“Humans are not oriented toward truth but toward meaning.” -James Paul Gee

This statement from Gee’s book The Anti-Education Era, holds an important lesson with the potential to make a great shift in presentation strategy. If we really are in an age where what is “true” has become relative to the context, person, or viewpoint, then those of us who are public speakers and presenters need to shift our strategies accordingly.

If we believe Gee’s assertion, then instead of spending lots of time convincing our audience that our information is true, our time would be better spent illustrating how our information brings meaning. So let’s look at how meaning is created, why humans seek it, and what that means for speakers.

How We Create Meaning

In an online series for The Great Courses, University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan delivers an insightful lecture called “The Life of a Word, from Birth to Death.” In her talk, she seeks to answer the question, “how do words mean?” She traces how humans use language to come up with shared meanings.

To illustrate this, she uses the example of a cat. “When you and I learned the word cat, we were encountering very different cats. I was encountering the cat Lucy who was in my house. You were encountering different cats. And yet somehow you and I have come up with a shared concept of “catness.” The meaning of cat is more of a concept than a thing. What we’ve developed is a prototype at the core of the category cat.”

We create and use prototypes to categorize meanings as speech communities. For example, we know that something in the category of “cat” probably has fur, a tail, four legs, whiskers, and pointed ears. The use of categories to help us define, understand, and exclude goes back to Aristotle. This system has worked pretty well for human communicators for thousands of years.

Why We Seek Meaning

Gee says that humans orient toward anything that instills a sense of purpose or value in our experiences. He says our quest for meaning puts us in search of answers to questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • How am I part of something larger than myself?

This is why human society clings to groups, religions, or philosophies with which to identify. Because they help them answer those questions. To be without purpose, hope, or agency is frightening. That’s why we seek meaning so hungrily.

What This Means for Speakers

First, as we use language and images to create meaning in our presentations, we need to remember we are generally dealing with concepts, not concrete things. Because of this, issues can arise when our categories or prototypes are different from the people with whom we are communicating. This means the same word, like “faith,” “late,” or even “cat” can have different meanings based on the context in which we learned them. As a speaker, work to identify the ways in which your categories and meanings might differ from that of your audience.

Second, if our goal as humans is not to head into the world to discover truth, but to head into the world to discover meaning, this changes the goal of our presentations. It’s not about information. It’s about purpose. This means we’ll spend less time listing statistics, running through product specs, or going into great historical detail. Instead, we should spend more time telling stories, giving examples of how lives are affected, and explaining how the presentation content fits into the larger purpose of the human experience.

It can be challenging to view presentations as purpose driven rather than information driven. But if you make that shift, we believe it will make all the difference to your audience.

At Ethos3, we help you develop, design, and deliver presentations with purpose. Get in touch with us now to learn more.


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