I’ve never watched Breaking Bad. Barely heard of it (though, I have heard the lead actor interviewed twice in recent days). But here is an article about how it nearly did not ever get off the ground, by the creator, Vince Gilligan: I Almost Broke Bad: The creator of the award-winning Breaking Bad explains how his show almost didn’t happen.
Here’s how Vince Gilligan described what he had to do in front of the executives, the small and select audience (in fact, an audience of two: Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, the co-heads of Sony Television) who would decide yes or no on his idea. I’ve bolded the key lines, for those of us in the communication business, those of us who have to communicate our ideas – and, don’t we all?!
I spent several more weeks expanding my 15-minute thumbnail into a full-fledged, 30-minute rundown of the first episode. This is called a “pilot pitch,” and it’s something you do verbally, acting it out for various stone-faced executives. There’s an art to it: Maintain eye contact, exude boundless enthusiasm, and never, ever refer to your notes. Have the entire thing memorized backward and forward so that you can toss it off with the aplomb of David Niven on The Dick Cavett Show. For me, that’s one tall order. But I gave it the old college try.
So, here’s your presentation tutorial for the day:
#1 — Maintain eye contact. Look your audience members in the eye – eyeball to eyeball. In order to persuade anyone of anything, you have to connect. A failure to maintain eye contact is a sure fire way to fail to connect.
#2 – Exude boundless enthusiasm. This is not what you would call new advice. Aristotle referred to pathos, what speech teachers commonly call “the emotional appeal,” as one of the three primary means of persuasion. (The other two, from Aristotle, are logos – the logical appeal, and ethos – the ethical appeal, referring to the character, and especially the credibility of the speaker). Others added mythos – the narrative appeal to the ancient formula). It boils down to this: if you’re not enthusiastic – very! enthusiastic — about what you are proposing, how can you expect your audience to be enthusiastic?
#3 — Have the entire thing memorized backward and forward… In other words, know your material so well, so thoroughly, that it’s beyond second nature. It is practically “first nature.” This message is actually you! – you in a message, presenting a presentation coming from the depths of what is deep inside of you. This is you speaking — the real you , the “authentic” you. If you are just “presenting a presentation” rather than speaking from the depths of the inside of you, it will come across as a “job,” a job to present “this presentation.” And such a “job, presenting a presentation,” comes across as a distant second to the person who is able to speak from the depths of his or her very being.
Oh, and by the way, did you notice?: Vince Gilligan did not mention PowerPoint at all. It was him: his body, his words, in front of a very interested audience. Nothing else. If you insist on Powerpoint, make sure that it is just an aid. You – yes, you yourself – are the presentation!
Quite a challenge — and quite a tutorial, don’t you think?
Millions are becoming premodern — communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for effective and dignified expression.
Victor David Hanson
People are starved for the practical. They want to know what to put into practice now to build a better, more successful tomorrow. They are impatient; they have little time to reflect, ponder… they want to “do it,” they want to “just do it,” and they want it done by this afternoon.
And they are impatient in every way. Like… why spend all those semesters studying subjects in school that do not have immediate, practical application?
As a result, the “liberal arts” are in trouble. And, in my opinion, this is a bad development, maybe a devastating one.
Andrew Sullivan has treated this as a recent major theme on his blog, with multiple posts, with excerpts from opinion leader and readers responses. With his post The Use of Uselessness, Andrews linked to this article in the National Review Online, In Defense of the Liberal Arts: the therapeutic Left and the utilitarian Right both do disservice to the humanities, by Victor David Hanson. I really do encourage you to read the entire article. Here are a number of excerpts – worth reading for a Sunday reflection:
In such a climate, it is unsurprising that once again we hear talk of cutting the “non-essentials” in our colleges, such as Latin, Renaissance history, Shakespeare, Plato, Rembrandt, and Chopin. Why do we cling to the arts and humanities in a high-tech world in which we have instant recall at our fingertips through a Google search and such studies do not guarantee sure 21st-century careers?
But the liberal arts train students to write, think, and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge. Without that foundation, it is harder to make — or demand from others — logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.
Without links to our heritage, we in ignorance begin to think that our own modern challenges — the war in Afghanistan, gay marriage, cloning, or massive deficits — are unique and not comparable to those solved in the past.
And without citizens broadly informed by the humanities, we descend into a pyramidal society. A tiny technocratic elite on top crafts everything from cell phones and search engines to foreign policy and economic strategy. A growing mass below has neither understanding of the present complexity nor the basic skills to question what they are told.
