Figures of Speech

There’s an unremarkable little one inch ad placed in the New Yorker: “Fear of public speaking? Gone. Quickly. Guaranteed”. On a close read, there is something remarkable: “Executive programs now $2,497”.

If I or my company were footing the tab for this sort of seminar, I’d have a lot more on my mind than rhetorical nervousness. At this price, who wants to go to the boss and say, “Guess what? We’re getting our money back on that course you sent me to.”

I took a public speaking class in college. I was terrified of speaking before groups of any size. That was the topic of my first classroom speech. I was nervous as hell, but the topic resonated with my classmates. I learned two things: (1) Know your topic so you don’t have to fake enthusiasm (2) Like cold showers, public speaking isn’t so bad if you just wade in and do it.

Today’s ramble concerns the name of the course’s website:”. Clever, that. What other stock phrases could we turn into a $2,497 executive course?

  • “Confidentially Speaking” – for CIA management
  • “Figures of Speech” – for Jenny Craig executives
  • “Strictly Speaking” – for pedagogues and prison wardens
  • “So to Speak” – remedial speech therapy

Speaking of which, this last on dips close to the bottom of the barrel. We don’t make fun of people with speech impediments. Grown-up folks don’t, anyway. At a much younger age, I did. At the time, I hastened to point out I was making fun of the person, not the impediment. Ah, the mindless cruelty of youth. Actually, it turns out I can develop a mild stammer when my engine of excitability is flooded with overenthusiasm. Always could flood the engine. Others were just too grown up to point it out.

But you can’t sell widgets by communicating nervousness.

The sales seminar is America’s ever-popular panacea for folks with foot-in-mouth disease. Think Dale Carnegie. Think Zig Ziglar. At worst, the sales seminar teaches the aggressive and pushy the fine art of manipulativeness without the necessity of ever having to say anything too specific. This is like preying on the disarmed before they have any inkling what’s really going on here. 

At best, sales seminars teach courtesy, tact, and the art of perfecting a genuine rapport with the listener. This is like my two modest points on knowing your subject and projecting your enthusiasm, with the added kicker that it’s not all about me, it’s all about you. Wouldn’t you say that’s an ability that’s literally priceless? What will it take for you to sign up for this opportunity right now?

I managed a garden shop and a paint department in one of my previous lifetimes – my early years in the retail business. A fellow named Ward, a little older and more experienced, ran the Women’s Fashions department. He did very well. Both our departments posted admirable sales figures every year, but I worked my tail off every day, while Ward drifted around the store being nice to everybody. I asked Ward how a nice fellow like him ended up merchandising fashions. He told me that you don’t have to know anything about a product to be successful in sales.

How true. I ran a successful department by learning the paint industry better than most “professionals.” Ward did the same thing by being a nice guy who was intensely interested in every customer and coworker as people. I had technical skills. Ward had people skills.

Of the lever, Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” Better he should have taken a cue from Demosthenes, who was said to have practiced the perfection of the oratory art by learning to speak with pebbles in his mouth. The Archimedes archtype only moves the world, briefly, before the laws of celestial mechanics swing it back into its original orbit. The Demosthenes archtype persists in persuasive oratory until the world swings over to his side.

Politicians have always known this. It’s not what you do, it’s what you have to say about it. The noblest deed in the world pales in comparison with others’ estimation of its worth. NASA, take heed: rhetoric rules. And you can say that again.

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