Newsletters Index:

« Back to Newsletters

Ideas vs. Words

#79 - 02/01/2006

"Words are but the signs of ideas."
- Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

The human memory is a slender reed on which to lean. A speech could contain several thousand words while expressing no more than five principle ideas. I think people overtax their memory by focusing on the words they want to say rather than the ideas they want to communicate. This obsession with words leads to the two habits that prevent speakers from achieving peak performances: reading and memorizing.

A few years ago at the Toastmasters International Convention in Atlanta, a speaker stepped up to deliver a 20 minute talk - the final test to gain of the status of "Accredited Speaker." This prestigious qualification is the Toastmasters equivalent of turning pro. The speaker began well; he delivered an opening statement that brought laughter from the audience and had us all leaning forward with interest to hear what he might say next. But, nothing came. He just stared out at us with a look of panic on his face.

We in the audience immediately recognized the signs of a severe memory lapse. He had, as they say in the theatre, gone south. At least his mind had – his body was stuck there on the platform where for the next fifteen minutes he agonized and tried to recover from his amnesia. Everyone in the room suffered with the poor fellow, who insisted on remaining before us in the vain hope that his words would return. Alas, the slate was wiped clean. When someone suggested that he just forget about the words, tell us the idea of the speech, he lost his temper and sputtered out "Oh, that's easy for you to say!"

This situation is the nightmare dread that haunts everyone who chooses to perform before an audience: going blank, your memory center suddenly turning to boysenberry yogurt. It is the fear of just this possibility that makes public speaking the least favorite activity of the human race. Poisonous snakes, skydiving, even death itself – all are preferred to giving a speech to the local Parent-Teacher Association with the possibility of a memory lapse.

I say, don't bother memorizing the words. Memorize the ideas. If you have the expertise and you're clear in your mind about getting your ideas across, the words will come. But if you have fudged on the expertise, don't have clarity on the ideas, and have only rehearsed a batch of words – then you're in trouble. In fact, even if you do have the expertise, but feel that the only way to express it is with certain words you came up with a few nights ago, you're still in trouble.

Communicating is the successful transfer of an idea from one brain to another. The human brain works with images better than with words – the ratio is a thousand to one according to the cliché – because the image is one step closer to experience. Words are abstractions that need to be translated into images in order to be imagined by the audience and their meaning understood. My old Shakespeare teacher in college insisted that I form a mental image for every line, every word I spoke, lest I fall into a hollow-headed "mouthing" of a bunch of pretty but meaningless sounds.

The most successful speakers speak extemporaneously, with only the simplest notes to keep them on track. But they do rehearse, and they do make sure they know what they're talking about. I recently met Doug Garr, a speechwriter who wrote for Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York. When I expressed surprise that Cuomo, widely considered one of the finest orators in the country, would use a speechwriter, Doug told me that he was one of five speechwriters on the governor's staff. "It was mainly to spread the workload - he had so many speeches he would have to give. We would do research, write drafts on our specialties, and make sure he had all the facts right, but he always made the speech his. He was at his best when, after reading the opening page or so, he would take off his glasses, look at the audience and speak freely on the topic. He was like a jazz musician doing a riff on a tune he understood thoroughly. It was magic."

Two caveats need to be stated here. 1) Mario Cuomo is a brilliant and gifted natural speaker who works very hard on his speeches. 2) Sometimes the exact words are essential - major policy speeches, when drafts have been distributed to the press or foreign audiences - these speeches must be read and letter perfect. But the lesson remains for most occasions, work on expressing the ideas, not remembering the words.

Rehearsal is the key. Rehearse the ideas. Even if you're alone, get on your feet and speak out loud, trying out different ways of expressing the ideas you want to share with the audience. If you hit upon a great phrase, a few happy sentences that seem perfect, by all means write them down. Say them over again several times until they flow naturally. Work especially hard on the opening and closing sentences. You should feel rock solid about how you are going to begin and end your talk.

Make some notes on index cards – four or five cards should be enough for a 20 minute talk – and the notes should be bullet points, just something to get you back on track at a glance. Rehearse aloud until you don't need to look at the cards. The words will be different every time, but you'll keep finding more succinct ways of expressing your ideas. New thoughts will spring up – follow them when they serve your purpose. Don't be surprised if a new idea, analogy or turn of phrase should occur to you in front of the audience. Speaking often stimulates new insights – give them expression when they come, they often prove to be gems.

The thing that makes a speech exciting to an audience is listening to the speaker think. Memorized words can be uttered without the presence or support of a mind. Watch any poor performance of a Shakespeare role and you'll see. When you are focused on making the ideas clear and alive for your audience, you will find the words. When you are focused merely on the words themselves, as that unfortunate Toastmaster in Atlanta was, their binding idea can jump ship and abandon you altogether.

Ideas, not words, are the true units of communication.

© Michael F. Landrum


Something to Ponder

Malcolm Gladwell Author of The Tipping Point and Blink Speaks about business changes in the next ten years:

"Business has to find its national voice. It has to he engaged in the politics of this country in a way it's not accustomed to. Right now, executives are very good at saying, 'Cut our taxes, cut our regulations.' And they're really terrible at making far more important and substantive arguments about social policy. It's time they stopped banging this one-note drum and started saying that a lot of the things that have been relegated to ideology are, in fact, matters of fundamental international competitiveness for this country.

Take, for example, health care. We are ceding manufacturing jobs to the rest of the world because we can't get around to providing some kind of basic, uniform health insurance. Because of our strange ideological problem with nationalized health insurance, we're basically driving Detroit out of business—which strikes me as a very counterintuitive, nonsensical policy. The simple fact is that GM and Ford and Chrysler cannot compete in the world market if they're asked to bear the pension and health-care costs of their retirees. Can't be done. It's that simple.

I also think it's time that business stood up joined the immigration debate. I think it has been—with the exception of some high—tech firms—shamefully silent on this, which should be one of its top competitiveness issues. Congress should not be shutting down the borders at a time when we're 10 or 15 years away from some very serious workplace shortages, skilled-labor shortages. We've shut the spigot off, and we're keeping out the very people who would drive our economy 10 years out when our workforce retires en masse.

We talk about these as equity issues, as cost issues as ideological issues, but more than anything else, they're about competitiveness."

—Interview by Michael A. Prospero in the March, 2006 issue of Fast Company Magazine