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Finding the Bliss Point for Public Speaking

They’ve identified it for the food we eat and the music we listen to. Now, can we do it for the words we speak and the messages people hear?

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BY Sims Wyeth - 17 Mar 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I recently read an article in The New York Review of Books about a new paradigm in the music industry.

Since many of today's Top 10 Hits sound the same, I tend to look down my nose at the popcorn of pop music. In fact, I think the music industry could come up with an algorithm that could guarantee a hit, like the food industry's bliss point: the right mix of salt, sweetness, fat, and crunch.

It turns out that while there may be something like a formula for pop songs (most songs have a limited range of structures and devices), the truth is popular music is not as simple as it sounds. Hit songs, despite the formulas and similarities, are not standardized consumer products that can be cloned.

In fact, each hit needs something unpredictable--some new sound--some new twist--that strikes the ear as altogether novel. Well, not altogether novel: It has to have the right balance between familiarity and surprise.

 

What's the bliss point?

When I read about the food industry's bliss point, I wondered if there could be a bliss point for speeches and presentations? Could there be an algorithm that, once implemented, could guarantee a highly effective talk? Or guarantee success 80% of the time? A system that could spit out powerful, persuasive, and engaging presentations? A process or template that any reasonably intelligent person could put to use and score a Standing O?

What would the elements of the algorithm be? If the food industry uses the perfect mix of salt, sweetness, fat, and crunch to keep listeners addicted, what can we in the communication industry do to keep audiences glued to our every word?

My first instinct? Go back to the past to predict the future.

 

A brief history of persuasive speech

In 467 BC, on the island of Sicily, in the city of Syracuse, a tyrant by the name of Thrasybulus took over. He banished the wealthy families that opposed him, forcing them to retreat to Athens.

He ruled for ten years In Syracuse until the citizens rose up against him. The news traveled, the banished families returned from Athens and asked for their homes back.

Since people had been living in the homes for a decade, the returning families were told they would have to plead their case to their fellow citizens in the theater which was built into the side of a hill outside the city.

With a capacity of 15,000 spectators and a diameter of almost 140 metres, it was the largest theatre in the ancient world.

The families scampered back to Athens to find some Sophists to help them develop their speeches.

 

Modern day sophists

These days, sophists have a bad reputation for offering clever but fallacious arguments, but they were more or less guys like me. They got paid to help people make speeches.

I don't know how many of the wealthy families got their homes back, but I do know that very soon after these events took place, one of the greatest philosophers in the history of the world wrote a book called On Rhetoric.

His name was Aristotle, and he tried to establish the bliss point for public speakers.

I'm not saying Aristotle used the term bliss point as our modern food industry does, but he was definitely trying to define the perfect mix of qualities, traits, and characteristics that a highly effective speech and/or speaker needs to have.

 

Elements of a great speaker

He named the elements that make a great speaker. Ethos, Pathos, and Logos,

That's Greek to us, but here's what it means:

• Ethos means Ethical Appeal. A good speaker is a trustworthy source of information. Al Gore was more trusted than Bill Clinton. Remember Slick Willy and "It depends on what the meaning of is is?"

• Pathos is Emotional Appeal. In the recent presidential debates Donald Trump had more emotional appeal than Hillary Clinton. Trump expressed anger and outrage, but we could grasp his intentions. Hillary was evasive and spoke with clay-footed reasonableness. She neither expressed or aroused strong emotions.

• Logos is Intellectual appeal. Hillary had more intellectual appeal than Trump. She talked about detailed policies and programs she wanted to develop. Trump spoke in short sentences using simple language. He talked about the wall and the danger of illegal immigrants--security and fear. And he had few detailed policies, so Hillary was not able to attack his ideas.

We need to be trusted to be effective. We need to express emotions and arouse emotions in order to be effective. And while we need to have the facts and figures at our disposal, intellectual speeches are sometimes needed for persuasion, but usually not sufficient.

What we really need is all three, the alignment of the sun, the moon, and the stars, which only happens every now and then.