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.
I have actually read a fair amount of Aristotle. Not in the original language (although, a little bit of that too). But in my graduate work in rhetoric, we had to read Aristotle. And he is really, really important. But, now, centuries later, his main ideas are usually summarized by others. And the summaries are accessible, make sense, and are profound. For many, a good summary is enough – enough information, enough to launch the thought processes that lead to real-world ideas and changes for the better.
From Aristotle, for example: to be persuasive (rhetoric is all about finding the available means of persuasion), you need logos (a good logical argument), ethos (a good ethical case/argument — true credibility on the part of the speaker/writer), and pathos (a good emotional argument – an engaging “this matters to me” by the speaker/writer). And a few others back from around the time of era of Aristotle add the power of a fourth element, mythos (the narrative appeal – this rings true to our story as a people/nation/company…). Now Aristotle wrote on many other themes, but you get the point. A person writes a book. Others read it. And with the passage of time, they are able to summarize, really effectively, the truths and principles and insights from books. And it helps us understand.
I thought of all this as I read this excellent summary of a series of recent books on the financial crisis. What Caused the Economic Crisis? The 15 best explanations for the Great Recession by Jacob Weisberg. (from Slate.com and Newsweek – I read it on the Slate site).
Though the crisis is recent, there is a large number of books proposing explanations for the economic crisis with clear themes and explanations proposed for consideration. Weisberg summarizes many of these, dividing the suggested explanations into themes and explanations, and concludes with this phrase:
But if we haven’t at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we’ll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.
I think the article is worth reading. I have perused a few of the books mentioned, and the article does a good job summarizing the key explanations. And learning these is important – we would really like to dig out of this crisis, and certainly to avoid similar crises in the future.
But the purpose of this post is more about the process of reading books and then learning something important from what we read. None of us (ok – very few of us) can remember all that we read. But we can remember key points, extract the most important principles and themes, and then allow these to inform our thinking and direct our practice. That is why we read (at least, why we read nonfiction and business books) – to learn, to keep learning.
I have learned this from my own experience from reading, and presenting synopses of, business books. In the last few months, I have read Outliers (Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin), and learned that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something, and that those hours have to be spent in deliberate practice – practice for the purpose of getting better. I have read 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch, learning that decisions can be better made if we look at their impact in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. I have read The Opposable Mind (Martin) and discovered that to make the best decisions we need to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time.
These are just a few of the “summaries” that I think of just from the last few months. Are these books worth reading in their entirety? Absolutely. But with all of the stories, supporting information and data in the books, it is the key principles that matter, that shape my thinking, and that I remember most from reading these books.
(Note to our readers — normally I would simply leave a comment on Bob’s blog post, but this one needs more room).
I really liked Bob’s post, Q #122: How to become more persuasive. There is nothing I disagreed with, but here are some thoughts I would like to add to the conversation.
Much of what he said is confirmed by the great thinkers in rhetoric. Aristotle spoke of the three primary means of persuasion: logos (the logical appeal), pathos (the emotional appeal), and ethos (the ethical appeal). Bob spoke of four critical factors, including (in shorthand form) credibility, pathos/passion leading to a deep emotional connection between speaker and audience, and other great bridge-building traits that connect speaker to audience.
At the heart of ethos is the idea of, the centrality of, credibility. Here’s a simple and compelling illustration. Normally, the better speaker (i.e., the more dynamic speaker) is the most persuasive. But if the subject discussed is airline safey, no one could match the current credibility of Chesley Sullenberger (the pilot who landed a plane successfully in the Hudson River). Though he is also a clear and compelling communicator, his credibility is so far off the charts that his persuasive abilities in the arena of airline safety would truly be unmatched.
But, as persuasive as these factors are, there is a step that comes before them all. This step is what the ancients described by the word stasis: bringing the audience to a complete standstill in their thinking. In order for anyone to be persuaded to change in any way — in their thinking, their attitude, their behavior — the audience member has to understand: “something is wrong about my current state. My thinking is off; my behavior is not working; my attitude is contributing to the problem.” As long as a person thinks all is ok as it is, no persuasion is possible. Stasis is that moment when a speaker helps the individual stop and think: “I have got to make a change!” When that happens, and only when that happens, will persuasion then become possible.
Bob’s post provides great tools to help that happen — to bring the person to that moment of standstill, and then to point to a new direction.
But bringing the audience/the person to a moment of true stasis — to a true moment of standstill, and the acknowledgement and realization that something has to change — that is the great challenge of persuasion.