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Are Words Always as Powerless as They Seem?

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When we preach, our words often drop like stones from an overpass. And by “preach” I mean anyone who launches into a speech without a deep regard for her listeners. Pastors and priests can do it, but so do marketers, bosses, friends, even spouses. The guy at the party blathering on about his accomplishments—he’s preaching—and people walk away accordingly.

But our words need not fall like lead sinkers.

In 1955, the Oxford philosopher J.L Austin, gave a series of lectures at Harvard that became his book “How to Do Things with Words.” Austin proposed that there is a side to language where words actually cause stuff to happen out in the world. His famous example was with wedding vows: when the groom and bride say “I do,” and when the pastor/priest says “By the laws of the state of Minnesota, etcetera, etcetera, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” At that very point, something has changed in the world. Something changed because of the words spoken. Sure, those words gathered power from the context: the bride and groom, for starters. They agreed to get married. The priest or pastor officiating the deal contributed: the ordination process granted legal authority (at least in the eyes of the state) to pronounce these official words and have them mean something.

J.L.Austin

Why does preaching produce more leaden words than other kinds of talk? Again—not talking just Sunday sermon here. Corporations preach in their print ads and commercials and press releases. They collect a bunch of statements that are purposefully free from conversational context (you recognize this stuff by reading a brochure aloud. That’s when you realize no human talks like this). That kind of preaching that is more like wishing: wishing the world was a certain way. Wishing the reader was different from what he or she really is. The kind of preaching that tells others what to do or what the world is like, but is a lazy kind of talk that bears no resemblance to life. We all resort to this kind of talk that is unmoored from the people around us. Oh sure, we occasionally dress it up with an authoritative tone and we think we’ve accomplished something. But we haven’t.

Is there a way to get off our lazy butt of preaching and start saying things that make a difference in the world? Using words that instigate change? Is there a way to believe in the change our words signal?

I was reading the Gospel of Mark today, Mark 1, where Jesus starts the whole project. His first recorded words in Mark’s gospel are preaching: he preached the kingdom of God and invited his listeners to repent and believe (1.15). The rest of the chapter shows him, well, doing the stuff he preached. His talk about preaching and repenting and believing were not churchy words, meant only for the hour of the week where people piously peer up. No. His words demonstrated power by healing the sick. And the possessed. His were not empty sayings about a far-off God. They were words of invitation to taste something real. He was not just talk. He was walk.

Much more walk than talk.

How about your speech? Are you preaching to an audience who knows you are just mouthing empty words? Press release talk. Or are you saying things you can demonstrate? As a copywriter, am I doing this? And what kind of people do we need to be to deliver on the words we send out?

Makes me wonder.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] I’m rethinking Cavell’s descriptions of sitting under the teaching of JL Austin when he visited UC Berkeley from Oxford. Cavell’s descriptions of Austin are not always becoming […]

  2. […] documents—a new thing happens at Medtronic that will please shareholders and worry local workers. JL Austin might call that corporate speech-act a performative. And there is no question that performative […]


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