Publication Date

December 1, 1999

Editor's Note: The following essay is excerpted from ‘s Something in the Soil, soon to be published by W. W. Norton and Company, with whose permission the essay is reprinted here. Copyright 2000 by .

By an unfortunate theory, only a few academics can communicate with a broad audience. Rare individuals may speak with energy, charm, and clarity, but most professors are best left in peace in their preferred habitat, exchanging their findings with other specialists and lecturing students, who are enduring what they need to endure tosecure a college degree.

While it has many believers, the theory is almost entirely nonsense. Student impatience with dull lectures is a palpable force in today's classroom; professors whose speaking styles mimic the dull droning of a hive of bees teach tonearly empty rooms. Students used to the peppy pacing of Sesame Street and MTV have pushed many of us into developing far more engaging and interactive styles of expression; no longer can we, with impunity, read from yellowed lecture notes. The skills we have developed for our classrooms can, in a number of ways, carry over topublic audiences.

More important, effective communication with the public is an acquired, not an inherited, skill. Ten years ago, when the invitations to speak to nonacademic audiences started coming tome, I had no idea how toseize these opportunities. Over those years, partly through observations of others and partly through my own experiments (both successful and unsuccessful!), I have developed a set of strategies, techniques, and even tricks that work a lot more often than they fail. Anything in this list can be adapted, expanded, or discarded tofit personal style.

1. Early on, ask for copies of the agency's or organization's newsletters; if that is not an option, have an extensive conversation with a long-term member of the group. Read the newsletters or other printed material from the organization closely and thoughtfully, as if you were getting ready to write an ethnography of this interesting group. What are the group's preoccupations? Worries? Enthusiasms? Characteristic phrasings? Most often-used acronyms? In what ways is the group confronting unsettling change? (In these times, there is no chance of finding a group for whom that question does not apply.) How does the group feel misrepresented or misunderstood by the media or the rest of society? This background investigation gives you what you need to pitch your marks to the strike zone of your audience. Wonderfully, the audience will often have forgotten that so much information about them is available in the public record, and thus they will find it almost miraculous that you understand them so well. Sounding unexpectedly like an insider (or at least like someone who has spent time in bars or coffee shops with insiders), you gain considerable credibility. Comfortably deploying a few of the group’s characteristic acronyms, in a manner that suggests that these are terms that come up from time to time in your own casual conversation, has quite a happy way of advancing the impression that you are among friends.

2. Express sympathy for your audience's dilemma. It is, again, guaranteed that they have a dilemma. At the turn of this millennium, everyone feels pressed and faced with too many demands. Regardless of profession or ideology, Americans feel that they are being asked to keep doing what they were already doing, and also to keep up with a bunch of new developments and challenges. Since professors certainly feel that this has happened in their own professional lives, this provides fruitful territory for empathy. While it would, of course, be a mistake to dwell on the excessive demands placed on professors, thinking of the ways in which you yourself feel stretched and overcommitted offers an effective method acting technique for relating to an audience living with a similar sense of pressure.

3. Bow to the audience's expertise; the members of the audience, after all, live the experiences that you read about. Express anticipatory gratitude for the things that they know, things that you will soon benefit from learning (while this is in part a gesture of politeness, it is also a matter of substance, since you are in the happy position of an invited participant-observer among people whose testimony really will instruct you). Remark on the fact they know the subject under discussion in ways that are far more direct than far more distant knowledge. Though seemingly modest, this is also a prelude to demonstrating the value of distance in a perspective.

4. Take every opportunity to shuck off the academic stereotype that has surely preceded you. After the gestures of deference recommended in point 3, it will be very difficult for anyone to cast you as one of those know-it-all experts from the university. That stereotype anchors audience resistance to academics, and when you remove it from the tool kit, it can be pretty difficult to rebuild the walls of defensiveness and dismissal. Don't try to win the audience over with your own performance of academic bashing; they have already been supplied with everything they need along that line. Direct criticism of professors should not exceed a moment or two of gentle mockery of your people; most of the countering of the stereotype should occur, not in direct and spoken challenge, but in behavior that calls standard images of academics into question.

