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One striking feature of today’s approach to public speaking and "rhetoric" is how far it still draws on the ideas and assertions of ancient Greeks and Romans.
As we all know, some 2,400 years ago Aristotle presented persuasion as the key idea of public speaking. He gave three core ways to appeal to an audience:
Ethos Being a credible speaker
Pathos Appealing to an audience’s emotions
Logos Using reasoned arguments
These ideas spawned a huge array of "figures of speech" explaining how words might have different effects. Which self-respecting speechwriter today hoping to win a Cicero Speechwriting Award does not throw in a dash of aposiopesis, closely followed by dollops of epizeuxis and a deft sprinkling of polysyndeton?
Nowadays a formidable army of former media personalities and ex-thespians turned speech coaches advise the world on how best to deliver a speech. No niche idea however eccentric goes unexploited.
Use long or unusual words to show eloquence! No, use simple language! Tell a story. Eye-contact. The Rule of Threes. The 7 x 7 PowerPoint Rule. Get rid of ummms and errs. Don't fiddle with your jewellery. Practice into a mirror. Tummy muscles. Drink lots of water. Breathe! To overcome your nerves, think of the audience as horses! Even better, think the audience are naked!
Fair enough, perhaps. People and culture and traditions and audiences and contexts differ. There’s no one-size-fits-all in this business.
The point is this. All public speaking expertise from Aristotle up to today is based squarely on practitioner experience tempered with guesswork. This seems to work for me, even if I’m not sure why! Try it yourself?
Suppose all that abruptly changes.
Suppose that computers record in startling detail both a speaker’s voice and body language, and an audience’s reactions.
Suppose that computers analyze thousands of speeches in different languages looking for patterns. and pour out all sorts of unexpected patterns and correlations. For the first time in human history we get unimagined insight into what exactly is happening in the relationship between the speaker and the audience and the context as a speaker speaks.
Which sorts of jokes raise a smile—or a frown? Which words or examples make an audience’s eyes look up and focus? Which speed of a speech works best in which culture? Is there an optimal length of pause for effect?
What level of informality of language works best in a morning or an evening speech? Which words or expressions raise a smile or frown among women? Which words or expressions raise a smile among university-educated African-American women aged between 25 and 40 in the greater Dallas area?
Do ummms and errs or fiddling with your jewellery make any difference to how well a speaker is received? What sort of body language exactly do most audiences like? Is that affected by the time of day of the speech? Do women worried about sounding ‘shrill’ do better with audiences by trying to lower their voice-pitch?
What about PowerPoint and Prezi? Exactly which slides impress and engage with people, and which slides make them look away? What other visual aids work, or not?
In short, what if for the first time ever we have hard facts (or at least voluminous convincing data) about every aspect of public speaking and presenting, and not just our own lofty opinions and snooty guesses?
Welcome to the world of Artificial Intelligence, hurtling in our direction.
There are already apps and programmes out there for measuring our speaking and advising on different aspects of it. One co-author of this piece has developed Orai, an app that records a speaker’s words and uses algorithms to analyze what’s going on in terms of pace, energy and "filler" expressions.
This sort of technology supports anyone wanting to improve speaking technique. It also offers manifold advantages for training sales-teams and exploring what tone and style of speaking get the best results.
But it’s just the start. Not far ahead is using video to record and analyze a speaker’s body language too, and link that to the words as uttered. A revolution in public speaking training beckons.
The big prize is linking all that to audience reactions on the day. It won’t be long before small cameras using body language and face recognition technology scan both speaker and audience faces as a speech or presentation unfolds, and scoop up giddy quantities of data that help us understand how small (maybe otherwise imperceptible) changes in words or tone or pace or emphasis evoke positive or negative reactions.
Ever since Aristotle all that “data” has been out there, but instantaneously lost in space. Now it can be gathered—and measured.
All this raises unprecedented issues of privacy and policy. What happens when political leaders know exactly how to get tiny subliminal positive reactions from us simply by tweaking their words and voice?
Leaders have long aimed to be "persuasive," but they’ve had to rely on instinct and guesswork. Now they may know to mind-boggling degrees of precision what is likely to work with an audience of this demographic profile at this sort of event at this time of day.
Knowledge? Power? Freedom? Manipulation?
We report. You decide.
Charles Crawford won Cicero Awards for speechwriting in 2016 and 2017. He writes at www.charlescrawford.biz
Danish Dhamani Co-founder and CEO of Orai, an AI Communication Coach