I have only recently begun contributing articles to self-help blogs on the internet. Many of the articles are genuinely helpful, as can be judged by the appreciative comments from many savvy readers.
I am trying to learn how to become more efficient myself, to reduce clutter, and establish priorities. I have quite a way to go, and therefore have nothing to offer in terms of advice about efficient work habits.
I am interested in language learning, however, and how humans use language for different purposes, including using eloquence to persuade other people to do things.
When I studied political science in Paris in the 60s, great importance was placed on oral presentations, and these had to follow a precise formula. Subsequently, as a diplomat and corporate executive, I often had to speak publicly in different languages. I still do now, even as a private businessman. Having an effective presentation formula in my pocket has made it all a lot easier.
On a recent trip to Sweden I bought an audio book on public speaking by a Swedish expert on the subject, Göran Hägg. The name of the book was “Praktisk Retorik” or practical rhetoric. I was in Stockholm for a week, so I did a lot of jogging, while listening to Hägg.
The audio book described the communication techniques of classical Greece and Rome, a time when the term “mass media” referred to public oratory. Human nature has not changed much since then, according to Hägg. He shows, with examples, how these classical techniques of rhetoric still apply today. Bill Clinton gets a lot of coverage in this CD.
Ancient orators like Cicero were speaking to captive audiences. It was not like mass media today, who often have to compete for the attention of people with short attention spans and remote control buttons. But there are also many situations today where the audience is captive. These include job interviews, sales presentations and other public speaking events, where the audience is obliged to listen.
In these situations what you say first is much less important than what you say at the end. The audience is not going anywhere. It is what they leave with that matters. Here the techniques of ancient rhetoric can work for you.
To the ancients, the opening of a presentation, or exordium, had two goals. The first was to gain the sympathy of the listeners. You need to get your listeners to like you, before you try to persuade them of your arguments. So you should begin by saying a few humble and friendly things, how much you like their town, office or company etc., before getting into your subject.
This is where the tradition of the “unaccustomed as I am” opening comes from. The second, and equally important purpose of the opening is to clearly establish your own credibility. So you have to combine humility with a clear indication that you know what you are talking about. “I am glad to have this opportunity to meet with you and explain how much I just want to be a part of your team and put my experience and educational background to work for your company.” “I am a simple person who grew up not far from here, but since then I have accumulated experience that enables me to contribute so much as your elected representative..”
Having earned the listeners sympathy and convinced them that you are someone they might believe or trust, you now tell them what you are going to talk about, in what is known as the Narratio. Here you provide an outline of the issue at hand in a narrative fashion. “Many of you are aware of the problems that we are having with public transport in our community.” “Global warming is an issue that is in the headlines of our newspapers every day”.”I am aware of the difficulty of reconciling the need to reduce capital expenditures while at the same time having to modernize, in a difficult competitive market.”
Now you are ready, in what is known as the Partitio, to set out the main arguments that you want to make. “What we need to do to address this problem is…” “The reason why my product is particularly suited to your situation….” “What I feel I can bring to your company is..” The ancients would sometimes follow this up with what a Confirmatio, where they would bring further proof of the position that was set out in the Partitio, piling on additional arguments.
At this point apparently, it is important to back off a little and offer a counter position. Let your audience look at the other side of the coin. The ancients would use what is known as Refutatio to introduce some contrary arguments. ” Some may argue that….” “I recognize that I do not have all the requirements of the job,”. “You have probably looked at my competitors product, and I recognize that there are good features there too.”
But, guess what? All of these counter arguments can easily be refuted, and that is of course what you do. That is why this part is known as Refutatio.
Now you are ready for your final appeal or Peroratio. You are Johnnie Cochran at O.J Simpson’s trial. You need to end with your strongest and most eloquent arguments, and a little emotion, so that your listeners are moved to tears, acquit your client, buy your product, hire you, or vote for you, or at least applaud loudly.
Does this really work you may ask. Is this formula not too transparent? How can you fit all situations into the same formula? The answer is simply that it works, every time. Of course you need to adapt it to the subject and situation at hand, but it works. It worked for ancient orators like Cicero and Quintillian, and it has worked for me time and time again.
If I can leave you with one thought it would be the following. Having a formula you can rely on for making presentations is powerful. It will shorten the time required for preparing presentations. What is more it will reduce your anxiety level at having to speak in front of people. You will feel that you are one step ahead of them and in control of the situation. I can tell you that you can literally have the audience on the edge of their seats, if you follow this approach.
If you re-read this article you will see that I have essentially followed the steps of classical oratory in presenting these ideas.
Steve Kaufmann is a former Canadian diplomat, who has had his own company in the international trade of forest products for over 20 years. Steve founded The Linguist Institute Ltd. in 2002 to develop a new approach to language learning using the web. The new LingQ system for learning multiple languages is now available in Beta. Steve speaks nine languages fluently and is currently learning Russian using LingQ. Steve maintains a blog on language learning.