About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

27 August 2010

What Do You Know of What You Speak?

In early 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister at the time, was asked to address the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. The address was to be given on July 15th. Ironically, he got the invitation only a few days after he had decided to leave the ministry because he felt that organized religion could no longer command respect. Still, Emerson accepted the invitation, and on a beautiful July evening in Boston he spoke to the audience of seminarians about to enter the active Christian clergy. Most of what he said that night was the standard stuff of commencement addresses. One thing, though, stood out. He told a story about bad preaching.
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had plowed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life - life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It seemed strange the people should come to church."
Emerson's preacher failed - at least in Emerson's eyes - because his discourse left Emerson asking himself: "What does he know of what he speaks?"

In today's world, we are bombarded by preaching - religious and otherwise. And, as the words rain down, a lot of us never think to ask "What does she know of what she speaks?" If we would, though, we could quickly separate the preachers who truly know from the legion who don't. One way to approach this issue is to simply ask anyone who's preaching to you "How do you know that?" Another is to use a simple tool - The Bullshit Detector - from author and economist Thomas Sowell:
"Much of the self-righteous nonsense that abounds on so many subjects cannot stand up to three questions: Compared to what? At what cost? What are the hard facts?"
There is a flip-side to this coin, of course, and it concerns our own preaching.

  • When you are teaching or preaching or selling or otherwise giving advice, do you routinely provide evidence that you know of what you speak? If so, how do you do it? Is what you provide sufficient? How do you know?
  • If not, what is a case you can make for doing so? If you are able to build a strong case in favor of doing this, how would you go about making it a habit?
"I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy. Hence one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument." - Aristotle
"After having propounded his famous theory of relativity, Albert Einstein would tour the various Universities in the United States, delivering lectures wherever he went. He was always accompanied by his faithful chauffeur, Harry, who would attend each of these lectures while seated in the back row! One fine day, after Einstein had finished a lecture and was coming out of the auditorium into his vehicle, Harry addresses him and says, 'Professor Einstein, I've heard your lecture on Relativity so many times, that if I were ever given the opportunity, I would be able to deliver it to perfection myself!' 'Very well,' replied Einstein, 'I'm going to Dartmouth next week. They don't know me there. You can deliver the lecture as Einstein, and I'll take your place as Harry!' And so it came to be ... Harry delivered the lecture to perfection, without a word out of place, while Einstein sat in the back row playing 'chauffeur', and enjoying a snooze for a change. Just as Harry was descending from the podium, however, one of the research assistants intercepted him, and began to ask him a question on the theory of relativity ... one that involved a lot of complex calculations and equations. Harry replied to the assistant 'The answer to this question is very simple! In fact, it's so simple, that I'm going to let my chauffeur answer it!'" - Source Unknown


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Anonymous said...

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