On the other hand, pragmatists argued that our 20-year-old future CEOs needed to learn spreadsheets rather than why Homer’s Achilles did not receive the honors he deserved, or how civilization was lost in fifth-century Rome and 1930s Germany. But Latin or a course in rhetoric might better teach a would-be captain of industry how to dazzle his audience than a class in Microsoft PowerPoint.
The more instantaneous our technology, the more we are losing the ability to communicate. Twitter and text-messaging result in economy of expression, not in clarity or beauty. Millions are becoming premodern — communicating in electronic grunts that substitute for effective and dignified expression. Indeed, by inventing new abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts, we are losing a shared written language altogether, in a way analogous to the fragmentation of Latin as the Roman Empire imploded into tribal provinces. No wonder the public is drawn to stories like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, in which characters speak beautifully and believe in age-old values.
I teach Speech at the Community College Level. I lead Presentation Skills training sessions for corporate clients. I start both in the same way – with Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric (“finding the available means of persuasion”), and the centrality of logos, ethos, and pathos. This foundational understanding of persuasion is still the best there is – and it always will be. Understanding the foundations really is important. And, after that, we can get to the practical, the “how to…” Skipping the foundations is simply skipping too far ahead.
I think we need to save some time for something deeper than, more timeless, than, the immediately practical. Don’t you?
How many commercials have you seen for Coca-Cola in your lifetime? Something close to a gazillion (to adapt Forrest Gump’s word). I’ve seen many of them and the ones for Pepsi, and 7UP, and… But given a choice, I always buy the Dr Pepper product. (What can I say?, I’m from Texas! In my youth, it was actual Dr Pepper. Currently, it’s the Diet Cherry version. Oh, for my youth back!).
I’m convinced that Coca-Cola (and a host of other companies) would pay you close to that gazillion figure, in cash, tomorrow afternoon, if you could do one thing: create a commercial that, after one viewing, would get every viewer to buy their product, and only their product, for the rest of his/her life.
But you can’t create that commercial. I don’t care how creative you are, how brilliant you are, you can’t create that commercial. Why? Because persuasion/rhetoric is not a science, it is an art. It is imprecise, never guaranteed.
For example, Barack Obama was elected President with 52.87% of the popular vote. That means, after all that campaigning, all those debates, he was unable to persuade some 47.13% of the people to vote for him. By the way, my favorite illustration of this comes from Nolan Ryan. Arguably the greatest candidate ever for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he had 5,714 career strikeouts and 7 career no-hitters. Sandy Koufax, with four, is #2 on that list. Ryan got 491 votes out of 497 votes cast. (This was only the second highest percentage in history, at 98.79%. Tom Seaver beat him with 98.84%, 425 out of 430 votes).
Now, I readily admit that it is an open question as to who the greatest pitcher of all time is. But did Ryan’s accomplishments, his fame, qualify him to be in baseball’s Hall of Fame? What idiot could possibly have failed to vote yes? Yet, six idiots did exactly that. (I searched, but could not find the quote – but as I remember, Nolan Ryan said something like this: “I’d just like to find those 6 guys who did not vote for me.”)
According to Aristotle, rhetoric involves discovering and using the available means of persuasion, and are three primary means of persuasion – logos: the logical argument, the content of the argument itself; ethos, the ethical argument: the quality of, the believability, the character, especially the credibility, of the speaker; and pathos, the emotional argument: the passion of the speaker, the “I really care about this issue, and you should to” nature of the appeal.
We tend to believe that the “logic” of the argument should win the day. But it’s not that simple. And, frequently, the credibility of the speaker is more important than the logic of the argument. But, even with those two in agreement (logic of argument + credibility of speaker), the emotional appeal can still trump them both.
These thoughts all flow from my reaction to a short blog post, and then the video (below), from the Freakonomics blog. I watched the video. It is really, really good. It is unanswerable. The logic is perfect. But – the logic of the argument has not actually won the argument (I suspect it will be a long time before it does). The logic is unassailable. But, as the ranter says, we won’t take this step because of “sentimental reasons.”
To reject the argument of this speaker is not logical. It is an emotional rejection. The subject — should we get rid of the penny? Of course we should! But we haven’t yet, and probably will not, anytime soon.
Here’s what Stephen Dubner wrote:
The Best Anti-Penny Rant Ever?
I’ve already used up too much of your bandwidth complaining about the uselessness of pennies, but allow me to share with you a wonderful vlog rant by John Green on the many, many reasons why the penny (and the nickel, too) should be abolished. He is good.
And here’s the video. It is very, very funny.
Aristotle said that there are three primary means of persuasion: logos (logic); ethos (credibility); and pathos (emotion). Here is a quick take on ethos – it is all in the eye of the beholder.
