Speech coaches for freethinkers?

January 28, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

Isn’t it striking how many highly intelligent freethinkers are ineffective speakers and writers? 

Not all of them, mind you.  Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are notable exceptions in my mind. They both get right to the point using ordinary words.  They both look at their audience while speaking. Harris is one of the more affable speakers out there, while Dawkins excels at communicating with an earnest intensity.  Their approaches to delivering their ideas explain their popularity.  They stand out from the crowd with their ability to convey their ideas.  Many other freethinkers (all of them intelligent, sincere and committed to following evidence where it leads) could greatly improve on the way they deliver their ideas.  By failing to work on their delivery, they are losing opportunities to communicate their valuable ideas.

I base this conclusion on my viewing of the presentations at the La Jolla conference, “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.”  You can watch videos of the sessions here. I briefly discussed the conference here.

While watching some of the presenters, however, I imagined being a fundamentalist; In short, I imagined feeling threatened by the ideas of the La Jolla freethinkers.  If I were a fundmentalist, I might think I disagreed with the ideas of the scientists and philosophers while I was actually much more repulsed by the manner in which those ideas were presented.

For instance, some of the freethinking scientists and philosophers appear arrogant.  They might not actually be arrogant, though they appeared arrogant.  For instance, many of them speak with a know-it-all tone of voice (I won’t name names–just take a look at some of the video presentations).  

Tone of voice is not the only way to look arrogant, though.  Many freethinkers just can’t help throwing around dozens of “isms.”  Still others are name-droppers, constantly dropping names of books and authors. Dropping names makes one look like one is showing off how much he or she knows rather than sincerely attempting to connect with the audience.  Here’s another form of arrogance: hogging the floor and failing to get to the point.  If it can be communicated succinctly, it should be.  Anything else looks arrogant in that it tells the audience that the speaker’s time is more valuable than that of the audience. 

Maybe arrogance (or what appears to be arrogance) is a cost to pay for being a professor at a university (I should note that there are many exceptions to this observation).  The development of mannerisms that look like arrogance might be the gradual and unintentional result of talking to captive audiences of inferiors (students who are not as knowledable and who are dependent upon you for grades). 

For many Believers, the words “scientists” and “arrogant” are redundant terms.  Getting this idea off the table (the idea that freethinkers are arrogant) should thus be a high priority.

But arrogance is only part of the problem.  Those who truly want to communicate should take the time to choose a vocabulary that doesn’t isolate potential audiences.  Unfortunately, many scientists and philosophers still use big words where little words would do.  Such destructive sesquipedalianism!  When I sit at a lecture where the speaker needlessly uses complex words, I am annoyed even though I’m familiar with many of the multisyllabic words being used.  The fact that I sometimes get annoyed (even though I’m familiar with many of the words) leads me to believe that needlessly using big words could recklessly drive away numerous people who might otherwise be interested in the topic.

Beyond arrogance and inaccessible vocabulary, several of the La Jolla freethinkers displayed distracting mannerisms such as pacing and verbal crutches. 

Of course, many scientists and philosophers might not actually be trying to communicate with a general audience.  Perhaps many of them were gearing their presentations only to other academics, wider audience be damned.  If true, that would be a shame given the current desperate need to communicate ideas about science and religion to mass audiences.

None of this is to say that religious leaders lack communications issues.  If you’re looking for arrogance, you can find it among religious leaders at least as often as you find it among scientists and philosophers.  Further, there is a smug creepiness that I sense among religious leaders that I rarely sense among prominent freethinkers. Why would that be?  Perhaps because first-rate freethinkers hunger for good criticism.  If their arguments have weaknesses, most of them desperately want to have their flaws pointed out in order to address them.  They know that dealing with criticism and counter-examples make them better thinkers; this is part and parcel of the scientific method. 

It is the opposite with religious leaders, especially while they are presenting in public.  The last thing they want is for someone to cast doubt upon their power and authority.  Religious leaders need their followers to believe that the only way to salvation is through their particular churches.  This assertion of power inevitably leads to smug presentations, the same sort of smug arrogance that one can see in some doctors.  Ironically this type of smugness gets more pronounced whenever the religious leader (or the doctor) is less certain.