5. Surrender unnecessary dignity and claims on authority. On the Overland Trail in 1849, many travelers overpacked, and the weight of their baggage depleted the strength of their draft animals. In an almost exactly similar way, vanity and arrogance can only weigh you down and jeopardize your journey as a public intellectual. Of course, this recognition comes with some pain. All the time and trouble of getting a PhD can create a conviction that you are entitled to immediate and sustained respect, and often people are very generous in humoring you in that conviction. And yet, while the practice of the strategies recommended here will reduce the likelihood of attacks, you still have to be ready to absorb some direct verbal blows. If you protest the injustice of these blows, in any way that suggests that, as a PhD-carrying expert, you are entitled to a protected status, you will sound shrill and thin skinned. In this case, a little suffering in silence can pay off.

Of course, by the tenets of academic freedom, you are free to say whatever you want to whomever you like. There are often, however, good reasons to invoke "academic freedom" only when every other option is gone. Most people have few of the protections available to academics. In many forms of employment, jobholders have to spend a lot of their time calculating what they can and cannot say in front of the boss, and fearing penalties if they miscalculate. For individuals who live with those restrictions, academic freedom of expression can provoke considerable resentment, particularly because it is resentment rooted in envy. Thus, being a good sport proves to be a substantially better strategy than shrilly asserting your untrammeled right to speak your mind.

When facing a stiff challenge in front of an audience, breathe deeply, and try to respond in a tone in which you will seem the personification of reason and tolerance, forcing your opponent to struggle to regain the high ground and match you in good will. A soft answer may or may not turn away wrath, but it certainly makes wrath look bad.

6. Seize the moment when you make a mistake or inadvertently convey ignorance. Handled right, a moment of this sort can be so disarming that it would almost be worth erring on purpose. Fortunately, venturing into the world of other people's lives and occupations makes it unnecessary to err intentionally; for sure, you'll get something wrong. The attraction of error is this: when the audience points out your mistake, you have a wonderful opportunity to pursue the agenda of point 4, by thanking them.

7. Whenever the opportunity comes up to change your mind in public, take it. Demonstrate what it looks like when a reasonable person listens to evidence and a reasonable argument and says, in response, "I recognize the reasons for your position, and I will rethink my own." Americans are hungry for demonstrations of this ability to listen and to respond, since they rarely, if ever, get to see it at work in the national political scene. One of the most successful exchanges I have taken part in involved a debate on affirmative action with a conservative businessman. He and I agreed to argue on each other’s behalf; we have several times and attended closely to eachother’s position; at the event, we presented each other’s side as thoughtfully as we could; and we then returned to our actual positions for a period of reflection on what we had learned from each other. When we began our planning, we both thought we would perish from the discomfort of this exercise, but this fear proved ungrounded. Our audience seemed extremely relieved and pleased to see two people discuss a contentious subject with the goal of reciprocal understanding, and not mutually assured destruction.

8. If you are having a tough time and meeting direct hostility, think of this experience in terms of rodeo. The rodeo riders' scores depend on the defiance of the animals they ride; however skilled the riders might be, no one will see those skills unless they are tested. When a rodeo rider draws a docile, sweet-tempered animal, perfectly eager to be ridden, why show up for the competition? By analogy, there is no point in selecting audiences that you expect to agree with you. The wilder the ride, the higher your score; the wilder the ride, the greater adventure and achievement. Moreover, verbal injuries are immeasurably to be preferred over the physical dangers of rodeo. What an enviable situation! On our worst days, we end up insulted and miffed, but not fractured.

9. Make your peace with the fact that journalists control your access to a wider audience. Your fate as a public intellectual rests in large part on the good will of reporters. But there is no avoiding the fact that journalists work under tight mandates to write fast and to present complicated matters in simple terms. Thus, when a writer quotes you weirdly, or the quotation is accurate but madly out of context, and when you thereby register on the public record as a certified idiot, then you can only be a good sport and find this funny. Almost certainly, the journalist didn’t intend to destroy your reputation, and even if she did, she still controls the medium; any effort on your part to demand apology or correction will prove as unsatisfying as mud wrestling. Best to have a good laugh, and resolve to speak a little more carefully next time.

