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Monday, March 26, 2012

Paul Graham on writing and speaking

I'm not a very good speaker. I say "um" a lot. Sometimes I have to pause when I lose my train of thought. I wish I were a better speaker. But I don't wish I were a better speaker like I wish I were a better writer. What I really want is to have good ideas, and that's a much bigger part of being a good writer than being a good speaker.

Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you're talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you'll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it's the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker.

I first noticed this at a conference several years ago. There was another speaker who was much better than me. He had all of us roaring with laughter. I seemed awkward and halting by comparison. Afterward I put my talk online like I usually do. As I was doing it I tried to imagine what a transcript of the other guy's talk would be like, and it was only then I realized he hadn't said very much.

Maybe this would have been obvious to someone who knew more about speaking, but it was a revelation to me how much less ideas mattered in speaking than writing.

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Depending on your audience, there are even worse tradeoffs than these. Audiences like to be flattered; they like jokes; they like to be swept off their feet by a vigorous stream of words. As you decrease the intelligence of the audience, being a good speaker is increasingly a matter of being a good bullshitter. That's true in writing too of course, but the descent is steeper with talks. Any given person is dumber as a member of an audience than as a reader. Just as a speaker ad libbing can only spend as long thinking about each sentence as it takes to say it, a person hearing a talk can only spend as long thinking about each sentence as it takes to hear it. Plus people in an audience are always affected by the reactions of those around them, and the reactions that spread from person to person in an audience are disproportionately the more brutish sort, just as low notes travel through walls better than high ones. Every audience is an incipient mob, and a good speaker uses that. Part of the reason I laughed so much at the talk by the good speaker at that conference was that everyone else did. [4]

So are talks useless? They're certainly inferior to the written word as a source of ideas. But that's not all talks are good for. When I go to a talk, it's usually because I'm interested in the speaker. Listening to a talk is the closest most of us can get to having a conversation with someone like the president, who doesn't have time to meet individually with all the people who want to meet him.

Talks are also good at motivating me to do things. It's probably no coincidence that so many famous speakers are described as motivational speakers. That may be what public speaking is really for.
Paul Graham. Here

1 comment:

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