THE ART OF PERSUASION>
High up on the list of priorities of agencies working for the advancement of the blind and visually impaired, stands the word outreach; an intriguing word, of which the semantic meaning overshadows its practical application. So strong is the semantic appeal of it, that few of us recognize that there are many pitfalls in it, such as:
- 1- Everybody seems to take it for granted that outreach should be a priority, without asking the question why and if so when and where, let alone how!
- 2 - Everybody seems to take it for granted that anybody can indulge in outreach, without any specialized knowledge and expertise in the field.
Outreach is considered extremely important; the requisites for executing a programme of outreach are considered to be negligible. Isn't that a rather contradictory approach, which we cannot only observe in our own region, but even in the so-called highly developed countries? One only has to cast a cursory glance at brochures, flyers, annual reports and the like to get the strong impression, that ours is a world of amateurs, at least in the field of outreach! Any worker for the visually handicapped, and especially any blind person is, so it seems, by virtue of his or her job or his or her handicap, qualified as an expert in outreach. The result is, usually a sort of circus performance in which the blind beast shows off how well he was trained and the tamer proves his dare-devilish skills in performing the seemingly impossible...
I'm sorry if that sounds very harsh, but I'm convinced that we ought to sit down and discuss a few basic questions if we want to achieve the objectives that we have set out for ourselves. The first one is the question why.
Let's put it bluntly again: the visually handicapped are a very conspicuous group of human beings, especially the totally blind amongst them, even though, in most countries they are a small minority of the population. The mere fact that they are a small minority and that they are so conspicuous, changes them from human subjects into weird objects. We do not speak about "a man who is blind" but about a "blind man" blindness is his primary asset , not being a human being. Unfortunately many a blind person confirms this popular attitude by trying to demonstrate at all cost, how clever he is, in spite of his blindness. That brings us to two important fields where outreach is a dire necessity:
- a) outreach towards the general society in order to change attitudes; and
- b) (just as imperative) outreach towards the visually handicapped in order to change their own attitudes towards themselves.
We shall call these the primary objectives of outreach so that we are left with the question whether there may also be secondary ones? There are of course, but we have to be careful about them, for two main reasons:
- 1 - there is a general strong tendency to shift the secondary ones to first place; and
- 2 - there is a great danger inherent in them of confirming, rather than changing negative attitudes.
The first secondary objective of outreach is the urgent need most of us have: money ! The greatest danger in our fund-raising drives is that they confirm public attitudes; after all, the easiest way to get people to open up their wallets is by appealing to their sense of benevolence towards the less privileged. It is so much more difficult to persuade people that they should be partners in a common struggle for a better society. Yet, this latter motivation should be the motivation.
The other secondary objective of outreach is of course sight preservation. However, as I said in another article: too much emphasis on this subject entails the risk of getting mixed up in the primary goals of agencies engaged in service delivery to the visually handicapped. Moreover, one of the side effects of sight preservation programmes usually is that impaired vision and certainly blindness are depicted as one of the curses of mankind, thereby once again, unwillingly, confirming negative public attitudes towards the blind and visually impaired. This aspect of sight preservation programmes is generally overlooked.
In other words: outreach is a necessity, but it needs to be approached with great care and that is where my main point comes up: the questions when, where and how? The last one deserves our attention first and since we want to keep this article as concise as possible, the others shall have to wait for some other opportunity. That does not mean that they are less important.
Being blind is no warranty for good advocacy on behalf of the blind and visually impaired; in the same way, being an expert worker in the service delivery section of agencies for the visually handicapped does not automatically imply expertise in the field of outreach. Outreach is a matter of informing an audience in such a way, that the information is persuasive to the extent of changing insight or, perhaps, rather of implanting insight in the audience. (the word audience is being used in its widest possible sense).To achieve just that, requires a special discipline of insight in the psychological approach of an audience and of knowledge of the practical techniques, necessary to address an audience. We all ought to be aware of the fact, that that kind of discipline is not inherent in expertise in another field.