“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”
Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.1356a.4‑12
If you speak, you should begin here:
does your audience find you trustworthy?
If the answer is yes, they will more likely listen. If the answer is no, than all is lost before you even begin. This concern falls under the ancient category of “ethos.”
I have written before about the importance of ethos. Traditionally, ethos stands for the “ethical appeal,” and speaks of the character of the speaker. In an era of great mistrust, such as ours, ethos may be the most critical trait of all.
Ethos and character were frequently spoken of back in the days of ancient rhetoric. Quintilian (ca. 35 – ca. 100) actually defined rhetoric as “the good man speaking well.” This is from the Wikipedia article on Quintilian:
Quintilian quite literally believed that an evil man could not be an orator, “for the orator’s aim is to carry conviction, and we trust those only whom we know to be worthy of our trust.”
(Yes – I know – all of this is masculine centered language. In ancient times, they had not yet made much progess in the arena of gender equality).
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) focused on “habits” related to ethos:
• intelligence =”mental habits”
• virtue = “moral habits”
• good will = “emotional habits”
In one of the textbooks I use in my teaching, Public Speaking (8th Edition) by Michael Osborn, Suzanne Osborn, and Randall Osborn, they describe four components of ethos. These are terrific. Here they are, from the book, with my own take sprinkled in:
• integrity – be trustworthy (ethical; honest; dependable)
• competence – develop genuine expertise; know your subject well (informed; intelligent; well-prepared)
• dynamism – raise the energy in the room whenever you speak (confident; decisive; enthusiastic)
• goodwill – have the best interests of your audience at heart. Always mean them well, never mean them harm.
Or… to put it all in simple terms:
• you can trust me
• because I have prepared well
• and, I believe this deeply enough to get excited about it – and I work hard to stay current
• and I share this with you to help you succeed in your own pursuits.
Enter every speaking assignment with these components of ethos at the front of your mind, and you will become known as trustworthy– a person of good character, speaking well.
(yes, I have posted on this earlier. I keep learning more, as we all do. And it is a big, big deal. Actual people died. And there is quite an important business lesson in here).
It is Rhetoric 101. A speaker has to be both qualified and trustworthy. Lose either, and you have a bad/failed messenger.
So let’s start by listening to the words:
Here’s the key excerpt from the commercial:
“History has shown a good company will fix its mistakes. But a great company will learn from them… We’re working to restore your faith in our company by providing you with safe, reliable vehicles, like we have for over 50 years.”
So says the new Toyota Commercial. I hope it is true. But I’m not sure they have yet learned from their mistakes. Because the mistake is not “we had a deficiency in our cars,” the mistake was “we had a deficiency in our cars, we knew about it, and we kept selling them and let people keep driving them.” The mistake was not the deficiency, the mistake was that they kept it pretty quiet and did not act.
And cars crashed… and people died.
News item: State Farm warned the NHTSA about Toyota’s acceleration problems in 2007. Toyota certainly got the word then.
State Farm insurance said it noticed an uptick in reports of unwanted acceleration in Toyotas from its large customer database and warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late 2007. NHTSA officials said the report was reviewed and the agency issued a recall later that month.
News item: Oops – State Farm has now double-checked, and the NHTSA was first notified in 2004. Toyota got the word then.
In the latest development in the Toyota recall crisis, State Farm, the US insurer, said it had reviewed its records and found it had contacted safety regulators in 2004.
Toyota said Thursday it is recalling 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. to fix accelerator pedals that can become stuck, the latest in a string of quality problems that have bedeviled the Japanese automaker.
Am I sure that they kept it hidden? Just look at the time line demonstrated above. For at least part of those “50 years,” they kept dangers hidden – dangers they knew about.
Now, I don’t run a big company. I don’t know what I would do if I had a problem on my hands that would cost billions of dollars. But I am certain that there are families who lost loved ones in the crashes that occurred because Toyota knew of the problem and did not deal with it. For at least 5+ years. (The first warning came at least as early as 2004. And call me a cynic, but don’t you think someone within Toyota might have known something before the first State Farm notification?!)
Ask these grieving families what Toyota should have done, and I’m pretty sure they would have said this: “Toyota should tell people not to drive these cars until we figure it out, and fix it!”
Here’s my problem – why should we trust a company, even after watching such a nice commercial, when they knew about the problems, and violated people’s trust, for at least half-a-decade?
For a company, credibility is the gold standard. That standard is quite tarnished for Toyota. And, on a personal note, I come close to resenting their commercial.
(And — on a better note — maybe State Farm really is like a good neighbor!)