J K Rowling at HarvardJ K Rowlings’s commencement address at Harvard this past Friday is a communications conundrum.  The speech has a lot to recommend it. Throughout, Ms. Rowling is, of course, quite articulate displaying her remarkable touch for rhetoric–balancing the humorous with the earnest, the  sober with the soaring. Yet NPR reported that as affecting as the speech was, for many people it wasn’t inspirational.

That observation presents a real problem for most coaches and students of speech making.In the predominant zeitgeist of most sales and speaking trainers, moving and inspiring are virtual synonyms. You’ve probably heard the aphorism “selling is a transferral of emotion.” You can’t go into a presentation skills class these days and not find yourself exhorted to “speak from the heart” and “show more passion”. And that advice seems self-evidently worthy. Who, afterall, wants to listen to a boring speaker.

But if we can watch someone as skillful as Ms. Rowlings and walk away moved but not inspired, we need to reconsider the connection between the two. I think at heart, the critical distinction that the current crop of presentation coaches miss is this: I’m emotionally moved for you, but I’m inspired for me.

Tell me your personal story about growing up poor in a family without advanced education, about rebelling against your parents’ wishes, about failing in marriage and losing your job and hitting rock bottom, and–to the extent that I believe it and I can understand how hard that must have been for you–I’ll feel bad, for you.

But for me to take the next imaginative step, to see your story as my call to action, there has to be a stronger link to me. I need to see myself in you. I need to see my troubles and goals in yours. I need to see your story as an inductive proof that I can get what I want if I do what you did, or take the actions you propose.

You can see the difference between emotional involvement and inspiration in the varying reactions of students to Ms. Rowlings’s speech. You’ll notice in the statements of disaffected students the sometimes blunt expression of a lack of identification with Rowling. Take Andy Vaz, as an instance.

“From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow. They should have picked a leader to speak at commencement. Not a children’s writer. What does that say to the class of 2008? Are we the joke class?”

What this means to you as a presenter:

Don’t be satisfied with trainers who advise you to pump up your passion, or admonish you to find your inner connection with the material. Those steps are important but they’re not the heart of your speech. Even if your speech is about you, your message isn’t. It’s about your audience. If you want to inspire your audience and move them to action, you need to make explicit what’s in it for them. You need to make clear how your audience will benefit from following your advice or your example. Else, you may be playing on the emotions of an audience that has already written you off.


Filed under: Influence and PersuasionLeadershipPresentation Skills

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