Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Speaking from Strength

While I'm teaching a public speaking course over the winter break - 16 weeks of content and performance (and drama of all kinds) in 12 days - I've been thinking lately about ways to augment my students' learning with some of the insights gleaned from StrengthsQuest training.

As you may know, StrengthsQuest stems from Positive Psychology research suggesting that people generally possess a matrix of themes that are colloquially termed "strengths." The word may be misleading because a "strength" for one person, no matter how that quality is positively defined, may be viewed as meaningless or even counter-productive to another person.

Thus one person may possess the strength of "competition," striving to win in contests against other people, while another person may gain strength from "harmony," avoiding conflict and seeking common ground. From this perspective, a harmonizer risks acting from a relatively weak position by trying to adopt the persona of a competitor. That's perhaps why the StrengthsQuest folks label each strength in the less directive term of "theme."

More interestingly, the initial StrengthsQuest applications that I've explored encourages folks to concentrate less on one particular theme and more on the matrix of their top five themes (as determined through various tests and exercises). One would imagine that the resulting matrix produces a coherent "whole self" that is easily readable as a narrative for how to be at one's best.

The truth, as always, is much more complex. Whether due to the vagaries of assessment tools or the complexities of human beings, a person's matrix frequently includes themes that appear to contradict each other. Upon reflection, this seeming inconsistency makes a lot of sense. Most people are synergistic, emerging from various and sometimes disparate parts. Even harmonizers may be "competitively" mellow.

How can StrengthsQuest aid public speakers? Initially - and I need to do a lot more thinking about this - students might benefit from mapping several of the 34 themes onto the Greek concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos (old-standby terms in many public speaking classes). Here, I assume that all speakers present some composition of these three qualities, distilled for the sake of conversation into "personal credibility," "emotional appeal," and "logical organization."

So, if a student speaker identifies a five themes as primary strengths, and those strengths relate closely to pathos, perhaps that speaker might wish to investigate ways to capitalize on that component, to master its intricacies and complexities, to be a pathos-based speaker when circumstances allow.

Certainly that speaker must also convey some degrees of ethos and logos, just as any person must practice underdeveloped strengths from time to time. Even harmonizers must compete occasionally, and all speakers must convey at least a little credibility and organization in virtually all situations. But the principle remains: experienced speakers develop a speaking persona that emerges from their strengths, not just their speaking situations. Speaking from their strengths, they tend to be more genuine and confident, and ultimately more effective.

At some later date, I might return to this idea, augmenting this thread with a question I plan to share with my students today: When you're giving a speech, how do you know if you're doing well?

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