Your Rhetoric Is an Opportunity to Create the Perception You Want

Research has shown that people form an opinion of you in the first few minutes of an encounter. First, they take in how you stand, walk, and hold yourself. They note your clothing and grooming. Before you ever say a word, they try to figure out what your face is conveying. Your non-verbals paint a picture in their mind about your intelligence, personality, and character. After you begin speaking, their opinion of you gets tweaked and then begins to consolidate. Again, all this takes place in the first few minutes of the encounter.

That first impression is difficult to dislodge. If people have doubts about your words, they rely on what they know of your actions. If they have doubts about the sincerity of your actions, they default to their first impression of you. So it’s important to pay attention to how you come across in the first 3-4 minutes of any encounter.

Ethical, effective leaders strive for consistency of words, actions, and impressions. They choose their words carefully; make sure they are consistent with their behavior (after all, actions speak louder than words); and take care to make a good first impression.

Moreover: ethical, effective leaders possess the ability to communicate their vision, values, strategies, expectations, and directives to followers. It starts with the capacity to think clearly, imaginatively, and with intention. Whether their aim is to inform, persuade, and/or entertain, leaders take care with the written and spoken word. They understand the power of symbols. They are conscious of their body language — carriage, demeanor, facial expressions, hard gestures, and eye contact — to uphold the dignity of their authority and to reinforce the message they seek to communicate.

Learning from Others 

Whatever your experience with presentations to groups, you can continuously learn to be a better communicator by observing and studying other presenters. One of our Hauenstein Center seminars for emerging leaders asks participants to pick a U.S. president, study his life, identify his leadership style(s) and traits, tell us how he made a few tough decisions, and evaluate the end result. Following are some questions to help presenters create and structure the exercise. The art of rhetoric has been studied by some of the greatest thinkers of all time, so the questions arise primarily from two classical sources — Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Cicero’s De Inventione, whose five canons of rhetoric were influential for many centuries.

Questions

1. Does the introduction hook the audience with humor, a shocking statistic, or an interesting anecdote? Moreover, within the first minute, is the audience clear about which president is going to be the focus of the presentation? Is the presentation arguing that the president is a model of what to be, or an antimodel of what not to be — or a combination of both good and bad leadership traits? Does the introduction also lay out a clear roadmap of where the presentation will take us? Finally, does the introduction include an improptu reference to a previous presentation?

2. Good organization (Cicero’s dispositio) is essential to an effective presentation. Readers can re-read what they did not get the first time. However, an audience is at the mercy of the oral presenter’s organizational skills in real time. Is the body of the presentation well organized? Has the presenter selected two or more decisions that are interesting and instructive? Does the presenter develop how the decisions came about through good story-telling and analysis? Are the president’s leadership styles and traits discussed? Is there an attempt to show how a president grew from his experiences and became a better leader?

3. How does the presenter keep the audience engaged? For example, has the best material been culled to keep the audience interested (Cicero’s inventio)? Are questions put to the audience? Is an interesting prop brought out and explained? Does the presenter refer to earlier presentations in an impromptu manner that wins admiration?

4. To what extent does the presenter apply the leadership styles, traits, and lessons to his or her own professional circumstances — and to ours?

5. Aristotle wrote that a leader’s reputation and integrity (ethos) are a key component of persuasion. Sometimes a leader’s private life is not as exemplary as that leader’s public performance. How does the presenter deal with the discrepency?

6. To what extent are credible, authoritative sources cited in the presentation? To associate oneself with the best experts also builds up a speaker’s ethos.

7. Aristotle also observed that smart reasoning (logos) is another key component of persuasion. Does the presenter avoid fallacies and make the argument using sound reason?

8. Aristotle moreover observed that emotion (pathos) is yet another key component of persuasion. How passionate and enthusiastic is the presenter about the topic? Is a story used to move the audience?

7. Does the conclusion helpfully reiterate the main points, the “take-aways“? In speeches in which it is appropriate, is there a clear call to action?

8. To what extent is the presenter comfortable with the material (Cicero’s memoria)? Good eye contact is essential.

9. During the delivery (Cicero’s pronuntiatio), does the presenter use appropriate non-verbals — body language, demeanor, carriage, hand gestures, and voice modulation (all part of what Cicero called actio) — to reinforce the verbal message?

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