The Art Of Public Speaking – Socrates or Sophists?

The Art Of Public Speaking – Socrates or Sophists? – November 28, 2017

No one doubts that the ability to communicate well orally is considered a crucial skill effective leaders should master. We see an extensive offer out there of consultants and other types of professionals offering different types of training courses and tips on the art of persuading and connecting with an audience.

Those of us who have gone through several sessions on making effective presentations, many times can discover the structure behind them. We might even foresee what the presenter’s next moves will be. We listen to a regular TED presenter, and we know in advance how her whole speech will evolve. Starting on a high note to seek admiration, then adding the needed self-deprecating jokes, continuing on a storytelling mode with emotional notes to show empathy, introducing a turnaround situation to show resilience against adversity, and finally ending her speech with an inspiring message that makes us feel good. How come then this empowering and moving message can so easily get forgotten, perhaps even in less time that what the canned 10-minute presentation lasted? And how about those long motivational speeches, that after the necessary forced boisterous activity, make us feel empty and discouraged?
Several executive coaches remind me of old Greece and the Sophists, the popular philosophers who taught rich people rhetoric or the art of persuasion, and how to dominate the Assembly or persuade Athenian voters to elect them. Sophists took to the streets of Athens to give verbal exhibitions on education, virtue, and human excellence. Unlike Socrates, who would embody them in his life. They would charge an arm and a leg for their worldly wisdom on how to “get on.” Unlike Socrates, who would always teach for free to people of all classes and educations. His crusade was against ignorance. Socrates had an ethical and social mission and held the lack of wisdom to be a lack of worth.

In this current “return of the Sophists,” the quest is no longer the truth. Aristotle stated that the three essential elements each rhetoric should have are Logos -logic-, Pathos -the emotional appeal- and Ethos -trustworthiness-. Perhaps what many speakers lack today is the Socratic Ethos, the moral injunction. The intention to bring about internal improvement in men, instead of just captivating and entertaining an audience as a means to climb a corporate or social ladder rapidly.

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