ELOQUENCE, n.: The art of orally persuading fools that white is the colour it appears to be. It includes the gift of making any colour appear white.
This wonderful quote from Ambrose Bierce appeared in The Devil’s Dictionary in 1911, and graces the title plate of the book I’m currently reading, The Gift of the Gab. It’s a great book which attempts uncover the secret of persuasive story-telling, a skill taught by many but mastered by few. I spent a lot of time speaking at conferences and teaching at universities this last year, so I spent more time than usual thinking about eloquence and persuasion.
In the book, it’s author, David Crystal, cites many great orators who successfully won over the hearts and minds of people, to their way of thinking. It reminded me of a quote I saw at the Nobel museum in Stockholm,
“Great social entrepreneurs are natural tellers of stories, many of which are true”. Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel peace prize winner
Social entrepreneurs like Yunus are very well aware that they need to tell compelling stories in order to sell their ideas, but perhaps we sometimes take this idea of “persuasion” a little bit too far. Especially in business. It’s very true for example, that marketing is no longer about the stuff we make but about the stories we tell, but we all know examples where marketers have told stories that are not exactly truthful or accurate.
Perhaps you claim that your product does slightly more than it is capable of because “it could in theory”. Or maybe you were quite selective about your product’s market research audience because you “sell to 20m people but I think a sample size of 109 will be sufficient to provide the result we need”.
Selling things often requires the truth to be stretched. But how far can you stretch the truth before it goes too far? Organisations like the Advertising Standards Authority exist to make sure that we don’t try to persuade people that black actually is white, but marketers have got really good at bending the rules.
Persuasion is a funny thing.
What if we thought of persuasion this way…
“In the end, people are not persuaded by what we say, but by what they understand”.
Telling a compelling story is hard (especially if it is a complicated story). But telling a complicated story that people understand is really hard. Whenever I share complicated technical stories with an audience, the Q&A usually doesn’t last very long. I try my best to tell those stories as simply as possible, but nobody likes to look silly and pretend that they don’t understand what I just shared with them. And the more senior the people that there are in the room, the less likely they are to say anything if they don’t understand.
“Do you all know what I’m talking about?” I may ask, checking that everyone is ok. I look around and see nods all around the room. Over cocktails after one particular event, an executive told me that Einstein was famous for telling his audience,
“Any fool can know, the point is to understand”.
Too many communicators these days make it their priority to prove to their audience how smart they are. It’s like they need to justify to you why they are stood in front of you and you need to listen to them. Or perhaps they take far too long telling you how great their company is. Or how magical their new product is. They may wow their audience with tales of awe and wonder, but if you ask anyone the next day to explain what they heard, many will struggle.
The goal is never to impress and audience. It’s not really to inspire them either (although that’s always nice if you do). The goal is to share something in a way that people understand.
I’m a big fan of Professor Brian Cox and have crossed paths with him a few times, and he liked to tell me that I need to find ways to make complicated things simple. “If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid in a language that she would understand”, he would tell me, “then it’s bad physics”. A line paraphrased from Uncle Albert I suspect, but it’s a great sentiment. This is the guy who can explain the power of the sun to a BBC audience in 100 seconds, using just an umbrella, a tin and a thermometer.
The key to good storytelling (whether you are teaching concepts or selling ideas), is always to help your audience understand.
I once challenged the political editor of the (now defunct) News of the World, about why he chose to write for an audience who liked looking at boobs, or hoping that story about London buses on the moon might actually be true.I didn’t understand why he wasn’t at The Times. I thought he was one of the smartest and most articulate people I had ever spoken to. Putting me very firmly back in my place, he explained the size of his audience, compared to The Times or The Telegraph. He was sharing important issues with 4X as many people than if he was writing for a more “intelligent” broadsheet.
Fair point, well made.
He had the privilege of talking to a huge audience every day. He got to write about very complicated political topics, where he could use his considerable skills to put them into a language that the guy on the street could understand. That was good work. And something I totally missed, when I thought I was asking a clever question. I was asking a question that might make me look smart. I should have been trying to understand what made him smart. I focused on myself, instead of my audience, and I learned a valuable lesson.
We only have to look at the recent UK referendum to see how politicians failed spectacularly at explaining a complicated story, in a way that the average person could understand. 20% of people interviewed the week after, said that they had changed their minds and might even vote differently, now that they understood the implications of leaving the EU.
“Sorry, but that £350 won’t be going to the NHS after all. We forgot to explain things properly“. The UK government needed more Brian Cox’s.
“Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it isn’t so”. Lemony Snicket.
Of course people won’t always understand everything. Some perhaps they never will. But that’s what makes life, business and science more fun. Debating the small stuff is what gin, whiskey and bars were invented for. Brian Cox said in a recent interview how much he loved it when people didn’t understand the complicated things that he was talking about.
“If you understand everything, then it’s dull isn’t it? If someone says something to you and you fully understand, there’s nowhere to go”.
So in retrospect, maybe I should backtrack…
When pitching an idea or telling a story, our goal should not just be to persuade people. It shouldn’t be to help them to understand either.
Perhaps our goal should be to be understanding. (Of whoever we are talking to).
Then we’ve always got “somewhere to go…”