What Makes or Breaks a Great Speaker
The ultimate personal qualities that enhance the effectiveness of speech
By MARTIN REZNY
It’s true that we’re not born equal in terms of our innate charisma and persuasiveness — deep eyes and deep voice work wonders, not to mention general sex appeal. It’s also true that many people who have the innate psychological aptitude for understanding other people’s psychology abuse their power of insight to trick and manipulate others.
But what I’d like to argue is that as always, talent can only give you a head start, while it is ultimately effort that decides who wins the race. Of course, good speech should feel effortless, or otherwise the speaker will be perceived as nervous or annoying. However, unless one has that natural talent, it again only takes effort to learn how to speak effortlessly.
What makes me overall an optimist regarding the ability of people with good intentions to learn to be persuasive speakers is that, contrary to popular opinion, the main qualities that enhance speech are not some kind of deviousness or narcissism, but:
The Pitfalls of the Dark Side Approach (Despite the Cookies)
Before I elaborate on how the above-listed qualities lead to the most effective forms of speech, allow me to dispel the common idea that unethical speakers have some kind of ultimate advantage. To be clear, they have some form of advantage, but it is decidedly not ultimate.
The kind of advantage they have is the *initial* advantage. Dark side is all about the short term because it’s typically born out of impulsive desire or general inability to care about long term results. A friend of mine who as a debater always was a bit on the dark side best summed it up when he stayed up really late once before a hard day at work and explained his reasoning for it as “that’s the tomorrow-me’s problem”.
People with ill intent typically want to have what they want immediately, with minimal effort, and, if they’re smart, with as little chance for the opponents to succeed as possible. If they can cheat or lie, they will, but that’s the problem right there — lies have a tendency to catch up with you, eventually, putting you at greater disadvantage in the end.
Cheating and crossing people on the way to success also has a tendency to catch up with you eventually, resulting in a far greater number of far more competent opponents in the end than if you instead chose the ethical approach. Being ethical results in accumulation of reliable allies, again, in the end. Being a persuasive speaker is a long term game — if you don’t win in the end, you’ve lost. A quick rise and fall is all that dark side guarantees.
The Power of Determination
Following my criticism of the dark side approach, the conflict between this virtue and general selfishness should be evident. People generally don’t choose to cheat and lie to do things the hard way. What’s the point of cheating and lying if you still have to put in as much effort as if you were doing it ethically? Applied to speech, this generally splits speakers between those who prefer cheap tricks, and those who master advanced techniques.
Much as with any skill, learning speech and persuasion takes a lot of time and effort. People with talent don’t need as much practice, as having a talent for speech means you have an ability to think arguments through in your head without having to say them out loud first, to anticipate what your opponents will say without having to hear it first. But that will just get you started a few levels above other beginners.
Effortless speech in particular is learned through constant exposure and outright drilling. To speak effortlessly means to speak without being too self-conscious about it, which requires one to train speech to a level of reflex. When I joined one theatrical company, the first thing that the director told us was that we’re going to start by learning how to juggle knives. “Yeah, right…” was what I thought. But then, after about a month or two of drill, *everyone* learned this seemingly impossible skill.
And so it was with all other skills — in about three years that I was there, I’ve seen everyone who joined this company learning all of the required theatrical skills to a sufficient level in a few weeks or months, tops. This included singing, dancing, basic acrobatics, and knife throwing. These skills may seem different from speech in that they are more physical, but ultimately, all skills are mental and are produced through instruction and drill in similar fashion. Determination that drives a person to give some skill the time and effort it requires is the key factor in learning skills to a high level.
As for unethical speakers who are determined or achieve enough practice, the only kinds that I can think of are zealots and experienced con men. However, the morally wrong way of doing things always comes at a cost, meaning disadvantage, when compared to the ethical approach. What zealots gain in determination, they most definitely lack in imagination or creativity, while experienced con men may have learned, but not grown, meaning that ethical determined speakers at the same level of experience should be more effective, as they’re about as smart, but wiser.
The Power of Empathy
Another big problem of those who choose the selfish approach of the dark side is that they lack the ability to empathize with others. Or perhaps a lack of this ability is what leads people to choose dark side tactics. Either way, however strange it may sound, the most decisive factor in persuasion is precisely the ability to empathize with other people. Without empathy, one is much better at driving people to conflict than to mutual agreement.
The anti-empathetic strength of the dark side lies in the divide-and-conquer strategy based on sowing hate and fear, but that’s not persuasion, that’s distraction, subversion. An unethical speaker doesn’t win by generating the largest following, they win by fragmenting the support for their opponents. A selfish, narcissistic platform isn’t and cannot be unifying, it only enchants the most gullible and selfish of people. The extreme of such platform is narcissism extended to a whole nation or race.
