on the point "know your audience."

“The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.” - Lilly Walters, a professional speaker.

Why should we study how to speak in public?

Conveying a message in order to get to a desired impact is not a trivial issue. Alexander Gregg, a prominent Episcopalian clergyman said: “There are three things to aim at in public speaking: first, to get into your subject, then to get your subject into yourself, and lastly, to get your subject into the heart of your audience.” Here are some questions for you to ponder on what might be at stake in a speech:

  1. What are the chances that a person understands, from a lecture, a subject in which you have spent hours and hours working on?
  2. Do the people you spoke to give the same value as you give to the problem at hand?
  3. How do you know your vocabulary is understood?
  4. What is the way you convey the emotion and the passion for a cause, motivating people to evoke a call to action and support it?
  5. How should one use gestures, intonation and media in a presentation?
  6. How can one structure a complex idea to be presented in 5 minutes?

These questions, and many others, should make us more aware of how hard public speaking can be. The truth is that rarely will speaking in public effectively be something intuitive to us. We all need to think more about this ability and train our rhetoric muscles, making mistakes and starting all over again until the day we provoke the actions we want through our words.

Marcos Silveira presenting

The rhetoric tradition: 

I'm not sure if it's a sampling error of my observations or simply a difference in value perception, but I think our generation has an aversion to theory. Blogs with titles like "10 practical tips for success in public speaking" seem to be more popular than "2,500 years of rhetoric - a manual on the science of persuasion." People are much more willing to take the horizontal path – how much you learn - rather than the vertical one - how deep you learn things.

As  technologists, we suffer another problem: public speaking was never part of our academic syllabus. We don't know how to do it, and because of that we relegate discoursing skills to a secondary focus, unaware of how much our effectiveness as professionals downgrades due to this. The reality is that people have been studying and applying the rhetoric for millennia, delivering their conclusions in a well-reasoned way. How did Plato come to conclude that rhetoric is "The art of winning the soul by discourse"? And Aristotle that it "is the ability to find anything available by means of persuasion"? Locke has noted the downside of rhetoric when he said that is a "powerful instrument of error and deceit". Gerard Hauser, a more contemporary scholar, said that rhetoric is the "communication trying to coordinate social action ... your goal is to influence human choices on specific issues that require immediate action".

Perhaps you are thinking that this is all a bit too much for just a 15-minute presentation to your colleagues. In fact, the essence is the same. Are you conveying a message that you expect to have some effect on your audience.

The idea that doing is as important as speaking is very common. "We must not merely talk, we must act big!" said Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, speeches without practical effect are empty. And it is also true that words often without support of the facts were used to manipulate people. This should make us alert of to the bad uses of rhetoric without overlooking its value when used correctly.

If you want to convey ideas clearly, transform reality and have an impact on the daily lives of people in any field, it is essential that you master the art of public speaking.

In future posts, we will be looking at a little of what the science of rhetoric has to teach us, as we try to make it more a part of our daily personal and professional life.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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