Riffing on Aristotle: Mastering the Art of Persuasion

I jumped at the invitation to sit in on a presentation by Barbara Tannenbaum, Ph.D., speaking to this summer’s cohort of Venture for America fellows, who have taken up residence in Providence for the past several weeks. The fellows have been attending entrepreneurial boot camp at Brown University, preparing for their new roles in social enterprise startups working to revitalize cities across the U.S. Tannenbaum had been invited by VFA’s founder and Brown grad Andrew Yang to share her wisdom on the art, science and philosophy of personal presentation and professional communication.

A member of the theater arts and performance studies faculty at Brown, Tannenbaum is an expert in persuasive communication and public speaking. She is a bit of a legend around these parts, known for her engaging and forthright style, and her disarming sense of humor. She's also known for advising museum leaders, university presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs and political candidates, as well as college students. I had the privilege of meeting with her one-on-one to help enhance my own public speaking skills, and she’s as dynamic in person as she is delightful to watch on stage.

Tannenbaum knows her material so well that she effortlessly weaves a narrative targeted specifically at her audience – or at least that’s the way it appears, effortless. Her presentation is packed with so much applicable, useful information that I can barely scribble notes fast enough to keep up with her. She puts an interesting spin on the oft-repeated instruction to practice, practice, practice, and that is this: Practice beginning your speech from different points of entry so you become facile with your information. This enables you to pivot, as needed, to draw in your audience, or easily regroup from a question that may have taken things off track. 

Tannenbaum quotes Aristotle’s Rhetoric (which, truth be told, I haven’t considered since my freshman year in college) about making a persuasive case, which is the intent of any good presentation. According to the philosopher, there are three types of appeals:

  1. Ethos (the Greek word for “character”) establishes credibility and authenticity. For a speaker, this is demonstrated through expertise (education and experience), trustworthiness (eye contact) and likeability (smiling).
  2. Pathos (Greek for “suffering” or “experience”) creates an emotional connection and seeks common ground through storytelling and impassioned delivery.
  3. Logos (Greek for “word” or “reason”), which Aristotle advanced as “reasoned discourse,” validates by logic, inductive and deductive reasoning, and evidence. In a speech, this would include the strategic use of data, visual evidence and expert testimony.

Great public speaking balances all three. Tannenbaum notes the imperative of establishing credibility upfront, and says it’s best if someone else – i.e., the person who introduces you – does this for you. Then it’s important to immediately address the WIIFM issue – What’s In It For Me. In other words, tell your listeners how they will benefit from your presentation. And then make sure to leave them with at least one, indelible takeaway that will make paying attention to you worthwhile.

Here are a few of Tannenbaum’s more memorable insights:

  • Remember that all speaking is public speaking.
  • Communication is about human connection. How you say something matters more than what you say.
  • First impressions are lasting impressions.
  • It’s not how tall you are that determines personal presence, but how you use space. (Think “man spreading” on public transit.) Step away from the podium, use a “steady stance” with feet shoulder width apart and arms at the sides, and fill space with open, audience-facing, confident gestures that look natural.
  • Make eye contact with your audience via their “third eye” – that space on the forehead just above eye level. And be sure to take in the whole room, slowly looking forward to back, and side to side, to engage everyone.
  • Rid your speech of “vocal non-fluencies” and fillers – um, er, ah, well, you know, to be honest, just, really, sorta – because they’re distracting and make you sound less knowledgeable and even untruthful.
  • “Operationalize the benefits” of your presentation by stressing the values and beliefs that matter to your audience, finding common points of intersection.
  • Encourage questions from your audience members and don’t consider them interruptions, rather as aids to understanding what they need and want to know.
  • Embrace the “pregnant pause.” Use it for effect to let a point sink in, or take a moment to compose yourself and find your place, or think through an answer to a challenging question.
Wonder Woman is a trademark of DC Comics.

Wonder Woman is a trademark of DC Comics.

My heart went out to the VFA fellow, who was asked to present his project to the group before Tannenbaum shared her pointers. He telegraphed his discomfort by shuffling to the front of the room, leaning awkwardly on the podium, and reading quietly curled over his paper, barely lifting his eyes to engage his colleagues.

Did I know that feeling of unease! Standing up in front of a crowd used to make my heart beat unnaturally fast and my mouth go dry. But I have learned that practice does help, enormously. And so do a few shifts of perspective. I have since reframed my nervousness as excitement. Thanks to Harvard associate professor Amy Cuddy and her research, I now “Power Pose” like Wonder Woman before heading on stage to increase the testosterone and decrease the cortisol coursing through my veins while elevating my confidence. Plus, I think of myself as a teacher, eager to share my knowledge with others for their benefit. 

What have you found works for you?