A lesson in public speaking
One of the most influential lessons I have ever learned about public speaking dates from my days at Solihull School.
It came from the Head of the Lower School, a Mr Halstead, and was delivered in the context of preparations for Speech Day in my first year at the school.
Energetic, enthusiastic, and unfailingly polite, Mr Halsted was an outstanding headmaster, Latin teacher and cricket umpire. He was also only marginally taller than many of his young charges. This obliged him to convey his authority in ways different from many of his colleagues, their comparative height only emphasized by flowing academic gowns. He did this by speaking with pupils as if he and they were exactly on the same footing, adult to adult; and I can never recall his having problems imposing discipline either inside or outside the classroom.
In preparing us to give our speeches at the end of our first year, Mr Halstead gave us a tip. “Now, a lot of people feel nervous when speaking in public. That’s quite natural, and it happens even to those who are very experienced in the matter. So I suggest that you might like to consider putting a rubber band in your pocket when you give your speech. Just play with it as you’re speaking. No-one will notice, and you’ll feel a lot more secure for it.”
As it happens, I never followed this advice; but I was very struck by the way in which this authority figure identified a problem for us, provided us with a potential solution – and covertly admitted that he too knew what it was to have that problem. He spoke not from on high but person to person and eye to eye; and I’m sure that we all felt more confident as a result.
Looking at it from the perspective of today, I would say that Mr Halstead acted with complete authority, and completely without ego. Which was why we listened and learned – and took our first steps as public speakers.
The past in the future
I first became aware of the importance of content long before people began to talk about “content creation.” The realisation occurred during the course of a global internal brand perception audit I was conducting in which employees were asked to evaluate the company’s proposed new strategy.
Curiously, it seemed to me at first, whenever they were questioned about the company’s future direction, respondents would drag the subject round to the company’s past, telling stories of the visionary adventurers who had founded it and the heroic leaders who had kept it going during the hardest of times – fighting off competitors, recessions and exchange rate fluctuations to keep the business going against all odds.
Meaning, purpose and direction
It was out of those dogged, concerted actions that the company’s present success had sprung; and what the employees were recounting in response to a survey about their promised future was, in fact, the retelling of had become become a myth of origin, the story from which they derived a dynamic sense of meaning, purpose and direction.
What is to be learned from this? Firstly, that people take the past with them wherever they go, and that this past has to be accommodated, even in the most visionary of new endeavours. Secondly, that people want to talk about things that have meaning for them personally, and will simply ignore messages with which they have no emotional connection.
It is strange that we persist in talking about “promoting content,” as if carefully crafted messages can be targeted at specific audience groups too gullible to do anything but swallow them. People are surely more intelligent than that. Effective communication is above all about building relationships; and that starts with listening to what people feel that they really need to tell you – especially if it’s what you’re not expecting to hear.
The Compassionate Eye
Editing is not quite as dangerous a job as it used to be. In Ancient Rome, the ‘editor ludorum’ was responsible for organizing gladiatorial spectacles. Sourcing wild animals, managing gladiatorial trainers and supplying convicts for public execution were just part of the editor ludorum’s remit; in the febrile context of Ancient Rome, it must have brought with it many opportunities for economic and social advancement and just as may chances of failure and disgrace.
By the 1640s, the term – derived from the Latin ēditus, perfect passive participle of ēdō (‘give out, put forth, publish’) – had come to mean ‘publisher’, coming later to acquire the meaning of someone who prepares material for publication, editing it for the printing press. The root sense remains, however: an editor is someone who pulls material together, shapes it into presentable form, and makes it available to the public at large.
Certainly latter-day editors need to be capable of surviving the cut and thrust that attends any form of publication. As T.S. Eliot, literary editor of Faber & Faber, once remarked with waspish wisdom, “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”
His contemporary W. Somerset Maugham, no less incisive with his pen, famously observed in his novel ‘Of Human Bondage’, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”
There is a sadness to both of these pronouncements; and indeed, it can be hard to dissociate the concept of editing from some sense of pain, whether experienced by the writer on the one hand or the editor on the other. Who has not been cut to the quick by a heavy-handed correction or a well-meant improvement? And who has not groaned at having to correct the same basic error for the thousandth time?
Nevertheless the relationship between writer and editor can be one of mutual respect and even affection if the ‘corrections’ administered are not perceived as intrinsically punitive. A compassionate eye can separate the grammatical or stylistic slip from the person who penned it and allow the author’s real intention to shine through.
Rembrandt van Rijn
In this context, I am reminded of one of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits. One might imagine the painter here as both writer and editor, artist and critic, Everyman and commentator. Is this a picture of a happy, fulfilled, successful man? Certainly not. Is it a successful painting? Certainly it is. It conveys a profound understanding of what it means to have attained advanced middle age and still be standing, alive, in one piece, battered but breathing. It is a person seen by another person, presented by another person who fully and compassionately understands the subject of the picture. An editor’s job is ultimately not to make things more correct, or event to make them more readable, but to let the author’s underlying truth, whatever it may be, shine through for all to see.