10. Deploy your pronouns in wily and strategic ways. Pronouns are so short and seemingly characterless that they can sneak across borders and infiltrate opposing camps without anyone noticing. If you are discussing a controversial subject, you can get a lot of mileage out of the use of "we," as in "we who stand in the middle," "we who are trying to understand all sides of this question." "We" can work like a butterfly net, thrown inclusively over your audience before they quite realize what is happening.

The pronoun "you" can be equally effective and reorienting. In talking to a largely white audience of university administrators, for instance, I have told stories about the dilemmas encountered by minority students. One African American student, from a pretty impoverished background, was filling out an application to be a dormitory resident assistant when she encountered the question: "Have you ever spent much time in the company of people from backgrounds different from your own?" At what time of the day, on our mostly white campus, was she not having this experience? As I said to the administrators, this question gave the student one of those moments when the universe says to you, "There is a norm, and you are not it.” Note: the “you” in the reference was a young black woman, while the “you” addressed was largely white males, who are, more often than not, permitted to believe they are the norm. In theory, the disparity in the “you”s should have made this story ineffective, maybe even w1intelligible. In fact, in this case and others, the bending and twisting of the pronoun “you” can sneak in a sense of empathy, community, loyalty, and shared experience that would probably encounter resistance if the speaker asked for it directly.

11. Do not "go subtle" when it comes to making your points or drawing your lessons. Audiences are much more attentive when you declare, "I see five—or eight or ten—principal issues here." They are reassured that you'll get on with it; the reputation of academics for "going on" is widespread, and the very idea that you are aware of the passage of time and are heading to a conclusion can lift their spirits. Moreover, planning a presentation in this way encourages the speaker to make sure that each of her "punch lines" is marked and noticeable. Once you have declared your number of salient observations, you dare not change plans; this device triggers vestigial habits of note taking in many, and if you decide to leave out point 6 in a list of 10, you will distress a significant percentage of the audience.

12. Celebrate the value of distance in a perspective. Years ago, in New Haven, our parked car was hit by another vehicle skidding on ice. The sorrowful result of this incident was a fender jammed up against the tire, thus preventing our car from moving. What to do? A pleasant person from a repair shop arrived with a device which, inched into place, then expanded to push the fender back away from the tire (thus permitting us to drive the car into the shop to find out how badly rearranged the wheel alignment now was). This wonderful service has stuck in my mind and provided the best analogy for the good work that a visiting academic can do in matters of public controversy. People in the midst of the fray have little room to think, and thoughtful, detached commentary on their situation can provide a wonderful respite, putting some space between the tire and the fender and restoring the possibility of movement.

13. Go to church, watch how preachers use parables, and imitate them. Tell stories, and then reflect on the stories, very much in the manner of a minister wrestling over the meaning of the Parable of the Talents or of Peter's Denials While the Cock Crowed Thrice. Stories will last in the memory long after declarations of abstract truths are gone. Selecting and polishing your best parables for public audiences is labor that carries over nicely to enrich your classroom presentations, your papers delivered at academic conferences, and your conversation at cocktail and dinner parties.

14. Every 10 minutes, do something to bring more oxygen to the listener's brains. If you are comfortable with humor, then give them the occasion to laugh. If using strategically timed humor makes you feel that you are painfully "trying to be funny," or, worse, trivializing a serious matter, do something else-ask the audience a question that allows them torespond audibly, yes or no, up or down, right or left, or to raise their hands, or tolook out the window or at the ceiling, or toturn and ask their neighbors something. Even those not stupefied by television, cinema, and web surfing can still get drowsy or find their attention wandering after a prolonged spell of listening. A small stimulus totake a deep breath and reoxygenate their brain cells will go a long way, in Reverend Jesse Jackson’s words, tokeep hope alive.

15. Hang out, and do not depart for the airport right after your talk. Stay for dinner; sit in the lobby of the convention hotel; hang around the hospitality suites; go on the field trips. These are wonderful opportunities for participant-observer work, but, more important, the self-important “rush to the waiting airplane will undermine everything you have worked to achieve in your presentation.

