Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Telling the truth

And so we go from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (who had a cameo in my last post) to the modern American philosopher Robert Allen Zimmerman - better known as Bob Dylan.

Receiving a special award at the Grammys this weekend, Dylan delivered a rambling speech. Personally, I would have shortened it - maybe taken out some of the "why me, Lord?" references to other artists who (he claimed) have had an easier critical and popular reception. But, then again, a more concise speech wouldn't have been a Dylan speech. He's the master of the lengthy song: When the label heard his early masterpiece "Like a Rolling Stone," they figured no DJ would play a six-minute song and threw it out. Someone rescued it from the trash and brought it to a New York club, where it became an instant hit. Next thing you know the song was #2 on the charts.

So Dylan gets to break the rules. We don't expect him to write a three-minute song (although he did, and had hits with them), and we don't expect him to give a pithy speech.

Amid all the words he said, though, these were the most important for me:
Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, "Well that's very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth."
Voices matter only if they convince you they're telling the truth.

It's fashionable today to ornament speeches with fancy graphics or artsy photographs. And that's fine - I understand that everyone processes information differently. But no number of visual bells and whistles can save a you if your audience doesn't believe you're telling the truth. (Click to tweet.)

So it's simple, really: To give a great speech, tell the truth.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My granddaddy, Socrates

When pop culture meets, well, culture culture the results can be unintentionally hilarious.

Jennifer Lopez plays a high school teacher in her latest movie, The Boy Next Door. At one point, the hunk of the title brings her a gift: A leatherbound book with gilt-edged pages - a volume that would have been right at home in Queen Victoria's library. J-Lo demurs that she can't accept such an expensive gift. "This is a first edition!" she says, checking inside.

One small problem. The book is very clearly marked "The Iliad by Homer."

See it for yourself here (you'll have to sit through a 30-second ad, but trust me it's worth it.)

Apologies if I've spoiled The Boy Next Door for you, but I don't really think there's a lot of overlap between my readership and J-Lo's target demographic. Likewise probably not a lot of overlap between her viewership and classical scholars. What percentage of Americans even know that there was a famous Homer before The Simpsons?

While the dumbing-down of popular culture may spell the end of Civilization As We Know It, there's an equally challenging trend I need to watch out for as a business writer: "smartening-up." (Click to Tweet.)

The first time I was asked to write on the subject of Ethics, I went straight to the source: Aristotle. I mean, who better than "the father of Ethics"? Now, I'm no dummy - the speech wasn't entirely about ancient Greek philosophy. I tied Aristotle to a contemporary event, in which journalism students had gotten caught cheating on an exam. And not just any Ethics exam.

It was a great speech. But it was not a great speech for that particular speaker. And in the end, that's really all that matters. So I gave Aristotle the heave-ho in favor of material that better fit my executive's brand. And the world became a more ethical place, at least for an hour.

LBJ knew this stuff innately. Maybe not Ethics, but brand-building. When his writers showed him a draft that used some words of wisdom from Socrates, he didn't cut the quotation - the sentiment was too good. He just crossed out "Socrates" and substituted "my granddaddy."

President Johnson was a smart man. He just didn't want too many people to know it.