conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category

Words: Frequently Chosen Tools of the Living

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Words-03312015

 

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

How to step into a conversation. And when to step out.

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Can presence and distance live in peace?

The philosopher, the writer, the journalist—and many others—work at cultivating distance in relationship even as they stand in the present.

Why do that?

The work of analysis, of illustrating via story and reportage all require distance for the facts to sort themselves. Just like the passage of time has a way of revealing what was important ten, twenty and two hundred years ago. Just like the artist learns to imagine a two-dimensional plane to begin to make marks with/on their media.

Distance starts to open a way forward by helping us see differently. Presence demands attention—that’s the human piece of empathy and mercy. Sometimes we need to slip from present to distant and back again. All the while avoiding absence.

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My conversation with the hospice chaplain reminded me of the help a bit of distance brings to sufferers and those in grief. The person slightly distant brings a perspective the sufferer may need to hear, though that perspective may not be immediately welcome. Best if that slightly distant perspective comes wrapped in empathy and mercy.

But even at work we can cultivate a bit of distance for the sake of clarity. When the boss pontificates it doesn’t hurt to ask why she does so and what rhetorical goals her sermon serves.

And even at home we can mingle distance and presence: staying present with family (versus attaching to whatever screen or podcast holds our attention) is the first order of business. But we bring perspective when we step back.

We need presence and distance to move forward.

Absence rarely aids progress.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Pick a Door: Blessed are the Poor

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How do you read this?

Jesus went up the mountain with his followers, as the great teachers do. His first words:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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How you hear those words depends on where you come from. The images that come to mind, the connections you make, the hope or lack of hope—much is prefigured and preloaded by the conditions you bring.

What did the original hearers hear? That is the question.

But we make a start toward answering that question by asking what door we just stepped through.

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Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Why Academic Writing is so Boring

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Insider language bores the outsider

Researchers, scientists, academicians marshal their facts to a higher standard, but with their neglect of the emotive power of language they often speak only to each other, their parochial words dropping like sand on a private desert.

–Sol Stein, Stein on Writing (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995) 11.

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And please don’t equate “emotive” with flowery.

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Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Scots Deliberate: 61 Minutes of Talk About Talk

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How Our Democracy Fails at Conversation

We all know the September vote for Scottish independence failed and the country remains a part of the United Kingdom. But the conversations and engagement running up to the vote were astounding. One journalist cited 97% of voters were registered and turnout was uniformly high:

The more I think about conversation and the more I look for where it works and where it fails, I cannot help but see that our own (U.S.) version of democracy seems to be largely failing at promoting conversation. There are a lot of reasons for this: from our personal refusal to think beyond our tribe’s talking points to the media’s complicity in monologuing about peripheral issues to our general high levels of distraction and low levels of interest in following an argument.

Two excellent sources that have helped me see our democracy and media with fresh eyes are Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Sheldon S. Wolin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), and Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive. Both books begin to unravel the connections between larger corporate interests and the way news is made. Both books advise healthy skepticism of news delivered. And both books have a story to tell about why we as a nation are so disengaged in our political process (hint from Wolin: those in power stay in power by keeping the electorate repulsed and distracted).

But this video of people talking via Google Hangout—which seems about as interesting as your aunt’s travel slides—is actually quite engaging. If you watch, even for just a short while, you’ll hear journalists and academics cite Twitter as a way people named and combatted the spin the media produced. You’ll hear how many voices were heard rather than the same old standard voices. You’ll hear them calling for an inquest into the way media handles discussion. You’ll hear them talk about “deliberative democracy” and “collaborative government.”

But–that sounds like a lot of work and, frankly, who cares?

The bottom line on all the engagement we witnessed with the Scottish vote was that people felt their voice mattered. Scots turned out because their voices mattered.

I cannot help but wonder when our (U.S.) citizenry will begin to tug our democracy back from the vested interests that constantly monologue. Little by little, we’ve got to find the ways in which our voices matter.

 

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Via Oliver Escobar and Citizen Participation Network

Bill Moyers: Serving “News” like the Butler Serves Tea on Downton Abbey

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Do Not: Do Not Disturb the Master Class

All of us can stand a bit of disruption from time to time.

David Uberti wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review about PBS pulling ads from Harper’s Magazine as retribution for an article critical of PBS. PBS exists as a non-commercial, educational media channel. But the critical Harper’s article by Eugenia Williamson pointed out

…that the idealistic, Great Society-era initiative often behaves more like a corporate or political organism.

And so, a fit of ad-pulling ensued. But it was this candid, PBS-critical quote from the patron saint of public broadcasting that caught my ear:

Our Washington coverage, by design or not, serves up ‘news’ the way the butler serves tea on Downton Abbey, so as not to disturb the master class.

–Bill Moyers

Tea is served at the Pittock Mansion

Tea is served at the Pittock Mansion

Wherever you land in your organization, there is some grand narrative at work that guides all involved. That grand narrative is often a good thing and useful. It is often laden with meaning that helps us do our jobs. But it is not a perfect narrative—never is—and parts call out to be challenged by practitioners.

After all, it is the disruptive conversations that lodge in our brain pans. Those conversations we cannot forget sometimes actually open our clam shell brains to something new. And that is the way of both innovation and truth-telling.

Many of us—especially the people-pleasers among us—are careful to assemble conversations that do not disturb the people around us. I am guilty of this. But truth-telling must necessarily veer from the party line.

If only because sometimes the party line veers from truth.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to Make Your Message Permanent

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A tip from a prehistoric consultant

First: Forget about it. Nothing is permanent—at least not in the way advertising mavens augur.

Second: OK—if you insist—make your message about someone else. Make your message give back more than it takes in. “GE” branded on a rock would never last. Even the Apple logo will be chiseled away by Microsoft rebels. But a man with jointed wings, well, who can resist that story?

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?]

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?

Prehistoric peoples stopped by these ancient rocks to tell their version of the human condition. So they carved/picked/incised/abraded their messages into the exposed Sioux quartzite outside Comfrey, Minnesota long before there was a Comfrey or a Minnesota or a U.S. of A. Maybe before the pyramids and Stonehenge. Ancients left messages here to direct and entertain passers-by.

Why make your message permanent? We understand marketing communications for companies—it’s about keeping the wheels of commerce turning. But you personally—what messages do you have to communicate? And why would you make them permanent? I argue that your take on the human condition comes out in the way you do your work, the way you interact with family, friends, colleagues, and even the way you see/refuse to see the homeless guy at the end of the exit ramp. And all these daily interactions amount to a carving and incising that is far more permanent than any of us imagine.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

Our conversations have an enormous (cumulative) effect on the people around us. An effect that may move through generations.

What exactly is your message, anyway?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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