“Now, we are creatures of narrative, and a string of facts and figures, however important facts and figures are . . . those facts and figures have no power to displace a persuasive story. The only thing that can replace a story is a story. You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one.”
These are the words of George Monbiot in his poplar TED talk called “The New Political Story That Could Change Everything” which has been viewed over 1 million times. It’s a powerful presentation for many reasons, but I want to zoom in on those last two sentences above. “The only thing that can replace a story is a story. You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one.”
If this is true, when you get up to speak, when you present, you are involved in a transaction of sorts. A give and take. This is the reciprocal nature of communication. When you stand on stage to present your ideas, you are essentially asking your audience to exchange old ideas for new ones, a flawed world view for a better one, an outdated product for an updated one. Here’s what we need to keep in mind about the communication exchange.
Remember that your message is nearly always persuasive in one form or another. Because of this persuasion, there is an inherent power hierarchy between a speaker and his or her audience members. Whether or not there should be one is another case. But in the 2017 article, “A New Rhetoric for a Decolonial World,” Amardo Rodriguez says, “The relationship is inherently hierarchical. We desire to be the force that shapes matter. We want the knowledge that will allow us to do so efficiently and effectively. This is the case that is normally made for why public speaking courses should be mandatory in nearly every communication curriculum. Good leadership supposedly demands being able to speak persuasively, to sculpt matter in ways that reflect our wishes and desires.”
When you present, you are in a power position. And from this position of power you are asking your audience members to let go of their old narratives in one way or another. That’s a hefty ask. It’s a bold thing to do. And yet it’s necessary. Because exchanging ideas through responsible communication is how we grow and change. But keep in mind the power you hold as a speaker and the effects your persuasion could have on your audience members.
The communication exchange should help drive you to make your offerings, your part of the exchange, the best it can be. Remember what your audience has to let go of to adopt your new narrative. It might be a client they’ve done business with for a long time. Or maybe a perspective they hold that has never been challenged. It could be hard-earned money represented by long hours of difficult work. Or it might be time.
Think about your audience. Do all you can to know who they are. Then get familiar with the narratives they hold that you are trying to replace. Is what you are offering truly better? If not, what do you need to do to make it better? More research? Better planning? Stronger communication?
A responsible speaker will always keep the communication exchange in mind. It’s not a transaction to be handled lightly. It demands respect and sensitivity and wisdom. After all, we all cling tightly to our stories. It takes work to pry them from our hearts and heads and hands. But powerful communicators who believe in their ideas know that the exchange is worth it.
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