Build connection

Recently, I gave a talk about something quite personal on Zoom, to people I couldn’t even see. I knew I would struggle if I didn’t have some kind of proper connection with them.

The standard routine is to ask people to say hi, or type what they had for breakfast in the chat box – “to create a bit of interaction”.

But that would have felt superficial, fake – pointless, because for technical reasons I couldn’t see the chat box.

Talking into the void, I said I felt a bit vulnerable sharing what I was sharing, and asked people to respect privacy by keeping what I said within the “four walls” of the Zoom call.

Plainly, this request was unenforceable. But I was touched, afterwards, to see dozens and dozens of comments there, reading simply: “I promise”.

Later the organiser sent me some feedback from attendees, which I share here because I find it amazing that a talk into the void could have such impact. I hope it’s also encouraging for anyone preparing to deliver something similar:

Bearing in mind what I’m saying here about interaction, I’m extremely grateful for the replies to my Email Newsletter on Friday. There were more than I expected, and I’m sorry I haven’t had time to reply to them all.

In that email, I mentioned the Festival of Rhetoric I’m co-hosting throughout November. (The email is archived here.)

We’re still putting the finishing touches on the Festival. If you haven’t already, please leave a comment below about what you’d like us to include.

Thanks for reading.

PS. I mean it! Please leave a comment.

Preparing your talk

I’m writing this after having just delivered a deeply strange “motivational talk” to 180 sixth-formers over Zoom.

Some individuals were on their phones (camera off, alas). Most were in classrooms, but sitting far from a camera and blurry, making interaction delightfully awkward.

Happily, I had the sense to name that awkwardness, and even managed to play an impro game through the internet with a teacher (thank you Mr H, hope you enjoyed your two pints of Guinness).

Having come through it alive, and not (yet) received any kind of bollocking for doing anything unspeakable, I’m happy to share this video.

It’s not of the session itself, which would require all kinds of permission from parents – but of the call I had earlier with Ms Elliot, deputy head of the sixth form.

It contains, in brief, the steps I go through before doing any talk, and you might possibly find that useful.

Thank you Ms Elliot for allowing me to share it. Please leave a comment if you think I forgot anything (or just to say how blooming marvellous Ms Elliot is).

PS. I didn’t ask people to put a hand on their nose.

As ever, please leave me a comment before you go…

A rhetorical review

Tony Blair’s former speech-writer, Philip Collins, has written a very useful guide to speech-writing.

At the back of the book, he lists and handful of rhetorical devices, though he places little emphasis on learning them – on the contrary.

But I like the sheer writing exercises, and for the sheer pleasure of it I used the rhetorical figures he listed to write up my thoughts about his book.

Please don’t expect to be stunned by my rhetorical genius. I was doing this for my own pleasure. If you think you could do better (or even if you don’t) why not have a go yourself?

Philip Collins book: review in rhetoric

Rules and regulations of writing (and reading) rhetoric for relatively rapid returns. (Alliteration)

Starts and ends with structure, structured to encourage readers to experiment, experiments with a sample speech about business. (Anadiplosis)

Written to help. Written to persuade. Written to show off (a little). Written by a former speech-writer. Written well. (Anaphora)

Collins argues that we can’t all be Obama. The alternative is clear: we can all be Obama. (Antithesis)

Rubbish! We can’t. Collins is right. (Apodioxis)

And yet… might it really be possible, if we wore masks, and trained with a voice coach, and built a space like the Oval Office? (Aporia)

How can we be sure. If Trump could answer the question, I’d say: ‘Donald, help me out! Can we all be Obama?’ Or I might ask the man himself: ‘Barrack, what do you think?’ (Apostrophe)

Don’t write for somebody well versed in your topic but unintelligent – write for someone intelligent, who may not be particularly well versed in your topic. (Chiasmus)

Start steadily, with a one-line summary, then gradually build out a full page, then a proper outline, artfully putting together your facts in the shape of stories; and be sure to stretch, and breath deeply, before walking on to the stage, staring out and acknowledging your audience – then let rip. (Climax)

Collins argues that a solid collection of logos will ensure that you never give a bad speech. And he’s right. But most people want to aim a little higher than that. (Concession)

Anyway, that’s what I’m writing here, as the clock ticks to midnight and I hardly expect anyone will read this. (Decorum)

