The Art of the Paraphrase

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What do you think of when you think of public address? The President giving the State of the Union? A Baptist preacher thumping on a pulpit? Grainy black-and-white footage of dictators of yesteryear, insidiously swaying the hearts and minds of their people? To be sure, all of these situations hinge on the power of a strong rhetor (or speaker), but they are certainly not the only areas of life that are enriched via a strong grasp of good public communication skills. Instead, try to think of public speaking as any situation in which you want your views, experiences, and advice to be critically taken into consideration.

“Public speaking” touches so many areas of our individual lives, ranging from the toast you gave at your cousin’s wedding, to that Q&A panel you participated in at last month’s networking conference, to last year’s infamous family political meltdown during Thanksgiving dinner. Demystifying the concept of public address – and taking it down from the pedestal that we so often place it on – can go a long way toward removing our fear and anxiety around the concept. It’s not just the 20-minute long speeches in front of a giant audience; rather, it’s every time you want to meaningfully express your ideas or participate in civic discussion with a group of other individuals.

To that end, one of the most useful concepts you can pick up right now to improve your public speaking skills is the art of the paraphrase. The paraphrase is how you demonstrate to your conversational partner that you understand and are invested in their perspective or idea. To effectively paraphrase, you must first engage in empathic listening. How frequently do you find yourself nodding along as a friend talks, only nominally listening as you check your phone or sneak glances at the television? Our surroundings are typically so densely saturated with media and information that the multitask has become our default mode. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at it… forcing your brain to rapidly alternate between tasks and subjects causes a loss in efficiency, accuracy, and awareness. Plus, it pisses your friends off.

So instead, the next time a serious topic crops up, try empathic listening. Orient your head and shoulders directly toward your conversational partner. Make direct eye contact. Encourage them to keep sharing by nodding and expressing verbal affirmation (“mmhm” or “then what happened?”). Finally, paraphrase their statements back to them to check your understanding.

A good paraphrase restates the original speaker’s idea, but uses the listener’s own words and ends with a request for affirmation. For example: “It sounds like you were really frustrated when you thought the boss was not interested in hearing your opinions.  The company says all opinions are valuable, but you feel like your suggestions aren’t taken very seriously in the group.  Is that right?”

In this form, the paraphrase allows the first speaker to feel heard and take ownership of their own story by confirming the listener’s take. Rephrasing the wording allows the listener to demonstrate their investment and avoid potentially inflammatory phrases.

The paraphrase proves its usefulness in a wide array of scenarios: romantic partner disagreements, family squabbles, professional queries, interactions with persons who have more or less social power than you…. The beauty of this tactic is that the open-ended format allows the speakers to either continue defining the problem, discuss their feelings on the problem, or try to find a solution to the problem. All participants’ perspectives are acknowledged without any explicit judgment placed on the problem at hand. In this way, civil discourse can flourish – and that’s always the goal of public speaking, no matter how big or small the scenario.

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