I’m sure that I’m not the first person to notice these problems among freethinkers (and religious leaders). Nonetheless, this is an important point that needs to be addressed repeatedly.  Freethinkers who address the public should consider going to speech coaches to evaluate the way in which they present their ideas.  Why not get rid of speech mannerisms that might dramatically repel potential listeners? 

Why not teach to a wide general audience at the same time one is teaching to one’s peers? I am utterly convinced that one can teach to both audiences simultaneously.  In fact, I am convinced (based upon my work as an attorney) that if one cannot communicate one’s ideas clearly and convincingly to a smart 12-year-old, one has failed as both a communicator and a thinker.  If one cannot communicate clearly and convincingly to a 12-year-old, it is likely that one has nothing to say.

It’s time, then, for freethinkers, including many prominent freethinkers, to consider honing the way they present their messages.  By doing so, they will reach a much wider audience much more effectively.  Isn’t that the bottom line?


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Category: Communication, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Marc says:

    A person forms his or her vocabulary through conversation and use. For academics, their language may be completely natural to them.

    Frex, a friend of mine recently chided a radio personality for using the word 'dearth' too much; neither the radio man nor I even considered it a problem.

  2. Scholar says:

    I enjoyed the presentation by Mahzarin Banaji. She grew up in India, in a religious environment, but has since become highly educated and has overcome "faith".

    For the sake of argument…what if we (atheists) had instead grown up in traditional (Christian) environments? Wouldn't Dawkins/Harris' words just sound like another mad scientist? Further, what if our livelihoods "depended" on our faith…such as ministers, Christian writers, singers, teachers?

    It would not be very hard to ignore ANY evidence against God, if my paycheck was involved. Especially since we would have been trained (some more than others) to expect our "faith" to be challenged, and to stay strong (faithful) at all costs.

    In other news, there was a show on Discovery last night about the "Hawking Paradox". Pretty amazing science…Hawking has now admitted/claimed/(proved?) that he was wrong about "Black holes swallowing information". This is after spending 30 years of his life "vigorously" supporting the theory. I apologize if this is actually old news…here is an article link (circa 2004).


  3. Cleptomanx says:

    Scholar: Thanks for the link to the Hawking story. I found it very interesting and don't always get around to keeping abreast with the latest (or not so latest) scientific news.

    Erich: I definitely agree with Marc about academics feeling natural when using large words in their common vocabulary because of they company they keep. I also think that the point you made about these speakers not really talking to the audience, but to a select few, is probably hitting the nail on the head.

    I get the feeling that many of the professors/doctors/philosophers that speak tend to exist in a similar bubble to those counterpart evangelicals. They believe that they have spent so much time with their research, studies, lecturing, etc, that many of the people listening couldn't possibly understand every pearl of intellectual brilliance that they spew out. So, they just think, "Screw it! I don't have time for the cretins that don't get it. I'm going to talk to those with an IQ high enough to fathom my concepts." Just as an evangelical would conversely have the attitude, "I'm preaching the truth, and if you don't get it, then you lack the faith to internalize what I already know. I can only save those that wish to be saved, so the rest (literally) be damned."

    I enjoy listening to Dawkins (I heard an interview with him not too long ago on NPR) and feel the intensity of his words that you described. Although, I must admit, sometimes it sounds very close to religious fervor (or anti-religious I guess). As though he's on the other end of a spectrum with Billy Graham. Just the flip side of the coin. He's so very pragmatic that I think I can't sit on his side of the fence either. I've always felt that life is too complex to simply be black and white and usually enjoy existing in the gray area where possiblities are truly endless. I think that's where most free thinkers should reside. Dawkins is preaching dogma, which is what I dislike about the other side.

    I think adopting more of a Kevin Smith attitude would be beneficial. I may not have a belief, but I've got a pretty good idea. Ideas can be changed or refined, but beliefs are static.

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