I am making the case that effective organizational leadership means that on some level we master the art of rhetoric: providing leadership through oral communication – whether in sermons, speeches, presentations or formal debates. And, further, that this is a learned art – a capacity that we cultivate through practice and learning from both the masters of this art as well as from our own experience.
To this end, consider that effective rhetoric is marked by two parallel and complementary qualities or characteristics.
First that effective communication is always one that appeals to the mind; it is thoughtful. Even if we are anxious to lower the anxiety level of those to whom we are speaking; even if we know that in the end, what will make the difference is a matter of the heart. Even so, what must not be missed is that the heart needs to be informed; a genuine emotional response to an issue or topic is one that is grounded in understanding. Thus all effective public speakers are teachers who know how to take complex issues and make them accessible: whether it is the politician speaking to matters of immigration, or economics or some aspect of public policy, or the preacher speaking to the meaning of the Trinity or of redemptive history or some matter of virtue or ethics, or the executive leader of a non-profit who is seeking to explain how even in a pandemic, the organization can and must remain faithful to its mission. That is, effective rhetoric is thoughtful.
And yet, effective rhetoric is thoughtful without being didactic by which I mean pedantic. We inform and we teach and we are thoughtful, of course; but we keep it both simple – not simplistic, but simple – and accessible and we do all we can to make the topic or theme of interest. We keep it relevant.
Second, effective public speaking acknowledges the potential for push back or objection. Yes, we have done our research; and yes, we have come to our topic or theme having thought through the pros and cons and we are surely or at least likely convinced that what we are saying is not only right – we are convinced that this is true – but also that this matters. And yet, we are also wise to speak in a way that acknowledges the potential for either objections or reservations to what you are presenting. I am thinking here of two kinds of “push back”. In some cases, our hearers differ with us as a matter of intellectual conviction – they disagree. For others, there is an emotional “check” which might be expressed as a “yes . . . but.” Good teaching anticipates objectives; good preaching considers how a hearer might be less than convinced, either for intellectual or emotional reasons. A politician speaking in favour of an open immigration policy will acknowledge the arguments against this policy or the fears of those who might be in agreement but fear the loss of something important to them.
A preacher can speak to the goodness of God but also acknowledge that some may truly wonder if God is good; a president can make the case for a building program or a capital campaign and also acknowledge that some may be hesitant or fearful or wonder if the timing is right. That is, we respect that our hearers are thoughtful and they may not – not yet, as least – be either intellectually in agreement or emotionally on board.
And yet, the key is that we are can and do anticipate objections – perhaps without stating this explicitly -- but we a do this with this caveat: we are not defensive. Further, we do not need to resolve every objection; the speech we are giving or the sermon or the presentation is not ultimately derailed because we have listed every possible objection. But, without being defensive or without needed to resolve every potential that our hearers might have, we can speak in a way that acknowledges that others may see things differently or they may feel differently about the topic at hand.