Total Strangers

If you stand on a street corner and address passers-by, you can’t assume any great knowledge of what makes them tick, and nor can you expect much goodwill from them: many people assume that if you speak in public you are either bonkers, or will shortly ask for money.

Once, writing a story for The Sunday Times about political apathy, I stood on a soap box at Brighton Pier and urged people to be more engaged. Perhaps because I was being photographed, some came over to listen to me, but none stayed long.

My friend Steve Chapman decided to launch his self-published book about creative risk-taking, Can Scorpions Smoke?, by busking on London’s South Bank in front of a box full of books, and a sign promising that they were entirely free.

People tended to stay away when he sang soulfully about himself, or about the contents of the book, but when he picked up the tempo and loudly repeated his refrain, “Book launch! Book launch!” they were drawn in.

He had discovered by creative risk-taking of his own that engaging with strangers calls for high energy, maximum volume, and a very simple message.

It has been observed that most of the preaching of Jesus, in the gospels, took place outdoors, and that much of it was brief. Even the longest of the parables would take less than five minutes to deliver. In his book Explosive Preaching, the homiletics teacher Ron Boyd-MacMillan recommends similar brevity to present-day preachers.

I might add that even “complete” strangers aren’t entirely unknowable. In the examples I have just given, the speakers could make some fairly large assumptions about based on time and location.

For instance, a high proportion of Steve’s passers-by, at the South Bank, were probably tourists, apart from the ones wearing office clothing and pacing rapidly between them.

Why does this matter? Because these tiny details can help you to customise your content. And you can also just ask questions to find out more about the people before you.

At university, I wrote a thesis about Bernard Shaw, the politically engaged playwright. Reading the massive, four-volume biography by Michael Holroyd, I was mesmerised by Shaw’s commitment, as a young man, to public speaking.

Over the course of a decade, he gave more than a thousand talks, all unpaid. One of his finest, he later recalled, was given in a downpour at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, to a small group of policemen. “I spoke very well in my effort to convert them [to socialism].” Conversion, rather than mere entertainment, was always his aim. “My platform performances are for use, not ornament.

Naturally shy, Shaw used street-corner oratory to learn how to address an audience, “as a man learns to skate or to cycle – by doggedly making a fool of myself until I got used to it.”

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