One of the (in my opinion) sad commentaries on our society is the free disregard of conventions of politeness used in comedy. Many leading stand-up acts are filled with the gratuitous use of profanity. Sexual swear words abound, and while they elicit a laugh, in many cases this comes from the shock value, and often it is more a nervous laughter than a joyful one.
Even Billy Connolly, whose act include such quips as “I felt as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit,” has noted, “I’ve always been fascinated by the difference between the jokes you can tell your friends but you can’t tell to an audience. There’s a fine line you have to tread because you don’t know who is out there in the auditorium. A lot of people are too easily offended.”
Speakers (including comedians) are in the business of entertainment. If you are offending, you have limited your entertaining. This is even more pronounced for informational and business communications. “To inform and entertain” should be the watchwords.
Many have observed that audiences generally only retain three or four points from a presentation. Do you want that to be an off-coloured joke, or a main selling point of your proposal or product line? Israelmore Ayivor has said, “Be polite in your speeches. Good information rudely communicated will make no positive difference.” How correct he is!
I am not saying you shouldn’t use humour, nor am I saying you need to present yourself as some sort of mid-Victorian prude. What I am saying is show respect. Know your audience. Value them, and they will value your message.
[A side note: While my public speaking posts are focused on oratory (including preaching and business presentations), many of the principles apply to the written word as well.]
Humans are endowed with imagination, and this has aided us in the symbolic medium of language. We can communicate beyond the easily apparent. We can describe a far-off land, or even better – abstract concepts.
An experiment I try with every first year class is to ask them to show me “one.” I am then usually presented with an assortment of single fingers, pens, and books. To which I respond, that is a finger, pen, etc. Some then turn to writing the figure “1,” to which I respond, “Then show me five.” To this I am offered a “5.” I in turn say, “There is only one symbol there.” The end comes with the realisation that one or five are merely concepts. You can see “one.” One pencil, yes; “one,” no.
So it is that our language captures the concepts and constructions of our imaginations. It is indeed a kind of magic. I can tell you of a peaceful lagoon, with waters that glisten with the lustre of crumpled foil, that has been smoothed out. The blue is that of a robin’s egg, and the sand a coral white. Many of you will be able to share this invisible image with me.
There is the wizardry. We as adepts in our own tongues can create “reality” from nothing!
How absolutely powerful is the creation account of the Judeo-Christian scriptures? For we in our use of language are “in the image of God.” God said in Genesis “Let there be . . .” and it was so. In John’s gospel we similarly see, “In the beginning was The Word . . .” and nothing that was made was made without Him. God created with words, and so do we. [Don’t get me wrong, and think I am equating creation with “magic,” I am merely illustrating the power of words, and any verbal creation of ours must by necessity pale to true physical creation].
We then, as agents of this verbal power should create with good intention. The words we use to paint a sunset, can also be used to bring darkness on the soul of the one we criticise. With great power verbal magicians, comes great responsibility.
The English language is full of rhythms, cadences, and rhymes. These fluctuate with dialect and region, and the variety is truly rich. Whether it is the upward lilt of sentence endings in Liverpool, or the stressing of penultimate syllables in Wales, our language is musical.
Rhyme adds to the music of our words. It need not be “poetry” to be poetic. As Louis MacNeice has observed, children have an innate ability to appreciate and apply rhythm and rhyme. What more proof do we need than the popularity and success of Dr Seuss? But as adults we lose a bit of the melodic is our speech. What a shame.
We can improve on this, however. We only need to think of the natural links of like-sounding words to literally “rejuvenate” (make young again) our speech. So where can we start – to recapture this art? To be fair, just look here or there, for useful rhymes are everywhere. Try it try, and you will see, that rhymes and rhythm come easily.
One of the most inspirational educators of the Twentieth Century was Janusz Korczak. He was a doctor, children’s author, and educator. He believed in the inherent ability of children to learn and to contribute to learning. He saw his students as fully fledged humans, not just as potential adults. He even advocated what we now call “student voice” as early as the 1930s.
He became the director of an orphanage in Warsaw, and retained the post until the destruction of the Jewish community there in 1942. Owing to his fame as a writer and educator he was offered an avenue of escape for himself, but declined it. He went to his death at Treblinka comforting his young charges along the way.
He offers much for teachers, parents, and leaders to emulate. But, his instructions to teachers were ground-breaking and just as powerful today. These guidelines have applications to anyone who seeks to instruct others.
He said, “Be yourself and seek your own path.
Know yourself before you attempt to know children [audience, or learners].
Become aware of what you yourself are capable of before you attempt to outline the rights and responsibilities of children [others].
First and foremost you must realize that you too are a child [learner],
Whom you must first get to know, to bring up and to educate.” [Square brackets are mine, and offer applications of his words].
Know yourself. Know your abilities [and weaknesses]. Be honest with yourself. Then speak, teach, and lead.
What wisdom, and humility! I hope we can live up to the challenge.