Nobody? Not one person? None. (Dialogismus)

Cliches are easy to use, fresh coinage takes ounces of brain juice. (Dialysis)

What is the point of rhetorical questions, one after another? Who benefits? Will people be tempted to give answers? Will they put them on a postcard? Will I need to hire someone to read them? Will I go crazy answering them all? (Epiplexis)

I used to write speeches for Tony Blair. (Ethos)

Oops. Should have written this one first. (Exordium)

Does Collins mention that he worked with Prime Minister Tony Blair? He does. (Hypophora)

I’m writing a book about speaking and presenting, and Collins book suddenly seemed more interesting to me than before (Kairos)

Collins isn’t a huge fan of making it up on the spur of the moment. (Litotes)

Collins wrote for Prime Minister Tony Blair, and knows what he’s talking about. You should follow his advice. (Logos)

Collins’s example speech blows up steadily, getting bigger and bigger, so that an onlooker might worry that it will imminently explode – but miraculously, it doesn’t. (Metaphor)

His pages fly past (Metonymy)

Oops, this part should have gone earlier, a slab of facts and figures describing the book, just after the exordium. (Narration)

Not to mention the other stuff. (Paralipsis)

Philip and the Giant Speech. (Paronomasia)

If you ever sweated over a piece of writing, you’ll know how I feel now – awful. (Pathos)

The former Prime Minister’s former speech writer fills 200+ pages. (Periphrasis)

Is it literature? Not the kind that wins prizes. Nor will it ever make the reader cry, or throw themselves into the arms of their lover. Collins has deceived us! (Philippic)

In the past, confronted with a book like this, I have scribbled all over it, and made notes in the back, with satisfying results (Phronesis)

Earlier, I agreed that sturdy logos will prevent an awful speech. Now I shall tell you why that is insufficient… (Prolepsis)

It’s not enough, because we want more: we want to be fresh, insightful and inspiring. (Tricolon)

Your Fans

This might sound like a wonderful thing to have, and I’m sure it is. But talking to fans can be problematic too.

The main thing to be careful about is taking them for granted, or being rude.

Another problem can arise when you try something that doesn’t fit with their fixed ideas about you: it can feel like a bit of a trap.

Back to 1. Invention >>

Your Peers

In some situations it is possible to come together as peers, with a genuinely flat structure.

Some people think they have achieved that, simply by announcing it, but it takes a bit more than that to make it work. People need to trust that it really is a safe place to share as equals.

Establishing that trust isn’t actually very difficult, but it does need careful attention and full agreement from every participant beforehand.

In a situation like this, it becomes easier to let down your guard and admit to uncertainty and mistakes.

Not long ago, I helped to organise a group of authors, who came together as equals to talk about publishing and its difficulties in a safe space. Having agreed that anybody could ask anything, and that participants could freely join or quit any discussion at any time, without offence, we had an amazingly honest discussion.

It was an experience that created strong bonds between those who were there.

Another context in which you might speak to your peers is in the meetings of Toastmasters, where individuals go to learn public speaking in front of each other. More about that later.

Or at any of the 12-step Fellowships, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants gain experience, strength and hope by sharing their common problems and successes. More about that, later, too.

Next: Your Fans >>

True believers

This is the kind of audience to which, if you weren’t actually speaking, you would yourself belong.

Campaigners speak to activists, politicians address party rallies, preachers preach to the converted.

Assuming that the speaker is not some kind of cult leader (see Your Fans) everybody is more or less equal. This doesn’t make life easy, necessarily: true believers are liable to disagree about minutiae.

Next: Your Peers >>

Existing customers

Like potential customers, the ones who already pay you will be questioning, even demanding, if not actually unpleasant. (They may be very pleasant.)

The difference is that existing customers will rarely ignore you, unless you have already done what they wanted from you, or have failed to do it, in which case being ignored may mean that they do not intend to continue being your customers.

Next: True Believers >>


Colleagues are rarely your equals, because most workplaces are hierarchical.

It’s one thing addressing the people you report to. It’s another thing addressing the people who report to you.

And it’s a whole different basket of snakes if they’re all in the room together. Or, rather: that may be how you feel, but thinking of any audience as snakes is not a great plan.

Neither of these situations is “better” or “worse” than the others. They’re neither good nor bad. But you do need to understand the expectations of the people in the room.

Next: Existing customers >>