I’ve had the great pleasure this summer of appearing on a few podcasts to talk about my work. Interested in hearing me talk about some of the things that get me excited?
The Brainspace Optimized Podcast with Hailey Thomas
I had the privilege of working with Hailey earlier this year on her TedX talk, and I loved this chance to delve further into my coaching processes with her. Our conversation ranged over the most common mistakes I see speakers make, how I balance my university teaching, my research, and my consulting, and even my guilty-pleasure summer reading.
I met Josh, a history PhD student at Boston College, earlier this year in Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association. We talk here about our mutual love for comics and superheroes, as well as my ongoing research into the cynical presentation of utopia-as-apocalypse in superhero/supernatural narratives. There’s also a sneak peek of my upcoming book, and my thoughts on the Game of Thrones series finale!
More likely, there’s a cultural influence causing the disparity. The lessons start early; major retailers sell girls shirts that proclaim they’re “too pretty for math.” University students consistently evaluate female professors as less intelligent than their male counterparts. Men don’t want to date women who are smarter than them. But whatever explanation you want to pursue, it remains incredibly unlikely that 4 out of 5 American girls are just innately terrible at math.
I mean, I know I wasn’t. I did fine with arithmetic in
elementary school – it wasn’t my favorite class, but it didn’t cause me to
break out in hives, either. Learning to tell time, basic addition and
subtraction, long division, memorizing multiplication tables…. No problems. I even
remember thinking that long division, with its trails of handwritten numbers
filling up half a notebook page, could be kind of fun.
When I made the leap to middle school, however, things took a turn for the worse, and not just because of the looming disaster that was puberty. Math began to get…. abstract. Algebraic concepts were introduced to me by a teacher who I’m sure, in hindsight, was a lovely woman, but seemed to my twelve-year-old self like a cross between Nurse Ratchet and some sort of old-school, corporal punishment distributing nun. She wore slips. Sometimes she had lipstick on her teeth. But most horrifyingly, she expected me to complete expressions and show my work.
You see, like many other gifted & talented kids, I always skated by on talent rather than effort. Reading, writing, tap dancing – they all came easily to me. Teachers loved me. I was assigned to tutor other children.
So, when I came up against the roadblock that was
pre-algebra, I had NO sense of how to sit down at home and work through the
challenges presented by the curriculum. I’d never had to work like that before.
This frustration was embarrassing, and I (as well as, I bet, many other
students like myself) found a back door. I simply told myself I was no good at
this. It had nothing to do my work ethic or study skills – I was simply BAD AT
MATH, and scary Miss M. was just out to get me.
By the time I officially entered Algebra 1 in eighth grade, my self-taught Bad At Math mythos was entrenched. I planned my entire high school and college course schedules around the easiest possible math classes. When I took the GRE, 10 years after fuming my way through pre-algebra, I scored in the 13% percentile. (If you’re fluent in standardized testing terminology, that means 87% of test takers did better than me on the math section. I’m not proud.) And all of this because the idea of being challenged by a subject scared me, so I sold myself a fiction instead. In fact, the only reason I’m comfortable discussing this publicly is because I’m reasonably convinced that no one will ever again make me sit in a math classroom, so I can afford to be reflective.
Why the tangent on my relationships with math? Because, dear reader, when I tell you that a vast number of Americans have told themselves they are simply “bad at public speaking,” I want you to know that I’m not sitting in judgment.
But, just like I wasn’t born bad at math, VERY FEW people are born with some sort of hole where “public speaking talent” was supposed to be slotted in. Sure, some individuals have certain advantages – they automatically earn more respect because they might be taller or more attractive than average, or they are particularly extroverted and feel comfortable around people. These traits do not mean that short, nervous types cannot become amazing presenters. Think about how excited you were for show-and-tell in your kindergarten days! The opportunity to share your thoughts and experiences with an audience is exciting. And yet, somewhere along the way, most of us lose that enthusiasm.
Because speaking isn’t a talent, it’s a SKILL. A skill that
challenges us to learn in ways we are not accustomed to, and challenging
ourselves is inherently uncomfortable.
Maybe you had to do a group presentation that didn’t go so
well, or you got so nervous before a presentation that you felt sick all day.
We latch on to these negative experiences and tell ourselves that speaking is
just like that, that we are no good at it.
But one negative experience doesn’t testify to your lifelong potential as a presenter, any more than one bad game means Stephen Curry will never win another game of basketball.
The trouble is, if you only find yourself needing to present once a year, that is not much of an impetus to work on improving your skills, so many people continue to ignore or fear speaking. Obviously, that leads to more negative presentation outcomes, the speaker continues to believe they are untalented, and the vicious cycle continues. No one wants to spend time on things that they are not good at – that’s human nature. Unfortunately, these patterns keep us stuck in a rut, unable to admit our culpability in failure.
Our perception of speaking as an innate talent (rather than a learned skill) is compounded when we watch speakers who seem so effortlessly amazing on stage: their speech has humor and pathos, they barely glance at their notes, they sound confidant and polished, their slides are witty and relevant….
