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Work • Business Skills

The Need for Eloquence

Eloquence is the attempt to get a set of tricky ideas into the mind of another person using the art of verbal charm. Managing employees requires eloquence; instilling ideas in children requires eloquence; and leading a country involves eloquence.

Unfortunately, the idea of ‘eloquence’ has acquired a bad name. If a book is charmingly written, if a song makes people want to dance, if a product is well-marketed, if a person has a winning smile and sweet manners, suspicions only too easily develop.

And yet the idea of eloquence is vital to any educational mission, for the ideas that we most need to hear are almost always the ones that we would in some ways like to ignore – and therefore need maximal help in absorbing. We need the toughest lessons to be coated in the most subtle and inventive charm. We need an alliance of education and eloquence.

The opposite of eloquent communication is nagging. The urge to nag is very understandable, especially when a lesson is important. But sadly, nagging – the insistent, urgent, graceless repetition of a message – will only ever work for a small number of people who are almost on side anyway. It cannot change a team – or humanity. This sets up a tragic situation: what naggers have to say may be supremely important, but their manner of delivery ensures it will never be heard.

We need eloquence because a central problem of the mind is that we know so much in theory about how we should behave and what we should do but engage so little with our knowledge in our day to day conduct. We know – in theory – about being punctual, about living by our values, about focusing on opportunities before it is too late, about being patient and open-hearted. And yet in practice, our wise ideas have a notoriously weak ability to motivate our actual behaviour. Our knowledge is both embedded within us and yet is ineffective for us.

Though eloquence is associated with the use of fancy words and the ability to speak without notes, it it is really the close study of how to get a message to live in the minds of an audience. It builds on the grim realisation that stating our case logically and accurately often won’t be enough.

The idea of eloquence was investigated with particular acuity by the philosopher Aristotle, in Athens around the middle of the 4th Century BCE. Aristotle saw how often a weak argument could triumph in public debate while a far more sensible proposal was ignored. He didn’t think this was because the listeners were stupid but because of how large a role our emotions play in determining the way that people react to what is said and to who says it.

When the wrong emotions are stimulated, we have demagoguery, which employs eloquence in the service of a sinister objective. But if we admit – and fear – how powerful this can be, we are implicitly recognising the possibility of, and need for a better alternative, a way of speaking that can be equally emotionally intelligent, and yet aim at goodness and flourishing. Aristotle did not want noble-minded people to stop trying to be eloquent, he wanted to give them the same weapons as the crooked. He dreaded a world in which people of ill-intent would know how to touch the emotions, while serious, thoughtful people stuck to plain facts. Certain of his lectures therefore investigated the art of eloquence – and gave birth to a philosophical tradition of studying how best to speak in order to be truly heard.

A number of moves suggest themselves. For a start, we should take care to humanise ourselves in the eyes of those we are addressing. Our instinct might be to try to bolster our prestige, and stress our seniority and authority, so as to open the ears of the audience. But we are typically facing another problem altogether: the audience is at risk of not engaging with what we say because they have a suspicion that we are remote, from another world, cold to their real concerns and perhaps even privately looking down on them. The eloquent move is therefore to signal our common humanity. We can make a self-deprecating joke, confess to a slightly shameful anxiety or talk a little about the very boring and deeply ordinary events that unfolded for us at the weekend. We indicate that we too are flawed, worried, put-upon and sometimes sad. We emphasise shared experience so that some of the very tricky and unusual things we will need to say can feel like they emerge not from a distant automaton but from the mind of someone they can sympathise and identify with. The need to come across as ordinary is never more important than when one isn’t quite.

Eloquence also remembers the need to give a sensory, emotionally-powerful form to our ideas. In 1894, the prominent English writer Thomas Hardy set out to transform public attitudes to who should have access to education – which at that time was largely open only to the well-to-do. He might have produced a polemical lecture or a statistic-rich essay stressing the potential benefits of education to the economy or making a general case for social justice. But he knew how our minds work – and how little appetite any of us have to be hectored. He understood how cold facts and numbers can leave us and how many worthy causes have died because the language in which they were articulated has been dead to the needs of the heart. He therefore made a move whose applicability stretches way beyond his particular example: he chose to write a novel which we know today as Jude the Obscure. It tells the story of one very particular person, Jude Fawley, a stone mason whose ambitions to study at university are cruelly thwarted. Hardy spends a lot of time describing Jude and his life; he tells us about what Jude was like as a child and how his aspirations developed. He tells us about the clothes Jude wears and what the sky is like when he goes for a walk in the evening. He gives us the precise terms of Jude’s rejection in a letter from the head of the college where he had hoped to study:

Sir,—I have read your letter with interest; and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course. That, therefore, is what I advise you to do.

We are, by this point, probably in tears – and desperate to help bring a better world into existence. Hardy makes his case eloquent – that is emotionally powerful – by keeping in mind that our sympathies are aroused more by the cases of people we feel we know than by abstract argument. Hardy knows that we must have a visceral sense of the truth of an idea, not just be brow-beaten into accepting it.  

Without any aspirations to being a great writer, we can learn from this example. We can grasp that what we are battling is often not so much ignorance as indifference. It is easy enough to share information, it is another and altogether trickier task to persuade an audience to care. And the skills this requires lie in an area almost always overlooked by public speakers: art. Art may be most usefully defined as the discipline devoted to trying to get concepts creatively into people’s heads. The ablest speakers never assume that the bare bones of a story can be enough to win over their audience. They will not suppose that an idea or a committee  meeting or a new piece of technology must in and of itself carry some intrinsic degree of interest which will cause the audience to be immediately moved or motivated. These artists of words know that no event, however striking, can ever guarantee involvement; for this latter prize, they must work harder, practicing their distinctive craft, which means paying attention to language, alighting on animating details and keeping a tight rein on pace and structure.

Eloquence is a solution to a basic problem: our minds are sieve-like, we retain little; we are easily distracted, our emotions easily overpower our intellect; envy, fear and suspicion readily turn us against the views of others; our sympathy is moved more by individual cases than by abstract issues. To get a message properly received and retained, we have to acknowledge the peculiarities of our minds. It is not enough to be accurate, concise and logical. We need to do that yet trickier thing: touch the chords of the heart.

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