June 24, 2014
What Do Great Speakers Do?
Posted by Elizabeth Pollman

Many thanks to Gordon and the Glom for the invitation! As Gordon mentioned in his kind introduction, I’m an associate professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where I teach Business Associations, Corporate Governance, and Contracts. My research focuses primarily in 2 areas: the constitutional rights of corporations and law and entrepreneurship/securities/private company issues. In the next couple of weeks, I hope to blog about some issues in these areas as well as highlight the work of others that I’ve been enjoying.

To start on a lighter note, as it’s conference season I’ve been thinking about the art of presenting a paper or more generally speaking to a law audience.

What sparked my thinking about this was the outstanding keynote speech that Professor Frank Partnoy gave at the National Business Law Scholars Conference that we hosted last week at Loyola LA. Professor Kristin Johnson gave a wonderful introduction, noting Frank’s rock star status with examples of great things he has done in the media, briefly remarking on some of his key works, and thanking Frank for his mentorship over the years. It had all the ingredients of a great speaker introduction…it gave concrete examples, it was warm and connected the people in the room, and it built a feeling of anticipation. Then Frank started his keynote and it was clear that it was something special, thoughtfully planned for the audience, and that he is simply a terrific speaker.

So this got me thinking…what are great speakers doing?

Well, first, a terrific topic is always a great start, of course. In his keynote, Frank Partnoy spoke to the group of 80+ business law professors about who is our audience when we write and what are our motivations. He used a framework for his discussion from George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write.” (Orwell identified 4 reasons why a writer writes: 1. Sheer egoism; 2. Aesthetic enthusiasm for beauty in the world or the beauty of language; 3. Historical impulse: to see things as they are and to set it out for posterity; and 4. Political purpose: a desire to change the world. Orwell said, “They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.”) This struck me as a wonderful choice of topic because it gave some interesting food for thought for the entire audience, at various career stages. I don’t think a tailored topic is required, though. I remember seeing a faculty workshop talk once about services like Mechanical Turk. I went into that talk not even knowing what the topic was and I left feeling really interested in the social and legal implications.

Second, there’s the matter of style… here’s where some of the magic seems to happen. Some people just seem charming and well spoken, or funny or captivating. I recently read a great book about effective communication that I’ve found helpful for some teaching ideas and I think it’s relevant here too – Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. The authors are brothers – Chip Heath is a Stanford Business School professor and Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke's CASE center which supports social entrepreneurs. The book argues that the following principles can help make your ideas stick:

  • Simplicity (the authors talk about this principle as finding the core of an idea)
  • Unexpectedness (including a small element of surprise or breaking a pattern to get your audience to pay attention)
  • Concreteness (how many times have you sat in a talk where someone in the Q&A asks for a concrete example if the speaker didn’t already provide one?)
  • Credibility (this reminds me a bit of Aristotle’s idea of ethos)
  • Emotions (the authors talk about this as making your audience care… I think you could more broadly understand this as the answer to the “so what” question)
  • Stories (we’re human and absorb ideas and information well in story form)

Fun summer reading.

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