If you’re a cosmetics user, however, you know that achieving the perfect “natural” look is NEVER effortless. It involves multiple products, adequate hydration, good tools, aggressive skincare…. Similarly, a good speaker can easily spend 30 or more hours preparing for a single presentation (this is how I get away with charging dollar$$ to make that process easier). You see that glossy final presentation, but you DON’T see the four prior drafts that the speaker threw out, or the hours of taping and listening to the talk, or the coaches, assistants, and designers who helped them reach this level.
Luckily, you don’t NEED to invest that much money into becoming a better speaker. A few smaller steps can make a dramatic difference:
Double or triple the amount of time you think you need to get ready for a talk.
Begin with a clear vision of what your audience (whether that’s a client, a boss, a teacher, or your peers) needs to get out of the talk to ensure maximum value – don’t confuse the audience’s needs for your wants as a speaker.
Write the talk out, even if it’s just in outline format. Nail down the argument before you start to focus on your delivery.
Charmingly request that your friend, roommate, or eternally-supportive significant other watches you rehearse. Being watched changes the way you present, and experiencing this for the first time on the day of the real-deal presentation can be…. Unpleasant. If you really are resistant to letting anyone watch you, tape or record yourself giving the whole presentation and do your best to objectively assess areas for improvement in your performance.
But above all else, scrap the idea that you just can’t do it, or that you’ll never be any good at this. Like any other skill, your public speaking abilities will improve with time and effort. If you promise me you’ll try to keep an open mind, I promise I’ll try to solve for X without breaking out in a cold sweat.
Hello! Welcome! At long last, we have arrived at the final point in my triangle of effective strategies for persuasive speaking: using evidence to support your arguments.
We COULD do a deep dive here into the background of argumentation theory. My main man, Aristotle, wrote an entire book on how to use various forms of argumentative proof to sway an audience, including long-winded discussions of the various benefits that accompany a creative argument originally conceived by the speaker versus an argument lifted from a previously existing source. Judging by the hostile glares I tend to receive from my university students when I ramble for too long about argumentation, however, you don’t really care about all of that – so let’s skip ahead a few centuries to a more comprehensible lesson.
Meet Stephen Toulmin.
Toulmin (1922-2009) was a British writer and educator with an abiding passion for moral reasoning and practical arguments. He thought Aristotle had some good points about argumentation, but mostly that the classical Greek theories were convoluted and hard to apply to everyday persuasive scenarios (#hottake). So, logically, he developed his own model to describe how people express persuasive thoughts using evidence. In its most basic form, the Toulmin Model contains three parts: the claim, the data, and the warrant.
The claim is the speaker’s original thought or argument; the most important part of the model. A good claim should clearly answer the question “what are you arguing for?”
Data includes any evidence a speaker is using to prove or support their claim. Typically, we can examine evidence in two categories: hard evidence and soft evidence. Hard evidence includes scientifically proven, factual information: published research, statistical information, census data, or physical evidence.
Soft evidence includes supporting information that still carries strong persuasive appeal, but lacks the same infallible backing: personal experience, testimony, cultural narratives, myths and folklore, analogy and metaphor…
To put that in context, imagine a murder trial (the persuasive stakes can’t get much higher). Physical DNA evidence placing the defendant at the crime scene counts as hard evidence; it holds strong appeal in the legal system and it is difficult to counter-act. However, it also tends to be difficult for a lay audience (the jury) to understand the specifics of such forms of data. The testimony of an eyewitness who saw the defendant fleeing the crime scene is soft evidence. It has less legal credibility, but it is easy to understand, it humanizes the issue for the decision makers, and it combines with hard evidence to form a well-rounded persuasive case.
You can use both forms of evidence in much the same way in any of your own persuasive scenarios. Hard evidence anticipates counter-arguments and gives strength and credence to your claims, but it lacks the same immediacy that testimony or narrative provides. The strongest speakers will find a way to work both forms of evidence into their presentations.
The third component of the Toulmin Model is the warrant: the hypothetical, sometimes implicit bridge in logical reasoning that connects the claim and the data. Thinking critically about the warrant of an argument in important because it helps the speaker key in to how their ideas may be out of alignment with a specific audience.
For example, let’s look at the following argument:
College students should major in STEM fields. The median annual earnings for STEM degree recipients between 25 and 29 years old is roughly $30,000 higher than humanities degree recipients in the same age bracket.
The claim is clear and simple. The speaker has pulled in some hard evidence from a 2016 National Center for Education Statistics report. But what is the leap in logic connecting these two ideas? If the speaker is arguing that college students should make decisions based on future earning potential, the warrant present in this argument is that the goal of college is to equip students with better employment options. Many audiences would strongly agree with this argument: high school parents, engineering college deans, for example. But is that understanding of the role of higher education universal? Certainly not – a liberal arts college president would most likely argue with that vision of higher education.
