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Rhetorical Power—Does it exist?

Scarlett Johanssen raising her arm in a speech in protest
Sometimes we need to be able to speak up, rather than write. Scarlett Johanssen obviously knows how to do it. How come I’m not sure if I have the right skills?

One of the most important skills a technical communicator possesses is a true command of language, and the use of words in particular. We know that we excel at the written word, but how are we with speaking?

Sometimes our spoken word is just speaking our written words. That’s okay. But when we have to speak clearly, concisely, and cogently off-the-cuff–in the moment–how do we do? I’m sure that like most of the population, it’s a mix of those who are gifted verbally, those who are not, and the rest of the group falling in-between those two groups. As I thought about it, I decided tech comm’ers need to be in that gifted group, or work to be in that group. My problem is that as much as I try to have excellent oratorical skills, I’m not sure that I do.

I had some events recently, two incidents in particular that happened this past weekend, which caused me to doubt my rhetorical abilities. Last week, I was leading the STC-PMC conference, CONDUIT, and rather than prepare special notes, I decided to wing my introduction, and my introductions for the keynote speakers (I know both of them), and talked with a lot of people, and I was feeling pretty confident of how I was able to speak and set the tone of the conference.

A couple nights ago, one of the aforementioned incidents confirmed that confidence. I was at a dinner last night for the alumnae presenters and speakers for a conference I was attending over the weekend. One of the keynote speakers for the day was someone I’ve known since high school when she was a freshman and I was a junior (she was in my sister’s class). She is now famous as a celebrity skin care specialist. Anyhow, someone asked her if she was ready to speak, and she said, “Oh Gawd, no!”, and explained that she could do sound bites for television, video blogs, and magazines, but speeches were not her strength. She then posed the question, “Can anyone speak off the cuff like that?” Everyone at the table, who all attended the same school I did where rhetorical skills were a must to get through, all said no–except me. “Of course I can,” I replied. I was truly surprised that these women who had been trained to be “warrior women” couldn’t do that. It’s not that I felt superior, but I thought, geez, how did you not continue to develop that skill over the last 20 to 30 years as executives and professionals? I’m not even an executive and I could do that. Was that the power of tech comm and that command of language I talked about? Perhaps.

But what had happened earlier in the same evening has put things in doubt. I won’t go too deep into the specifics, but I had a verbal altercation which involved me speaking up against misbehaving children that I think I handled okay, but being a cognitive dimwit, I think I could’ve done better.  I could hear other really well-spoken, quick-witted technical communicators that I know in my imagination later who I know would have come up with better responses that would have shut these people down more quickly. One of the people from the altercation who felt I was out of line called me rude and horrible towards children. Anyone who knows me knows I’m actually really great with children (I usually like kids better than adults), but in this case, children were being disruptive and disrespectful, and all I did was I say to the children in a stern but polite voice to stop screaming and running in this public place. I had already heard them ignore their dads three times to stop, and they didn’t, and it was getting worse. Long story, short, the kids did stop, there was a heated exchange, and the fathers and one mother tried to berate me. After the exchange was essentially over and my back was turned away from them, one of the fathers passed by me afterwards, and uttered a threat that if his buddies weren’t around, he’d beat me up. Of course, my first thought was “Bring it on!” since I have black belt in taekwondo and could probably smear him into the sidewalk. But, while I can’t remember my actual verbal response, I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of “Really?” or “Seriously?” Afterwards, I was thinking about how his wife and kids must live with this awful person who would make a threat like that, and that his priority was that he’d be more embarrassed to punch a woman in front of his friends than his wife and small children. And all because he was not disciplining his kids. Seriously.

I was within my rights to say something, and I was bringing the mom/teacher tone with the kids. One of the kids eventually came back and apologized (I don’t know if it was at a parent’s prompting), and I kindly accepted the apology. I also apologized to the kid for yelling and said that I was frustrated, and as he was one of the older ones, asked if he could help the smaller kids understand. He was nice, and I was being nice back. I could be the responsible adult that their dads weren’t being. I had hoped that at least one of the parents heard what I had said in that I apologized as well.

But in the end, I’ve never gotten into a verbal altercation like that, let alone being threatened by someone. So, as much as thought I handled it as well as I could I could have, I was really agitated by the whole thing. Once I got home and tried sleeping, all I could think about was how I could have handled it better, or had that golden tongue to shut them down quicker. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and since I couldn’t sleep from being so agitated from the incident, as all the wittier and more appropriate responses came to mind, making me angry at myself to not think of these responses at the time.

Perhaps it’s my autism at work. Maybe not. I don’t know. I’m also at an age where I feel that I don’t care what people think. I want to speak my mind whenever I can, and I bite my tongue more often than speak up. (I know some people who know me well would be surprised to read that). And yet, I do care. After discussing the incident further with my husband later, he felt this incident was an exception not the rule, because when the adrenaline is going, your mind will work very differently than when not under threat.

The next day, I listened to the keynote speaker, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, give a message that making an impact is more important than being famous. This is why I’m in technical communication. The daily work of tech comm’ers impacts lives. But what if we’re only good with written words and not spoken words? I fear this impacts our effectiveness and worth. So I’m at an impasse from recent events. Am I an effective rhetorical communicator or not?

In the end, I know there is power in words. As technical communicators, the words we choose have impact, whether they are written or spoken. If our written words are already strong, we need to ensure that our verbal words are equally as strong. Perhaps this is why I push myself to not always read off of written scripts or even to do presentations off of notes–to push myself to have more rhetorical power.  Even as I wrote this, it occurred to me that as we write, we have a chance to edit and refine our words, but we don’t necessarily have that opportunity to do that when we speak. That makes it tricky.

How would you rate yourself and rate the importance of rhetoric in tech comm? Include your comments below.