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A tale of two speeches

Last week, two speeches caught my attention on my social media circles. One was a ceremonial speech delivered by Mr. Narayana Murthy at IISc on July 16th and the other was by Mr. Shashi Tharoor at The Oxford Union Debate on May 28th. As a researcher and teacher of persuasive communication and speech writing, I followed both speeches very closely on the social media. It was fascinating to see that the speeches had very different outcomes. Mr. Murthy’s speech drew ire and anger from the audiences and Mr. Tharoor’s speech was revered and applauded. Why did this happen? What can we learn from these examples?

Both speeches were instances of persuasive communication where the speaker tries to change the beliefs and attitudes of his audiences. This topic has been around for centuries and finds its application in business and politics. Traditionally majority of the focus is given to the speaker and his qualities. The role of the audience and their beliefs is often ignored or assumed to fall in place if the speaker is charismatic. Just like how a chef will always choose ingredients based on the audience’s palate to prepare a dish, great leaders should also do the same to prepare their speeches.

So how does a speaker choose words to persuade his audiences? What is the right recipe of a persuasive speech? In general, a successful persuasion occurs when the following two golden laws are fulfilled

  1. Golden law #1 – The more the audiences “like” or “trust” the speaker, the more they are willing to be persuaded by him. You can also look at it differently. The more the audiences “dislike” or “distrust” the speaker, the lesser they are willing to be persuaded by him.
  2. Golden law #2 – The more the audience’s belief “agrees” with the belief of the speaker, the more they are willing to accept his argument. And when looked differently, the more the audience’s belief “disagrees” to the belief of the speaker, the lesser they are willing to accept his argument.

Mathematically put, the equation of persuasion can be summarized as follows

Success of persuasion = Likability of the speaker by audiences + Agreeability of beliefs between speaker and audiences  

In simple words, if the words of the speaker are liked and agreed by audiences, they will be more willing to change.

Let’s now apply this formula to the 2 speeches in question of this article to understand why one was received positively and the other negatively. I read Mr. Murthy’s speech and saw the video of Mr. Tharoor’s speech multiple times. Each time, I felt that I liked and agreed with Mr. Tharoor’s speech and disliked and disagreed with Mr. Murthy’s speech. I read many other blogs, articles and mentions of these two speeches on the social media and found similar results. If you snoop in the text of their speeches, you might find the inflection points in the speech where there is a distinctive shift in audiences reaction as explained in the formula above.

In Mr. Murthy’s speech, the first inflection point was in paragraph three, when he compared MIT to IISc and IIT and later said “let us pause and ask what the contributions of Indian Institutions of higher learning particularly IISc and IIT have been over last 60 years”. I think no student of IISc or IIT would like to be compared to any other institute on their graduation day. This might have caused a serious “dislikeness” in the audiences. The next inflection point came when he said “Is there one idea that has led to an earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens?”. This sounded not only inappropriate and increased the audiences dislike for the speaker but also attacked their beliefs and caused a disagreement. He then went on to declare that only his company had produced some notable innovations in the country. By now, the disagreeability in audiences with Mr. Murthy was at maximum and they reacted in a variety of ways. Some completely switched off, some became upset and some became vindictive and vented their anger in tweets, blogs etc. The later parts of the speech had some noteworthy points but I think the damage was already done.

Now let’s turn our attention to the speech of Mr. Tharoor. His speech had many inflection points too. But each of these points had a tremendous increase in likability and agreeability for him in his audiences. He started his speech with a joke on himself which went very well with the audiences. Humour increases likability of the speaker. He then doled out examples, facts, figures and unleashed an arsenal of information that made the audience agree with his belief more. My personal favourite inflection point was this sarcastic statement “…And no wonder that the sun never set on the British Empire because even the God couldn’t trust the English in the dark”. He made the audience laugh or clap more than 6 times which demonstrates likability and agreeability.

The formula might look very simple. But each of the two factors – Likability and Agreeability have more than a dozen more parameters that interplay together in the mind of the audience like the speaker’s track record, choice of words, delivery style, logic of the argument, beliefs, attitudes, choice of medium, timing, appearance, relevance of the topic, emotional outcomes etc. Every audience member has a very different way of interpreting these parameters from the speaker’s speech. There are many behavioural and psychological theories that impact and make this subject so deliciously complicated and yet interesting.

 Don’t change the truth. Change your thinking and your words!

There are thousands of speeches from famous leaders available on the internet now. Go ahead and apply this formula and see for yourself if you can learn something from it. Feel free to modify it and send me your comments. And for those of you who are about to make a ceremonial speech or a persuasive speech, just remember the golden laws – make your words likable and agreeable with your audiences.

This post was published at Business World Online. You can access it here

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