The art of persuasion
The spoken word can change the world. So what is it that lifts speech to a higher plane? We talk to ZIS students, alumni and staff about their secrets of public speaking.
Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. Elizabeth I had the heart and stomach of a king. Abraham Lincoln wanted government of the people, by the people and for the people. Words spoken aloud can resonate for many years – sometimes forever. So what is it that makes a speech – whether it’s in front of your class or to a crowd of thousands – truly effective?
Maybe the most important factor is confidence. Curtis Laitinen, Class of 1987 (1986-1987), is an architect specialising in healthcare. This involves consultation with sophisticated stakeholders – from doctors to administrators – all of whom may have very strong ideas about what will, and won’t, work. Consequently, Curtis says that the speaking skills he learned at AISZ – both as an actor in the drama group and a representative at the Model United Nations (MUN) – are vital to his effectiveness at work.
“A lot of my job involves bringing people together and working out how to organise a project, balance different opinions and persuade stakeholders that our way is the truly logical way,” he says. “And that involves persuasion and debate and being able to think on your feet. I learned about improvisation and the give and take of debate at MUN. You make your speech and then there are comments and questions. You have to defend what you just said and take the challenge back. That’s the value of public debate.”
For Upper School History and Philosophy teacher Andreas Meitanis, the key to successful public speaking is really understanding and unpicking the format in which you have been asked to speak. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the MUN, to which Andreas has been taking students for 30 years. “At the MUN, it’s not enough to get up there and talk. You need to know the parliamentary procedure – how to phrase the questions, what to ask, and what is allowed. If you know this, you can play the game better and that makes you more confident to get up there and talk.”
"A lot of my job today involves persuasion and being able to think on your feet –and I learned about improvisation and the give and take of debate at the MUN.”
Curtis Laitinen Class of 1987 (1986-1987)
Research can also prove crucial – not just in terms of finding the right information, but also as an insight into new issues and new ways of looking at an argument. At one recent MUN, students had to talk about the role of women in urbanisation. “At first sight, the topic looks a bit boring,” says Andreas. “But then, as students research, they realise there are so many issues to talk about. Why do women go to cities? To find work. What are the jobs? How do those jobs affect the lives of women and their children? What are their living conditions? These are real issues that have to be dealt with. I think many students are more mature when they return. They are now aware that these issues are not just for politicians.”
Akbarhon Muminov (Grade 10) agrees. “After identifying the status of the issue, and the nation’s stance, a delegate needs to write a resolution, which requires great problem-solving skills,” he says. “When writing that resolution, the delegate attempts to address the issue in an organised and effective manner. In the three conferences I have attended, I have written more than six resolutions, which have helped me develop these skills.”
A good public speaker also needs to be able to empathise. Social media marketing manager Amanda Fakhreddine, Class of 2006 (2000-2005), attended the Harvard Model Congress while at ZIS and was shocked to be assigned the role of a female Republican senator arguing against a healthcare reform bill. “I thought: that’s the opposite of everything my parents believe! I can’t be this person! But it was a really interesting insight into how to argue for the other side – to learn more about her positioning, where she was and where her experience had brought her. It’s definitely given me the experience and foresight to see both sides of the argument.”
Of course, mastering the art of persuasion is just the beginning. The real question is: what will you do with it? For Lara Chammas, Class of 2015 (2013-2015), the answer is surprising. Now a biology student at Imperial College London, at ZIS Lara took part in the MUN and hosted the TEDxYouth@Adliswil event in 2014 – which then expanded to become TEDxYouth@Zurich in 2015 – and, as a result, is a consummate public speaker.
“When I first started, I was very nervous about having to talk to some of these very important people and ask them to hand in speeches. But then I realised that we were all working at the same level. So now at university, I don’t feel intimidated when I ask my professors questions,” she says.
But Lara points out that being a capable public speaker is just as crucial outside the classroom, too. “If you want to do research, you have to be a good public speaker. You have to sit in front of committees to ask for grants, or if you want to get your research known you need to be able to talk to the media. Public speaking is not just for business any more. It’s something that’s taking over the world of science, too.”
“People very quickly come to a conclusion about who you are and what you are by listening to you talk. So you’d better know how to speak with conviction.”
Geoffery Merszei Class of 1969 (1966-1969)
Indeed, it’s unusual to find an area of modern life where public speaking skills aren’t essential. Business leader Geoffery Merszei, Class of 1969 (1966-1969), a member of the AISZ Board of Trustees (1992-96) and Chairman of the Board of Trustees in 1995/96, says that when he first entered corporate life, public speaking was not something he relished.
“I was frightened to death about giving speeches and presentations. Like being scared of flying, the best way to overcome this fear is to get on the plane and fly. And it’s the same with public speaking. I realised if I ever wanted to be a manager, I had to get up there and talk – so I forced myself to do it. People very quickly come to a conclusion about who you are and what you are by listening to you talk. So you’d better know how to speak with conviction.”
For Geoffery, gaining confidence as a public speaker stood him in good stead – he went on to become Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of The Dow Chemical Company. But how did he hone his speaking skills? By observing the speakers around him – good and bad. Ronald Reagan, for example, kept his language very simple – but his power as a speaker lay in his presentation. “It never felt like he was talking to millions of people, because his eye contact was incredible,” Geoffery says. “He had that ability to connect with his audience through a camera lens like nobody else. He spoke to the camera as if he was talking to a dear friend. We can’t all be like Ronald Reagan but we can try to anticipate what the audience is interested in. It’s not what you want to talk about, it’s what they want to hear that matters.”
ZIS’s current crop of students are taking the power of public speaking forward, emboldened by the confidence and inspiration it can give. When Elsa Lemmila (Grade 6) first spoke at the Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN) in Rome, she admits that she was nervous. But, she says, the more she got used to it, the less worried she became. She’s now had numerous opportunities to speak in front of parents, students and teachers at ZIS, giving her valuable skills as well as new insights.
“My experience at ZIS has taught me that if you have researched properly and know what you will be talking about, it gives you more confidence,” she says. “I have grown to like public speaking more than I expected, because of my positive experiences. I think it’s important that young people should learn how to speak publicly because it is a skill you might need to persuade people to take action for good in the world.
“Martin Luther King Jr made amazing speeches about freedom and rights for black people. He needed to be confident about speaking in front of thousands of people. A lot of people may think that they could never be like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, but it doesn’t matter. Small actions matter too, meaning a small impact – a small speech to a handful of people – can be just as important as a big one.”