The art of speaking and the art of writing are the art of persuading. Arts are certainly not exempt from innate talents, but innate talents will seldom develop into arts if they are not thoroughly cultivated and trained. Our excuse is of course, that we lack both the human and financial resources to hire experts in the field of outreach. That this is indeed an excuse, is demonstrated by the fact that in those places where they do not lack the funds, the general picture is not much different from ours, so that it is really a matter of wanting to do it ourselves. That would be less of a problem if we realized ourselves that we cannot possibly do a good job, without having had the necessary training for it. We all take a very strong stand on this point, when it comes to our own profession, such as: social work, rehabilitation, teaching, administration and other professional skills, but when it comes to outreach the field is free for all amateurs to try their luck. The reason is simple: outreach not only offers an opportunity to inform but also to perform and that is where we end up in the circus of self promotion. One only needs to take a quick glance at politicians, to know what kind of ambiguous information that leads to.
THE ART OF SPEAKING
When we have to address an audience, the temptation is always there to show off. I do not think anybody is completely free from that bias. Yet, our goal must be to inform the audience, not to impress it and yet, again, at the same time if we want to persuade the audience, we shall have to impress it. That sounds contradictory but it is a matter of not mixing up goals and means.
"Oh, he spoke so beautifully!" someone exclaimed on leaving the church one Sunday morning. I, for one had sat through the sermon in increasing irritation as it consisted of nothing but one long string of so-called "beautiful words" which contained no message at all. apparently, empty phrases appeal to a lot of people, especially to public speakers themselves (!), but they certainly do not achieve any goal.
Within the limited context of this article, it is impossible to present an in-depth discussion of all aspects of public speaking. The only thing we can do is to sum up the most important points that we have to keep in mind when preparing an outreach programme, such as:
- <> Nobody can make a good, persuasive public speech, without thorough preparation. All good orators will give you the impression that they are speaking off-hand, but you can bet on it that they wrote out their address completely and corrected it several times, before presentation.
- <> All good public addresses contain certain highlights at regular intervals, to keep the attention of the audience alive. Depending on the subject, and the audience, such highlights may be jokes, or candid anecdotes or striking examples of the arguments. Much depends upon the speaker's ability to interact with the audience. Especially the opening remarks should be adapted to the specific audience one is going to address. Like the man who, in a very cold air- conditioned room, started his presentation saying: "If my nose is blue, it's not because of alcohol, but because I think I'm freezing!" We must be very careful, however, to avoid that the highlights do not dominate the arguments; they should illustrate the information, not replace it.
- <> It is essential for public speakers, to have a good command of the language they speak in and know at least the basics of logical argumentation. That does not mean that one should shun the use of local colloquialisms; on the contrary! Trying to impress a local audience with an Oxford English accent in the Caribbean is plainly foolish, unless, of course the non-local accent is the speaker's natural one.
- <> If the speaker, or anyone else participating in an information programme, is a congenitally blind person, he or she should be very well aware of the adverse effect of blindisms on a sighted audience. If he or she is incapable of controlling them, he/she should not participate in an outreach programme. All blind people must rely on the advice of their sighted relatives or friends as to their outward appearance. For the congenitally blind, it is especially necessary, that they be aware of the fact that a pair of unnaturally looking eyes make an almost uncanny impression upon the sighted. Wear dark glasses, whether you like it or not!
- <> It is important that the person delivering a public address has an agreeable voice and diction. Nothing is more boring than having to listen to the drone of an unpleasant voice, however interesting and important the information may be.
- <> Forthright annoying is the frequent use of expletives and the arrogant repetition of "Okay?" (or its equivalent in other languages).
- <> A usually very successful formula is the combination of a fluent speaker with an expert giving demonstrations and further, expert, explanations.
THE ART OF WRITING
The primary prerequisite for writing is good command of the language one writes in; of its vocabulary, its grammatical structure, its idiomatic diversities, its style forms. If in a public address, poor grammar may be acceptable as part of using the "local lingo" in writing, there is no excuse for it, except in fiction writing where a local environment has to be portrayed. Even then, the authors using such creolized English have made a profound study of it and have an excellent command of the creolized grammatical structure.
