Thursday, August 9, 2018

Jordan B. Peterson on how a lecture really is a conversation

This year Jordan B. Peterson wrote an interesting best-seller book titled 12 Rules for Life – an antidote to chaos. He discussed it in a 24-minute video preview on YouTube. Kelefa Sanneh had a long article about it in The New Yorker on March 5, 2018 titled Jordan Peterson’s gospel of masculinity. I found it on the new books shelf at my friendly local public library and have been reading it. Some I disagree with, but I was impressed by his description of lecturing. That appears on pages 251 and 252 in the essay on Rule 9:  Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t:

“Another conversational variant is the lecture. A lecture is – somewhat surprisingly – a conversation. The lecturer speaks, but the audience communicates with him or her non-verbally. A surprising amount of human interaction – much of the delivery of emotional information, for example – takes place in this manner, through postural display and facial information (as we noted in our discussion of Freud). A good lecturer is not only delivering facts (which is perhaps the least important part of a lecture), but also telling stories about those facts, pitching them precisely to the level of the audience’s comprehension, gauging that by the interest they are showing. The story he or she is telling conveys to the audience not what the facts are, but why they are relevant –why it is important to know certain things about which they are currently ignorant. To demonstrate the importance of some sets of facts is to tell those audience members how such knowledge could change their behavior, or influence the way they interpret the world, so that they will now be able to avoid some obstacles and progress more rapidly to some better goals.

A good lecturer is thus talking with and not at or even to his or her listeners. To manage this, the lecturer need to be closely attending to the audience’s every move, gesture and sound. Perversely, this cannot be done by watching the audience, as such. A good lecturer speaks directly to and watches the response of single, identifiable people,* instead of doing something clichéd, such as ‘presenting a talk’ to an audience. Everything about that phrase is wrong. You don’t present. You talk. There is no such thing as ‘a talk,’ unless it’s canned, and it shouldn’t be. There is also no ‘audience.’ There are individuals, who need to be included in the conversation. A well-practised and competent public speaker addresses a single, identifiable person, watches that individual nod, shake his head, frown, or look confused, and responds appropriately and directly to those gestures and expressions. Then, after a few phrases, rounding out some idea, he switches to another audience member, and does the same thing. In this manner, he infers and reacts to the attitude of the entire group (insofar as such a thing exists).  

*The strategy of speaking to individuals is not only vital to the delivery of any message, it’s a useful antidote to fear of public speaking. No one wants to be stared at by hundreds of unfriendly, judgmental eyes. However, almost everybody can talk to just one attentive person. So, if you have to deliver a speech (another terrible phrase) then do that. Talk to the individuals in the audience – and don’t hide: not behind the podium, not with downcast eyes, not by speaking too quietly or mumbling, not by apologizing for your lack of brilliance or preparedness, not behind ideas that are not yours, and not behind clichés.”

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