Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Worst Way to Start a Speech

Like I said this morning, after posting a somewhat negative post I got cold feet and took it down. It was a good and informative post, however, so I've been trying to figure out a way to soften it and make it a bit less surly, let's say. I'm not sure this is the right solution, but I've decided simply to remove the direct reference to the person I'm criticizing. This way I can preserve the object lesson without making it look like a personal attack. I'm not sure the original post constituted such an attack, but it just didn't seem, well, very "nice". And I generally like to be nice.

What happened was that I found a presentation on YouTube by a public speaking consultant and teacher about how to begin a speech. His advice was perfectly good, and I had intended to link to him and translate it into advice for writers. But there was a serious problem with one of his examples. The second best way to begin, he said, is with a "factoid that shocks". Already his use of the word "factoid" is strange here because it's actually a pejorative term; it denotes "a questionable or spurious (unverified, false, or fabricated) statement presented as a fact, but without supporting evidence." I assume he meant that one good way to start a speech is with an interesting, arresting fact. Indeed, he goes on to emphasize that it's important that the fact be true, since your audience is easily able to fact-check using Google. On this background, then, it's unfortunate that he chose as an example the myth that "there are more people alive today than have ever died."

When we do Google this claim, the first hit I get is an article in the Daily Mail that thoroughly debunks it. Indeed, the speaker in the video belabors the point using language that is directly refuted by the article. He ironically suggests we probably won't check because he looks so trustworthy, and assures us that, though people sometimes come up to him after a talk to ask technical questions about how deaths are counted, "it's true, and it's not even close". The Daily Mail, however, tells us that "with an estimated seven billion people on earth, the living are nowhere near close to surpassing all of the dead – the Population Reference Bureau estimates that approximately 107 billion people have ever lived." (If you don't like the Mail, Scientific American informs us that "the living will never outnumber the dead".)

It's difficult to imagine someone getting a fact more badly wrong than this. But one must admire the bravado of it. And of going so far as to post the video on YouTube without fact-checking it first! Now, it is of course possible that he's doing this intentionally to make the very point I'm explicating here. But I wouldn't recommend that tactic even for an expert like him. His irony will be lost on most people; I, for one, am inclined to think he truly believes in the truth of his factoid and that he really does expect us to believe him too.

This kind of mistake, which makes it tricky for people like me who would otherwise have shared his advice directly, causes unnecessary static. His basic three-point suggestion, like I say, is perfectly sound. Try to start with either an engaging story, an arresting fact, or an interesting question. (I usually start my writing seminars with a story about Paul Krugman, for example.) I even agree with him that it's good to do it in that order, which is probably also for most people the order from hardest to easiest. But the difficult thing, in the end, is getting the story or the fact straight. Always remember Master Tarantino's parable of the anecdote of the drug deal. It only works if you get the details right. The worst way to start a speech or a paper is with a confident statement of purported fact that half your audience knows to be bunkum.

1 comment:

Lee Sechrest said...

'Like the thirteenth chime from a crazy clock which not only in itself fails to command belief but also casts a certain doubt upon the accuracy of the previous twelve strokes.'
(Sir A P Herbert, Novelist, Playwright, Poet and Politician, 1870-1974.)