conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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


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.



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.


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?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Do Not Click on this Pornographic Website

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You may not recover. You have been warned.

“Porn” is a term we reserve for the depiction of erotic behavior designed to cause sexual excitement.

Everyone knows this.

But does the depiction of erotic behavior ever extend beyond sexual? I say “Yes” and note that it routinely presents as normal life. Lots of advertising aims for this lustful, must-own tone. Bathtubs, kitchens, lake homes. Cars. Bicycles. Camera lenses. Ice cream sandwiches. Apple is the pre-eminent, undisputed master of desire-manipulation designed to cause ownership lust, as witnessed in yesterday’s watch announcement. It’s a winning persuasion technique that bypasses reason as it reduces the unaware to a quivering mass of…longing.


you sexy thing

Really anything can be pornographic—even book ownership. More and more I see piles of books in Tumblrs along with a statement about how reading changes you. Which is true. But so does conversation. So does work. So does life. And so does experience. It’s curious because books seem to be moving to the level of a totem, where we hold them up as having a kind of magic power for wisdom. And all this as more and more of us read less and less. When I teach writing classes, I routinely say that even a paragraph is too much copy (too many words) for many of us.

I’m all for books. And I’m especially fond of reading them. But I’d like to see ads for owning the contents of books. I’d like to see ads that move people toward the deep reading Mortimer Adler defended in How to read a book. Ads that make it sexy to know something and to engage in a conversation about it.

But there’s no money to be made in that.

Maybe book lust is one of the OK-lusts. But I would hope we could grow up to the kind of deep knowing that brings book contents into our daily conversations.


Image credit: Loome Theological Booksellers: “Largest secondhand dealer of theological books in the world.”

Written by kirkistan

September 10, 2014 at 10:29 am

King Corn

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How talk of an acre became talk of an industry

Here’s a story seemingly about not knowin’ nothin’: two friends from Boston decided to figure out why we grew so much corn in the U.S. So, naturally, they went to Iowa and hired an acre of land to grow their own corn.

As anyone would, given a compelling question.08292014-KingCorn

In King Corn, friends Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis found their grandfathers both came from the small town of Greene, Iowa. In this documentary (a form we know as dedicated to a version of a story rather than seeking objectivity), the two friends plant, fertilize, weed, and then harvest their acre of corn. All with the help of local farmers. But this is not the gotcha-style documentary that Michael Moore practiced. These friends seem genuinely interested in all aspects, ask the dumb questions that any of us (non-farmers) might ask, and make connections with the farmers, families and communities along the way. They let their questions propel them and others join in, though we have a strong hunch where the questions are going.

As they tell their story, they identify Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford. They note how Butz initiated a government policy shift that turned small farmers into big producers (especially of corn) rather than keeping them as small producers (that is, paying them to not produce to keep prices high). The friends also talk with Michael Pollan and a number of other fancy academic big-shots with opinions and research on food and agriculture. What they found turned the conversation.

  • Massive feed lots that have dialed up cattle production by letting them stand and eat corn nearly constantly. So: faster to market. The cattle continue to eat toward an upper physiologic limit and must ingest a constant stream of antibiotics to continue eating. That would be our beef industry.
  • A high fructose corn syrup industry spawned from the great quantities of corn produced. High fructose corn syrup seems incredibly malleable and shows up in a high percentage of the produced foods we buy. And high fructose corn syrup, as we are learning, is just more sugary, empty calories that help contribute to our nations struggle with obesity.

Click for trailer

Click for trailer

What’s odd is that raising corn, on its own, is a money-losing endeavor. But with the subsidies our government kicks in, it becomes profitable for farmers to set aside enormous sections of land to grow it. And the resulting industries and practices have a problematic relationship with our culture and health.

King Corn ends up as an uncomfortable look into an industry we all partake in. And like all documentaries, there is a clear point of view, which was fun to watch. I’m certain the beef and high fructose corn syrup industries have excellent and solid rebuttals for the conclusions any viewer might form from the film.

We’re all happy with cheap food, but the film helps us ask about the long-term cost of our cheap food.

What I appreciated about the tone of the film was just two guys just asking questions (yes, I bought into that portrayal of the friends). And rather than Michael Moore-style bombast, the filmmakers presented a couple sides to the story (though certainly not all sides) through conversation. The result helps me begin to rethink the low-priced, easily available food that surrounds us and for which I am grateful.



Written by kirkistan

August 29, 2014 at 8:34 am


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