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 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 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, follow the lesson from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Show some care for your audience as you prepare. Your presentation will hum along like a well-tuned motorcycle.

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5 Replies to “Zen and the Art of Public Speaking”

  1. Good post. I read this book in the 80’s when I first joined the U.S. Army. Hadn’t really thought of it in years. I have purchased in on Amazon…love all the $.01 deals.

  2. Another outstanding post! Thank you.
    I read this book many many times in the late 1970s and early 80s. I remember these segments well. I was a young marine engineer, apprenticing in shipyards and working on merchant ships, so I identified with care and maintenance of engines very closely. However I did not make quite the connection to CARE, as you have highlighted. Thanks for the reminder.
    Today, every time I write, or speak, or evaluate, or give feedback, I imagine my reader, audience, evaluatee etc. say this to me “Make Me CARE!” If we can do this, if we can make our stakeholders CARE, we usually prevail.
    I even recall from the little admiralty law I studied there is a legal term called duty of care, which sets quite a high bar.
    In tort law, a duty of care is a legal obligation, which is imposed on an individual requiring adherence to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. It is the first element that must be established to proceed with an action in negligence.
    Presenters ignore this standard at their own peril!
    GOOD LUCK John

    1. Thanks for the personal anecdotes, Rashid. Much appreciated. I can imagine that you have had many interesting experiences as a marine engineer. As for duty of care in tort law, as a lawyer who practiced in a Common Law Jurisdiction (Ontario), I am very familiar with the principle!

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