On Speaking

I have a fear of public speaking. It is not a debilitating phobia, but when I have to speak to an audience I prefer to have time for preparation (not just for practicing but also to gather some courage). Even with that preparation, it turns out, I say “um” a lot and get a little thrown off by unintended pauses.

As a writer, I decided that I need to get better at speaking. Any effort put into bettering my speaking abilities will only help me improve my writing skills, I thought. After reading Paul Graham’s essay on Writing and Speaking, I have changed my mind. I still want to get better at speaking but not as much as I want to get better at writing. Here’s why:

Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you’re talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you’ll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker.

Getting better at speaking needs improving your showman skills more than your thinking skills. It is true that remarkably good speakers don’t memorise their speeches. They have few points, written down or mentally noted, on which they expand while speaking. To do that the speaker relies on ideas that he has previously thought of in some depth. A certain amount of clarity in thought is needed to be able to speak well, but it would be rare to refine ideas and rarer to think of new ones while giving a speech.

It is more important for a good speaker to engage the audience which can be done through not just good ideas but also anecdotes and jokes. The speaker can tap into mob psychology which make jokes seem funnier in an audience than alone. Graham hasn’t taken it too far when he says:

As you decrease the intelligence of the audience, being a good speaker is increasingly a matter of being a good bullshitter. That’s true in writing too of course, but the descent is steeper with talks.

So are talks useless? Graham says:

They’re certainly inferior to the written word as a source of ideas. But that’s not all that talks are good for. When I go to a talk, it’s usually because I’m interested in the speaker. Listening to a talk is the closest most of us can get to having a conversation with someone like the president, who doesn’t have time to meet individually with all the people who want to meet him.

Talks are also good at motivating me to do things. It’s probably no coincidence that so many famous speakers are described as motivational speakers. That may be what public speaking is really for. It’s probably what it was originally for.

This lamentation has been about public speaking, of course. One man talking others listening without much engagement from the audience. I’m a fan of another form of speaking which involves engagement – conversations, that is. Many of which have led to the most fascinating learning experiences. With the right set of people, conversations can go to bizarre places and still feel familiar.

Some of the best conversations are those without structure. They tend to flow with an aim to seek the truth, but remain content in not reaching the end. They can sometimes feel like a mental dance involving two or more. Rhythm is set by the pace of thoughts, music by the ideas and notes by the words.

Conversing, like public speaking, requires the ability to communicate with clarity, but beyond that it also needs additional skills such as engaging conversational partners without being overbearing, redirecting the flow of ideas but allowing others to do the same, and creating an atmosphere that encourages new ideas.

Good conversations leave me with the feeling that I get after enjoying a fantastic meal. Instead of a good aftertaste, I am left with some very satisfying thoughts. They also come with a bag of goodies that contain new ideas and new perspectives.

Even with all that love for conversations, I don’t treat them as my way out of a difficult problem. Sometimes two or more brains with the same amount of motivation are able to solve problems that either brain alone would find unsolvable, but synchronisation of that kind leading to synergistic effects rarely happens in conversations.

So when a friend of mine said, “I think by talking about things”, I had my eyebrows raised. She tends to use another person as a mental stage to begin the thought process. Speaking to her, it seems, is thinking. I find that odd and limiting, but that might be an extreme case.

Therapists ask patients to ‘speak’ their mind. Talk therapy is powerful and is known to release chemicals in the brain altering, very literally, the state of a person’s mind. Therapists enable a conversation with oneself by removing mental blocks and/or directing the flow of thoughts in the right direction.

Speaking may be a good way out of difficult emotional problems but it isn’t the best tool for problem solving. Speaking can be uplifting to the depressed and invigorating to the dull. It can be a motivational tool or a way to admire heroes. It can also be a thinking tool in difficult scenarios, but for problem-solving and a daily dose of new ideas writing is a better option.

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