However, fiction is not our concern; our goal is, to get information across to people, in one form or another. Once again, within the context of this article I can hardly be expected to offer a complete course on how to write. Moreover, in our agencies, we are faced with a number of different forms of writing, each of them with their own specific requirements. They are: 1. correspondence; 2. minutes; 3. reports; 4. fliers; 5. brochures; 6. press releases; 7. newspaper and magazine articles.
Each of these subjects really needs separate treatment, so, in this article we shall have to limit ourselves to a few brief hints to give you a general indication, in what direction the art of writing should be developed. There are of course numerous books available that can help you to advance your writing skills in any of the fields mentioned above.
Although agency correspondence and external reports, certainly have a strong aspect of outreach, or at least, of public relations to them we shall not discuss them in this article (same as minutes) and limit ourselves to those matters that are directly related to outreach.
- <> Fliers can be very useful to draw the attention of the public to your organization and its work and reach new clients. Therefore, they should, in the first place be attractive; therefore,the lay-out should be made by a sighted person with artistic talents. They should not contain any argumentation, but pleasantly readable information only, just enough to make people want to find out more about you.
- <> One of the best ways to write any text and certainly the text of a flier, is to write out all the information you wish it to contain without paying too much attention to its length and then strike out every sentence, clause and word, that is not absolutely necessary to convey the information. This is, in any case an excellent exercise, because it makes us keenly aware of all the superfluous words we tend to use, to express our thoughts.
- <> A brochure may give more extensive information, but should still contain very brief chapters with attractive headlines to draw the reader's attention to them. Headlines should be captions not slogans. That goes for all forms of publication except for advertisements. Also in the case of brochures as in any form of writing, as a matter of fact, the strike out technique yields the best results.
- <> Press-releases are very important but must be used only when one really has news for the press. The press media will surely get fed-up with you if you want to get into the news for every little thing you do and especially, if you use press-releases as a substitute for advertisements. Not only the press media will get fed up with you if you try to use them for this kind of promotion; the reading public will too! Many people speak out; few have something to say! Don't speak out, if you don't have anything to say! A press- release should contain all the basic information you want to convey in the first paragraph. That gives especially radio stations the chance to use just that paragraph as their news item on you and many newspaper readers, who are in the habit of reading introductions only, will still get the basic facts that way. In the rest of your press release, you can then expand the basic information with further details. Make your paragraphs very short! Newspaper columns are very narrow and long paragraphs give the impression of an unattractive gray mass.
- <> A newspaper or magazine article is quite a different matter. The head-line and the introductory paragraph should be captivating to urge the reader to want to know more and go on reading. And mind you: the reader isn't interested in you, at least not in the first place, but in the information you have to offer.
- <> No good author has ever published anything without correcting and altering it, at least two or three times! We have a problem for the blind there and want to urge them, to do all their writings first in braille on old cheap writing paper that can be thrown away afterwards. (Unless you are a proficient computer user.) It is not possible to sit before a type writer and do a good article, at first sight. The times I had to do so, because I had to work against a deadline, I always regretted it afterwards.
- <> Not even the best author is capable of avoiding such pitfalls as contamination, i.e. the repeated use of the same word or expression. It is only after reading back the first draft that one suddenly becomes aware of them. Writing, by talking into a cassette-player, may seem a good alternative for blind people, but it is a lot easier to correct a written text, than a recorded one, unless the recorded text is the alteration of a written one and can undergo final alterations, while typing it out.
- <> An article is not a report, though many good reports read like articles. Newspapers and magazines try to draw the attention of the readers to the articles contained in them, by an attractive lay-out format. If your article looks like and reads like a report, you can rest assured that many a reader will simply skip it, because he is not only reading to be informed but also as a form of distraction. While being informed, he wants to be entertained as well!
THE ART OF PERSUASION?
Have I succeeded in persuading you? If not altogether, at least partially? If not, this was not a good article.
First published in Caribbean Vision April 1987