Zen and the Art of Public Speaking

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974. The book has sold more than 5 million copies and is widely considered a modern philosophical classic. In Zen, Pirsig discusses the metaphysics of quality. He explores the subject over the course of a 17-day motorcycle journey acros the western United States with his son.

zen-and-the-artBefore writing the book, Pirsig taught creative and technical writing at a small college in Montana. While there, he became obsessed with the question of what defines quality. His investigations eventually drove him insane and he underwent electroshock treatments that changed his personality. The book delves into the issue, but it is also a reconciliation between the person whom Pirsig is now and the person he used to be.

I first picked up Zen years ago when I was still a teenager and found it a very tough read. I promised myself that I would read it when I was older and so, a few decades later, I have picked it up again and have not been disappointed.

While reading, I came across an extended passage in which Pirsig bemoans the shoddy workmanship that some mechanics did on his motorcycle and the shoddy workmanship that too many people do in general. (The mechanics did such poor work that Pirsig made them stop and he did the job himself.)

After fixing the motorcycle, Pirsig reflected on why the mechanics had done such poor work. An extended excerpt from the book follows:

The question why comes back again and again … Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology … These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.

The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.

Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way—if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.

But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing—and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. … Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.

Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care.

While at work I was thinking about this same lack of care in the digital computer manuals I was editing. Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living the other eleven months of the year and I knew they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them. But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this twentieth century. I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found that sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else. [Emphasis added.]

Based on my experience, many people prepare their presentations with the same attitude as the mechanics and technical writers in the excerpt above. They do the work, but not in a meaningful way. And thus, they do a disservice to themselves and, more importantly, their audiences.

You have to care about your audience and, by extension, your presentation. When you care about your presentation you will prepare it carefully and thoughtfully, with the audience in mind. If you don’t care, you are more likely to do a poor job and, as a result, waste people’s time.

The next time you have a presentation, show some care for your audience as you prepare. Your presentation will hum along like a well-tuned motorcycle.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 243) – Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta

 Ibn Battuta (on right) (1304 – 1369) Moroccan Traveler and Scholar

“Traveling—it leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller.”

— Ibn Battuta (أبو عبد الله محمد بن عبد الله اللواتي الطنجي بن بطوطة)

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9 Public Speaking Tips from a Slam Poet

Adobe Spark is a suite of applications designed by Adobe System to help people create and share stories with graphics and videos.


Pages Matam

The team at Adobe Spark recently reached out to me to share a blog post that they had written. It features Pages Matam, a Cameroonian artist who now lives near Washington D.C. Among other things, Matam is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion. His first book, The Heart of a Comet, was named a 2014 Best New Book by Beltway Poetry Quarterly.

Below is a summary of nine tips from Matam on how to improve your voice when you speak in public, regardless of the type of speech or presentation. I stress the importance of these points in my trainings, so it was great to see them all captured and synthesized in one place. The complete post can be found here.

1. Enunciate.

It is important to exaggerate the shape of your mouth. It might feel funny but it forces you to slow down and helps your audience understand you.

One exercise that I recommend to my clients is to place a wine cork between your teeth and then speak for four or five minutes. After the exercise, you will find that you can enunciate much better. Your jaws might feel a tiny bit sore immediately after the exercise, so don’t do the exercise immediately before you go on stage.

2. Breathe from your diaphragm.

Breathing from your diaphragm produces a better sound. It also slows down your heart rate and reduces nerves and stress.

3. Use pacing, sound and intonation.

Emphasize important words practice delivering them in different ways. What are the most important words or phrases that you want people to remember?

4. Project from your diaphragm.

To get the most support from your breath, inhale and allow your stomach to expand. Speak as you exhale. The result will be a fuller, projected sound that won’t strain your vocal chords.

5. Stand up straight.

Standing up straight while speaking results in a better sound. Lift your chin slightly and imagine a string is pulling the top of you head up. When you stand up straight and assume a strong, confident stance, your audience will be able to hear it in your voice.

6. Slow down.

Many people speak too quickly when they speak in public. It is important to slow down so that your audience can follow you. Emphasize important points and remember to pause.

7. Warm up before speaking.

Stay hydrated and warm up your mouth and vocal chords before speaking. Sing or hum to warm up vocal chords, massage the muscles on the sides of your jaw to release tension, trill your tongue, flutter your lips like a horse. There are many ways to warm up vocally.

8. Give the microphone room.

Keep the microphone about three inches away from your mouth to produce the best sound. If you hold it too close to your mouth, the sound will be too loud or distorted; if you hold it too far, and the audience will not hear you.

9. Nobody likes the sound of their own voice.

When you hear your voice in a recording, it sounds unfamiliar because you are used to hearing it from inside your head, with all the vibrations inside your skull.

The complete post can be found here. Be sure to check out some of the other great posts on the Adobe Spark blog.

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Rhetoric for Persuasive Speaking

Dukascopy Bank is a Swiss online bank that provides trading services, particularly in the foreign exchange marketplace. One of its subsidiaries, Dukascopy TV, broadcasts shows about business matters on the Internet. I have been interviewed there a few times, for example here and here.

Recently, the team at Dukascopy invited me for an interview on the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. The focus of our chat was rhetoric and, in particular, the use of rhetoric in the campaign.

In the interview below, we discuss the following:

  • The meaning of rhetoric;
  • Aristotle and the three pillars of rhetoric;
  • How Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump use rhetoric in their speeches;
  • Some rhetorical devices that politicians have used throughout history, from Julius Caesar to Clinton and Trump; and
  • The relevance of rhetoric in business presentations.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 242) – Bruno Giussani

Bruno Giussani - Swiss Director of TEDGlobal and European Director of TED

Bruno Giussani – Swiss Director of TEDGlobal & European Director of TED

“When people sit in a room to listen to a speaker, they are offering her something extremely precious, something that isn’t recoverable once given: a few minutes of their time and of their attention. Her task is to use that time as well as possible.

— Bruno Giussani

Photo courtesy of Bruno Giussani
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