Monday, October 11, 2004


I have had a few managers in my working career who were exceptionally bad speakers. One would address a group of forty software developers each Friday at a company-sponsored lunch, held in a large meeting area. Some of the developers would be sitting fifty feet away from him as he spoke, and there was the nearly constant commotion of eating, getting more pizza, shuffling, quiet talking, and so on.

But even with these conditions, this development manager never spoke with a tone of voice any higher than he used sitting across the desk in his office. As a result, all in attendance had to strain to hear him, and often missed crucial information -- not only because they couldn't hear him, but also because they had stopped listening.

There is much to be said for a clear, confident voice. Not only is it more practical for addressing a large group, it sends a clear signal that the speaker is the leader, has something important to say, and wants very much for everyone to hear it.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, is something we used to call "loudership". In the hierarchical, bullying world of the military, leaders often resort to shouting. The reasons are the same -- you need everyone to hear you, and you need to assert your authority -- but the tool is not one that you could employ in the typical office environment.

What, then, is the optimal volume for a leader's address? In studying poetry, I found that there is a difference between simple volume and emphasis. When you emphasize a syllable in a word, you don't say it louder; instead, you force more air through your windpipe. I think that this is the key to speaking to a group with confidence; you don't have to shout, you simply need to talk forcefully.

The one thing that everyone agrees on with leaders is that they act like leaders. Although that is rather too tautological to be practical, it is worth remembering that leaders also talk like leaders -- not only to be able to talk like a leader, but also to recognize leaders when you see them.


At 8:33 pm, Blogger Borscht said...

Sure thing -- I can remember several times in the course of my university studies when I'd fallen asleep in lectures, and it was only because of the limitations in the fluctuations in the teacher's voice -- there was very little modulation in the person's voice.

I would rest my head on my hand, like Rodin's Thinker, and then once my head slipped off my hand and it hit the table, I'd jar (jar binks) myself awake - it was quite an experience.

There was no loudership there. That's for sure.

I always made a point in the course of my lectures, at the time when I was teaching at a job posting and while in university -- to frame things in terms of analogies, and to ask lots of questions to clarify whether others have understood. Asking questions -- lots of questions to make sure -- putting everything into perspective.

Lectures involve lots of voice modulation. Otherwise, your students are toast. Sleeping logs of toast.

Butter anyone?

At 3:37 pm, Blogger M@ said...

There's another great example: professors. With nothing whatsoever to recommend them as instructors, they are hired to teach the most intellectual people in our society. The only qualifications that a professor offers is having finished significant coursework and a book-length thesis on a topic of their choosing.

I know full well that the whole thing is vetted from beginning to end, but if anyone remembers the affair of the bogus philosophical essay on quantum mechanics that was printed in the journal "Social Texts", they'll agree that how fashionable the title of the thesis is has a lot more to do with its publication than its actual content.

I feel fortunate that I was in a humanities subject, though. My wife, brother, and best friend were all engineering students, and I forget which of them had the following experience: the Teaching Assistant for a senior-level course came into the first tutorial of the term and wrote the following on the blackboard:

"I do not speak English. If you have any questions, contact [other student] in office 321."

He then proceeded to step through the problems on the blackboard. He was a Ph.D. candidate and is probably working at a Canadian university right now.

How, I wonder, do you assume a position of authority in an arena where the most complicated, intricate ideas are debated when you can't communicate on a meaningful level with the other participants?

Some choice for the people who lead the sorry university crusade. And I say this as someone who has a master's degree and desperately wishes he could have done his doctorate.

At 2:21 am, Blogger Borscht said...

Matt -- I totally dig what you're saying here Shaft.

I remember one of the most remunerative -- personally -- experiences that I'd had was the Organizational Behaviour class at McGill University -- my alma mater -- and how the course was a compendium of different social psychologists offering insights into the functioning of the workplace -- type A type J -- n-ach'ers, and all manner of Maslow, Hertzberg, and a variety of other dipsy-doodles, and certain tangential claptrap. But, all in all, it was a hoot by dint of the fact that I was in it -- and I also had a crack at teaching the dang thing.

Most important -- was the journey Luke, and not the destination. ("I am your Father..." -- ok, I'll stop) -- but the process of getting the learning into our heads was the unique part -- even if the material sometimes was a little asinine and completely incapplicable in our world of Lara Croft and Pam Anderson and a cartoon character named Mr. Squarepants.

I digress...

Okay -- so here it is. I don't think teachers are what they claim to be -- especially in a biz-type of program -- why -- because if you were such a Rockerfeller -- or a damn Ford -- you'd be out there in the trenches, slinging it at the Huns like the rest of us -- brings to mind the fond memory of one said pompous ass accounting teacher in high school.

Yet I digress again -- but you know what I mean.

I paraphrase the indomitable Einstein -- "Never before has more harm been done to the fertile minds of our present generation than that committed at the hands of the paragons of our educational establishment." As in, education is the worst stifler of creativity and innovative thinking.

So there!

At 12:19 am, Blogger Simon said...

Funny you should mention professors. Just this year I found out that my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather (give or take) was Professor of Greek at Glasgow University.

It sounds like he loved his job. Here's what was written of him on my family tree:

"He was installed professor of Greek in Glasgow University and proved a very efficient and popular teacher. Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) remembered him as "a man of great humour" ready to laugh heartily with his students over the whimsicalities of Lucian and Aristophanes ...

Wilson ... writing of "Homer & his translators" recalls how Prof Young's reading of the Iliad gave life to every line."

Marvellous stuff! Put me in his class. That was a heritage I gladly took on board.

Quite funny, really, as I never did get to University (although thankfully, it's not too late). Missing out on Uni was probably the best thing for my education. Like Churchill, I discovered great books after my peers had long since graduated, and while they tolerated the knowledge like a medicine, I (and Churchill) devoured them like a feast.

In fact, this has probably been my most devouring year ever. I used to write, not read. Now I deliberately catch the bus so I can read. I forget to sleep because I want to read.

If and when I do take some tertiary education, I'm sure I'll get more out of it than other students - unless they, too, have had enough life to make them hungry for knowledge.

Getting back to the subject, yes, it is partly the fault of teachers and professors for making the education experience a bore - but I believe market realities are dawning on the educational community. They're starting to see that, just like any other institution, they have a product, and if it doesn't look nice and shiny on the shelf, no-one will pick it up.


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