So, while the link between our own claims and the evidence we select might seem obvious, it is worth taking a moment to back up and ask yourself what your biases on the issue at hand might be, as well as how your audience might diverge from your own understandings of a topic. Warrants do not need to be explicitly stated in any oral presentation, but in a scenario like the example above, a smart speaker might make a point to define the various visons of post-graduate success to better position listeners to accept their argument.
As always in any public speaking scenario, the choices you make should not be based on what, the speaker, enjoy and prefer, but rather on what the audience needs to agree with your statements. So – an audience composed of researchers and scientists might smile at your opening anecdote, but they’ll prefer a focus on statistical or factual data. An audience comprised of busy stay-at-home parents might be impressed by your consumer research, but it’s the personal testimony of other satisfied customers that is most likely to gain their allegiance. Still feeling confused about how to most effectively use evidence to bolster your claims? Don’t forget I’m always here for your speech-writing needs! Happy persuading, my public speaking pumpkins. Armed with a full toolkit of persuasive strategies, the world is now but a toybox and you are the master puppeteer.
We are constantly swimming in a vast sea of persuasive messages; we receive so many of them, in fact, that they become quite easy to tune out. From small children begging their parents for ice cream, to catchy radio jingles, to those high school acquaintances selling detox teas on social media, at any given moment you can probably identify a message targeting you and attempting to change how you behave or what you believe.
It’s not subtle, but it can be an effective form of persuasion…
How does a savvy speaker make that deluge of persuasive messaging work in her favor? After all, as any parent or frustrated Facebook user can tell you, not every attempt to persuade will meet its intended goal. But the principles of a strong, effective persuasive message have remained the same for more than 2,000 years because they WORK. Many speakers just aren’t paying attention – but that is good news for YOU, because it clears the field and lets your message be a priority.
Recall from part one of this series that many persuasive speakers struggle as a result of a vague definition of the scope and specificity of their topic, as well as confusion over who the audience for the presentation is. But if you feel confident that you have identified all the necessary building blocks to form your persuasive foundation, then you are ready to consider the best ways to format your persuasive appeals.
Understanding the value of organization
When we get excited about an opportunity or a topic, many of us respond the same way: by rushing out and compiling as many ideas as possible into a big heap, like ecstatic participants in a Supermarket Sweep. While this approach might lead to big wins in the breakfast cereal aisle, effective presentations need to be concisely targeted to achieve maximum efficacy. Understanding the variety of ready-made persuasive organizational structures is the fastest way to lead your audience to your desired conclusion. That grocery-shopping tactic of sequentially listing unrelated facts to support your main point is known as the direct method, and like many initial reactions, it’s easy but not particularly impressive. The direct method gives speakers a place to deposit their thoughts, but does NOT provide listeners with any framework that might help them accept new ideas.
Hold up, Susan, we need to make a plan!
Instead, most persuasive topics can be tackled using either a causal format or a problem/solution format. A problem/solution set-up is ideal for tackling complex issues because it lets the speaker break down what, exactly, the problem IS, before advising the audience on how to fix it. This approach also helpfully allows the speaker to set the terms for discussion in their favor. Consider a controversial issue like gun control. A speaker using a problem/solution set-up would detail the different aspects of how and why America’s current stance on gun control is harmful, before explaining how, exactly, those problems may be fixed. Framing the problem in your favor – perhaps by comparing rates of gun deaths in America to other nations, or by describing the number of accidental deaths that improper gun management causes – sets up listeners to be more amenable to your proposed solutions.
On the other hand, a causal pattern is a great choice for persuasive propositions that do NOT have complex solutions. A causal pattern allows the speaker to describe a problem in the introduction of the speech, then spend the bulk of her time describing the causes and effects of the problem. Policy changes, like the gun control issue, require the speakers to dedicate time to explaining the solution because multiple angles exist from which to tackle the struggle. Sometimes, however, the solution doesn’t need a drawn-out explanation – in these cases, a causal pattern may be a better choice. Imagine, for example, a persuasive pitch designed to convince listeners to stop buying bottled water. The solution is simple: drink tap water and carry a reusable bottle. Rather than expending energy describing where to buy a reusable bottle (unnecessary detail), a well-organized speaker will focus her efforts on describing the causes and effects of the problem of single-use disposable water bottles. By explaining how corporate influences maneuver us into purchasing those bottles, and how those bottles pile up in oceans and landfills, audiences will be moved to adopt the speaker’s view point (simple though it may be). Causal structures are especially well-suited to speeches advocating for the audience to change their beliefs or attitudes, rather than a more concrete action, and can provide new depth and perspective to issues that otherwise seem like “common sense.”
These considerations of organizational structure are always intended to provoke speakers into considering what will be most effective in convincing their audience to take action. Remember, persuasion is inherently about convincing the audience to change something about the way they act, behave, or think; you cannot assume that the tactic that made YOU change your mind is necessarily the same tactic that will make THEM change their minds. So, consider what beliefs your listeners might already hold that impact the topic at hand, as well as how current events might impact the room, and structure your presentation accordingly (and hey, give a holler if you need some assistance).
Stay tuned for part three of this series on persuasive strategies, in which we discuss how, why, and when to incorporate differing types of evidence into your speech!