Recently, Justin Pearson, a Black Democratic lawmaker in Memphis, Tennessee, made international news when he delivered a stunning speech that went viral. This was after being kicked out of the House (along with his other colleague from Nashville) for allegedly breaking the rules of decorum.
If we set aside the politics of it all, what got our attention was not so much what he said, but how he said it.
In a world where we tweet more than we talk, many say we’ve lost the art of oration.
In ancient times, sure, the Romans taught reading, writing, philosophy, logic, geometry, poetry, and history. But what they really emphasized was the art of public speaking.
Back then, a normal trajectory for elite Roman boys was to serve in the army as officers for a spell and then as they aged out, go on to serve in the Senate. And one thing both officers and Senators are in the business of is motivating people to do what they want. To do that, you needed to be able to stand up in front of people and argue a case. It’s no different today.
Research has shown that the content shared (i.e. the projections in a business pitch) doesn’t matter nearly as much as how that information was delivered and the set of cues with which it was received. In some cases, people ranked the success of the pitch completely differently when reviewed on paper vs listening.
Dynamism, tone, pacing, gestures, passion, and vocal inflections matter. All of which Pearson has clearly mastered. Yes, conviction, empathy, knowledge, and preparation were no doubt factors, but there’s no denying that the way he delivered his speech “moved the needle,” and got people’s attention. Could you imagine Pearson getting the same massive reaction with a blog post or a letter to the editor? Probably not.
Our advice? Join the debate club, kids. And find something you care about so deeply that it’s worth talking about.
As the old tale goes, ‘When Cicero (Roman Senator) had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he speaks,” but when Demosthenes (Athenian General) had finished speaking, they said, “Let’s march on Sparta!!!!”’