But if you think about it mathematically, even that is attractive only to a minority of one ethnic group in any given country. It has to be coupled with mass intimidation and disinformation of the rest of the population, and that tends to be the undoing of any such regime, the sooner the more purely unethical is its foundation (barring few minor exceptions and taking into account how the conception of what’s ethical evolves historically).
Actual persuasion is founded on one’s ability to understand how others feel and what they want, while being empathetic to other people creates likability, an essential component of charisma. All other attributes being equal, selfish, narcissistic people are less likable than altruistic people. Only the most hate and fear-driven brainwashed minions do actively despise altruistic people, everyone else has sympathy for them, if not admiration.
While selfish narcissists can pretend they care and can know in theory what others think or want, the advantage given by that is again corrupted to the extent to which that knowledge isn’t truly empathetic. Compared to equally aware and knowledgeable ethical speakers, unethical speakers are less self-aware, less genuine, and garner less sympathy, not to mention, again, the short-lived nature of gains achieved through cheating and lying.
The only kind of unethical speaker that to my knowledge can match an ethical empath in terms of their ability to figure other people out and interact with them accordingly is a borderline or high-functioning sociopath. Fortunately, those are exceedingly rare, and don’t actually have to choose to be morally evil, depending on what kind of internal logic independent of normal emotional considerations they decide to follow.
To be clear, I don’t mean sociopath as someone who inherently harms others, merely as someone who compared to others feels much less empathy and may or may not decide to harm others, like Sherlock Holmes in the interpretation of Benedict Cumberbatch. Personally, I do relate with characters like Sherlock Holmes or Doctor House since I can choose to put emotions on hold and think and act purely logically, and I could use that personality quirk to be viciously manipulative and exquisitely cruel. But that’s the thing, there’s a choice involved. I made mine when I was about twelve, to do things right the hard way, and a couple years later, I became the best national high school debater. Rather easily, I might add.
What I would strongly disagree with in the Rareș Mircea’s response is that naturally charismatic people tend to have ill intent or that the effectiveness of one’s speech or broader acting ability is largely genetically predetermined. I think this perception stems from the fact that ethical charismatic speakers tend to seek different, less visible or lucrative careers, and that negative examples stick in the mind much more than positive ones, while in the absence of proper rhetorical education, speech seems like an unattainable, mysterious gift, when it’s in fact perfectly trainable.
The Power of Integrity
Finally, the most long-term virtue of all. The benefits of integrity are so subtle and far off in the future that most people, unethical or not, probably don’t care for or believe them, but they’re powerful and inescapable. The simple explanation is again the cheating and lying catching up with people in the end, even if “in the end” may mean trans-personal, historical scales. At those timescales especially, ethical integrity wins wholesale.
When people look back to historical figures, it tends to involve enough distance so that they can clearly identify (and be extremely unimpressed with) pragmatists, realists, and generally selfish, spineless people. Over time, shenanigans and crimes get revealed, jingoistic ideologies of the moment lose appeal, and challenging ideas grow in importance over material wealth or creature comforts. It may take a while, but all the assholes will ultimately be remembered as such, just note how much the perception of, say, Edison or Columbus has evolved in recent years.
This may be too slow for some people, but again, selfishness and impatience are more the characteristics of those who use dark side tactics. Usually, it doesn’t get this extreme. In everyday life, the benefits of integrity are mostly felt over the course of years, following any number of temporary setbacks. Depending on how dramatic are one’s circumstances, more or less extreme manifestations of this can occur, up to things like being imprisoned for years only to be elected president afterward (as it happened to Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, and technically also Hitler).
Speaking of Hitler, that’s fortunately a relatively rare case of something close to a perfect shitstorm — near-pure evil philosophy believed fanatically with a sort of warped integrity to it, coupled with innate charisma and every propaganda trick in the book that was just being written. Something that, were it not a factual historical occurrence, would sound like fiction, as George R. R. Martin notes. Also, it was a spectacular political and military failure. Why? When evil manages to gain some integrity to it, it unites everyone less evil into a resolute opposition, which is the ultimate disadvantage.
On a more subtle level, integrity is also a prerequisite for intellectual honesty, which is itself necessary for all forms of legitimate philosophy or science. Speakers who are focused on the discovery of truth more than winning arguments tend to become deeper thinkers, which empowers them to come up with more imaginative and resonant arguments. Those are the people who may be ignored in the moment, but tend to be later recognized as being ahead of their time. And by helping to bring new times about, it is they who have the last word and the last laugh. Such is the ultimate power of ethical speech.
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