For professors who take up this line of work, there are plenty of rewards, but a few actions will make it more likely that the rewards get delivered to the right address. If you can remember, ask someone from your host agency or organization towrite a letter toyour university administrators, testifying tothe value of your service; make it clear to presidents, chancellors, and deans that you are doing good work in making friends and recruiting support for higher education. At some rapidly approaching moment, universities will have toreconsider their “reward structure,” which at present gives the most niggardly recognition for the category “service.” Ata meeting of Colorado county commissioners, one commissioner asked me how my university values my participation in gatherings like the one we were attending. I changed the subject, preferring not tolet him know that, under my current department procedures for awarding “merit points,” speaking for public officials would register at something like one-twentieth of a point (in contrast, publishing an article in a scholarly journal delivers eight full points). This system shouts out for its own reform.

And yet there is no necessary tug of war between activities as a public intellectual and activities as a scholar. When you speak to a public audience, you operate under a healthful and restorative mandate toescape specialization and think big. In truth, every academic field desperately needs synthesis; every topic lies buried under a flood of specialized studies. Speaking toa nonacademic audience puts you in the Noah role; while everyone else disappears in the flood, you make your selection of ark-mates and sail off safely. When you return toMount Ararat, or the academic world, you have taken the journey that will give you the perspective to put the details of academic studies into a larger picture. Gaining practice in confident but thoughtful generalization in your travels outside the university, : can come up with ideas that will advance your career as an academic.

Like players in any competitive sport, professors like prizes, and prizes can be productive incentives for altering behavior. Thus, I end with a few proposals for new prizes, designed to give status and standing to achievements that could play a big part in the redemption of higher education. Professional organizations, philanthropic foundations, or charitable individuals, all who seek to encourage greater engagement between academics and the broader community, are urged to make these ideas their own, with no constraints of intellectual property rights.

The Prize for the Most Dramatic Escape from Academic Specialization and Jargon

Candidates would submit before-and-after samples: first, the candidate's work when timidity most tightly tied her into a narrow field of inquiry; second, the candidate's work when courage returned, and she felt free to draw the most enterprising conclusions from her knowledge and to state those conclusions in the clearest language. This prize could celebrate a willingness to take chances, and to think hard about both forests and trees.

The Prize for the Most Forthright and Graceful Confession of Error

Before this prize can be awarded, scholarly journals will have to create a new feature, one guaranteed to please readers. Before the articles, the abstracts, the book reviews, the list of dissertation topics, will come the section called "Errors Admitted, Omissions Acknowledged, Oversights Recognized, Debts of Gratitude Belatedly Confessed." It is almost guaranteed that this section will be the first one readers turn to; checking it out will be an important way of "keeping up with the field," while also carrying considerable human interest. (I myself come well supplied with examples to get things started: the author of The Legacy of Conquest witlessly forgot to remark on her indebtedness to a number of her most valued predecessors—Josiah Royce, Angie Debo, Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, and especially Carey McWilliams. In a similarly goofy move, she left cities out of her portrait of western American history, even though the West is the most urbanized of regions.) Once these sections are in place in the journals, then it will be easy to institute the prize. The judges, who are themselves certified for their grace and good humor in admitting error, review the confessions of error, and select, as the winning entry, the most moving, the most honest, the most telling.

The Prize for the Best Demonstration That Communication Is a Two-Way Street

This award goes to the academic who goes out into the world to give a speech and returns to the university having learned something consequential from the people he met, with the material thus acquired appearing somewhere- in classroom lectures, in published writing-as proof that this communication went beyond the exchange of pleasantries and an honorarium.

The public intellectual, like any human being, is entitled to dreams, and I conclude with my wildest one. At the start of every football game at the University of Colorado, our mascot-a real, live buffalo named Ralphie-thunders out onto the field and runs in a grand, madly energetic circle, accompanied by student handlers in prime condition. Thus, I imagine a herd of professors pouring out of the university, unleashed from timidity, jargon, snobbery, and an exaggerated sense of purity. Students run alongside, enjoying the exercise, while enthusiasm for the university- for the students, the professors, and for the communities that benefit from their company-swells into a roar of applause.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.