Thursday, July 26, 2018

Public Speaking and the Art of Persuasion

Education Deputy Minister Teo Nie Ching exhorted students Tuesday to master soft skills as well as digital literacy skills in order to face advancements in education, in line with Industrial Revolution 4.0. 

Soft skills like communication would be far more important than ever to ensure the country could produce marketable graduates, she said. 

Very true. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of communication skills – but really, what concrete steps are we taking to equip our students in order that we do indeed churn out marketable graduates? 

I recall that when I was teaching on the American Degree Transfer Program at HELP, the one subject that has really helped students learn basic communication essentials was COM212 or Public Speaking. Also referred to as Speech Communication or Rhetoric in other tertiary institutions. 

I’m not saying it just because I’m a Toastmaster – it does help! I know it helps!

Know that speech is the oldest academic discipline – first taught at about 450 BC. 

In fact, it was the most important course of study for young men who aspired to get ahead in the world. (Sorry, those days, there was no such thing as gender equality). 

In Classical Greece, it was the only one. In the agora, if you found yourself a good sophist, you were a ‘made’ man. The sophists taught Athenians how to communicate effectively with fellow citizens. 

But more than just being able to communicate, today’s workplace demands us to be persuasive. We need to sell our products. Our services. Our ideas. Ourselves even. 

Therefore, for a start, check out Aristotle's Rhetoric (Ancient Greek: Ῥητορική, translit. Rhētorikḗ; Latin: Ars Rhetorica) – an ancient Greek treatise on the art of persuasion that I believe, remains relevant even today. 

I know trainers who are ahead of the game – Ahmad Fakhri and Jamilah Samian come to mind – who use Aristotle’s work as a point of reference. I’ve been working with them for a number of years and I can tell you, it works! 

The Rhetoric, by the way, consists of three books. Book I offers a general overview, presenting the purposes of rhetoric and a working definition; it also offers a detailed discussion of the major contexts and types of rhetoric. Book II discusses in detail the three means of persuasion that an orator must rely on: those grounded in credibility (ethos), in the emotions and psychology of the audience (pathos), and in patterns of reasoning (logos). Book III introduces the elements of style (word choice, sentence structure, rhetorical devices) and arrangement (organization). 

I must mention that only some attention is paid to ‘delivery’ – but personally, I think it is equally important.

(That's where the Toastmasters' Competent Communication manual comes in real handy. Now this is one public speaking primer I can personally vouch!)

Students embarking on this course of study can certainly expect to have learned how to communicate in a manner that is clear, cogent and compelling – thereby, opening the doors to a diverse range of professions. These can be for careers in law, politics, business, education, public relations, journalism, television, public affairs and advocacy and many others. 

Public speaking remains a valuable craft because we need it every day and everywhere. 

Is there a time when we do not need to communicate in order to influence, convince and persuade? 

It’s time we bring Public Speaking into our schools and colleges.

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