Monthly Archives: September 2014

Critical Thinking (and speaking) Off the Cuff

What’s the relationship between critical thinking and effective speaking? Author John Coleman recently posted this useful short piece on the HBR Blog: 5 Tips for Off-the-Cuff Speaking.

The first thing that struck me about it was that each of Coleman’s tips is related to a key aspect of critical thinking. Here are Coleman’s 5 tips, with my annotations:

1. Define a structure. Coleman worries about speeches that “ramble without purpose.” Those aren’t much fun to listen to. And, I would add, if your goal is to convince or to motivate, a poorly-structured (or unstructured) speech won’t do it. This is why students in my class learn to diagram arguments.
2. Put the punchline first. “Any presentation,” argues Coleman, “should have a clear thesis stated up front so that listeners can easily follow and interpret the comments that follow.” In other words, you should know what your conclusion is, and be plain about that.
3. Remember your audience. Coleman favours tailoring your speech to your audience because it will put them at ease, and make them feel at home. I would add that, if your purpose is to be persuasive, you need to put forward arguments rooted in premises that your audience is likely to accept. And how can you do that without knowing your audience?
4. Memorize what to say, not how to say it. This is another reminder that the key ideas and how they fit together is what really matters. Critical thinking is about abstracting the key ideas from the fluff around them.
5. Keep it short. A good, clear argument is typically brief. Think critically about all the other stuff you’re tempted to say. Is it making a contribution, or — more likely — just getting in the way?