What I am proposing is the following: that effective institutional leadership requires that we cultivate the capacity for rhetoric – public speaking, formal presentations, appropriate and timely oral remarks. It is an essential part of the job. And thus we need to be able to step back and ask, as we learn from the masters and from our own experience, what it is that are the typical features or elements of effective rhetoric? I am going to identify six – beginning here with (1) the personal element and, (2) passion.
First, let me suggest that effective public speaking and rhetoric is, on some level, autobiographical. We are most likely to be able to make our case, and be persuasive and get a hearing when we are personally invested in this issue or topic or theme and where we speak to issue at hand out of our personal experience. Now let me quickly add something that I will stress in a moment that this is not, ultimately about you; eschew anything that is narcissistic. It is not about you. More on that in a moment. But for now to highlight that the very best public speakers know how to speak to the issue at hand out of their own experience. I think of the graduation speaker who opened with a few remarks on how much this university had meant to her and her family and its impact on her son, who was a graduate. I think of the preacher whose own experience of the grace of God clearly gave nuance and depth to a reflection on the meaning of divine mercy. The point is that we do not speak effectively in the abstract; the grace and power of our rhetoric arises out of our own personal awareness of and experience of what it is that we are talking about.
Don’t overplay this hand. Elizabeth Warren was rightly called out for claiming to have native American ancestry. Regardless if she did or did not, the point is that clearly it did not truly inform her experience as a girl growing up in urban USA. And for what it is worth, she is a brilliant speaker that simply did not need to try and add something like this to give her credibility. Joe Biden likes to speak of himself as growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania and perhaps, on some level, this helps him portray himself as connected with and sympathetic with the “working class.” But still, be carefully about overplaying your experience. And by “overplay” I also mean that your experience gives some credibility but your experience is not the final word. So you raised two sons; that does not make you an authority on how to raise all sons and daughters. Your experience is limited.
Which then leads me to the point: yes, be autobiographical but only use your experience as a way to enter into the broader issue or principle or theme that is so very important. Which means that we always remember that this is not, ultimately, about us. It is not our story or our experience or our upbringing that matters. This is not about you but about the theme or issue at hand.
Second, another feature of effective rhetoric is what I will speak of here as “passion.” Yes, students of ancient literature might prefer that we not use this word because this is not what the ancients meant; but this is how the word is used now – so, indulge me this usage: to think of “passion” as speaking or presenting with an urgency and appeal that reflects our emotional investment in the topic at hand. That is, this matters! We are speaking with heart, with an appeal that reflects an appreciation that something important is at stake; this matters to us and we believe it matters to one and all. What we are saying will and can make an important difference. We believe in what we are saying; we are “passionate” about the topic.
However, a caveat. The great danger in all public speaking, especially when something matters to us a great deal, is that we would let anger shape our remarks and our tone. Or we might descend into melodrama. Or, in an attempt to demonstrate how important the topic is, we provide nothing more than hype by large gestures or simply by being loud and gregarious as though this in itself would be persuasive. Most of us have made this mistake. I recall a presentation to the governing board of our denomination in which there was no doubt that I was losing my patience and, I fear to say, it coloured my remarks. And whether they were conscious of it or not, I suspect that “edge” in my remarks is all they remember. Whether it is in preaching a sermon, making a case before a governing board, or speaking to an important theme in the midst of a committee debate, recognize that hype and melodrama rarely if ever are effective and that anger or fear will inevitably undercut or undermine your capacity to be effective in your presentation. Do not underestimate the power of understated but passionate rhetoric.
So, two working principles. Yes; be personal; but with the caveat . . . remember that this is not, in the end, about you. And further, be passionate; this topic or theme or issue matters. But do not let either hype [pseudo passion] or anger [unruly passion] govern the content or the tone of your remarks.