Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I had a meeting yesterday which really made me wish oratory was not a lost art. Everyone who was anyone used to be deliberately taught how to speak at length in public, and while teaching methods have changed for the better since those good ole days, that subject could do with being rediscovered. People get to middle and upper management because they know the right people and have the right degrees*, and then once they're managers unless they have uncommon skill** they get put in front of a few dozen people to give a presentation and stammer and ramble and mix metaphors and demonstrate no awareness of their audience and never look up from their notes.

This happened yesterday. There's a more or less quarterly meeting of the department, and I bring a notepad to almost any meeting even if I know it won't be needed just in case. This time, as in several others, I wound up critiquing the presentation. And it was awful. The main speaker was a Mr. S. In addition to every single one of the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph, Mr. S presented half a dozen or so awards, including one for overall achievement and service. One accomplishment cited was the recipient's attempt to implement a new file management "system... may it rest in peace". What that means is that the file management system never got off the ground. Mr. S was congratulating the subject for a failure. I'd recommend not mentioning it at all, and if that can't be avoided, I'd certainly find a better way than "may it rest in peace". Also, when Mr. S gave out awards, the recipients were standing in front of the PowerPoint projector, and I'm pretty sure they were getting blinded. That's not necessarily his fault as a speaker, but it's someone's fault as a more basic failure to consider how people will perceive things.

In fairness to Mr. S, public speaking is a learned skill. In criticism of him again, there's a point where incompetence becomes negligence*** becomes malice. How much can someone fail to think about an audience's reactions to things before it's clear that they don't think about other people at all?****

Well, to be clear, and so as not to insult my boss's boss's boss, Mr. S certainly isn't that bad. I'm sure he's a nice person and I know I've seen worse presentations than that; I've taken notes on them here, even, given by different speakers. All I'm saying is, it made me wonder.

* Or, more optimistically, because they know the field from the inside by working their way up the ladder. But realistically...

** Speech classes do exist, they just aren't generally required. And it's possible to learn this stuff on the fly, with experience. And some people are probably naturally gifted at it. I think I'm a better public speaker than average, due to a little more experience doing it than most people and a lot more time spent in audiences than most people, but I'm not all that great at it.

*** And the legal system recognizes it, going this far at least.

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