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What Is a Demagogue?

Christopher Witt —  November 24, 2015 — Leave a comment

What is a demagogue?In ancient Greece a demagogue was a leader who championed the rights of the common people.

Today we think of a demagogue as a speaker who whips up people’s fears and anger, plays to their prejudices, and makes false claims and promises.

(Unfortunately, we have too many examples of demagogues both here in the U.S. and in Europe.)

In times of crisis and turmoil demagogues play an important, although not necessarily salutary, role.

  1. Demagogues define “us,” our identity, values, and basic beliefs.

They affirm who and what “we” are, primarily by distinguishing us from “them.” Demagogues do not fault us in any way, except perhaps for doubting ourselves and our unique destiny. We are the good people, common folk who are just trying to live our lives decently and in peace. But we and our way of life are under attack.

  1. Demagogues identify “them,” the cause of all our troubles.

“They” are, first of all, not us. They don’t look like us. They don’t act like us. They don’t believe like us. They are women; ethnic, racial, or religious minorities; immigrants; and gays. They say they want equality, but what they really want is what we have—our rights, prerogatives, and privileged status—and they are taking them from us. They are evil.

  1. Demagogues personify and praise strength.

We are, they say, at war. It may be a war of ideas and values or an armed conflict. But it a war nonetheless. They started it, but we will finish it, using any means necessary. Because of our overwhelming strength and the rightness of our cause, we will be victorious as long as we remain resolute. Weakness, hesitation, uncertainty on our part play into their hands, the hands of the enemy. What we need now more than ever is a strong leader. Better to be strong and wrong than weak and right.

  1. Demagogues advocate violence.

    Their speeches are verbally violent: laced with insults and put-downs, ethnic and racial slurs, and demeaning stereotypes. They spew lies and half-truths. They shout down opponents. They assure us that it fitting and proper—sometimes even sanctioned by God—to attack those who threaten us and our way of life.
  2. Demagogues pander to their audiences.

Demagogues look and sound strong. They get credit for saying what others are too timid or “politically correct” to say. But their message lacks substance. It offers no new insights, nothing that can stand up to logic or reason. They merely voice the worst fears, the sense of loss, and the rage felt by a certain segment of society. They repeat, reinforce, and amplify people’s established prejudices. They tell their audiences only what they want to hear.

We ignore demagogues at our own peril. Although they ultimately flame out, they can cause a great deal of damage before doing so.

And we would be wise to pay attention to their followers, to listen to their sense of alienation and loss and rage. It would be too easy, otherwise, to make them the new “them,” the cause of all society’s ills.

Whether you love Donald Trump or hate him, you can learn a lot about public speaking from watching him. Especially about gaining an audience’s attention.

I, personally, find nothing appealing or attractive about Donald Trump. His appearance, reputation, ideas, lifestyle, and style of speaking annoy, even antagonize me.

And yet I find him fascinating.

He commands people’s attention. Whether you applaud his every utterance or shudder in revulsion, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

That’s what it means to fascinate: to transfix and hold spellbound by an irresistible power; to command the interest of.

Donald Trump’s #1 Public Speaking Lesson: Get Attention!

If you’re not able to gain and hold your audience’s attention, you may as well stop speaking because your audience has stopped listening.

And Donald Trump has mastered the art of gaining an audience’s attention.

Lessons from Trump about Commanding Attention

  1. Be Yourself.
    No one’s going to mistake Donald Trump for anyone else. And that’s the way it should be. The first principle of public speaking is you are the message. Who you are as a person — your character and reputation, experience, values, likes and dislikes — shapes how people hear and interpret what you say. Don’t stand off to the side in darkness, ceding center stage to a screen. Don’t be objective or impersonal. Be yourself.
  2. Take a Strand.
    Do you have any doubt where Trump stands on any issue he addresses? Of course not. He’s taken Churchill’s advice to heart: “When you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time — a tremendous whack.” Don’t dilute your message. Don’t make people guess at what you mean or want them to do.Tell them.
  3. Don’t Be Boring. 
    Trump is — depending on your preferences — refreshing, blunt, arrogant, willing to buck the system, self-serving, or dead-wrong. But boring, he isn’t. And you shouldn’t be either. Not if you want to keep an audience’s attention. You don’t have to be an entertainer to be interesting. You just have to be interested in (maybe even passionate about) your topic and your audience.

Of course, it isn’t enough to command an audience’s attention

Getting an audience’s attention is the beginning point, not the goal of speaking.

The goal of speaking is to bring about a change in your audience. A change in the way people think and feel and act. A change for the better, not the worse.

“The wise speak because they have something to say,” Plato said. “Fools because they have to say something.”

What could a late-night comic teach a beginning public speaking? As it turns out, quite a lot.

I had a hard time getting started as a public speaker.

I was terrified, stiff, and awkward. I made embarrassing verbal blunders, which made me more terrified, stiff, and awkward.

I would prepare and rehearse — over-prepare and over-rehearse — my speeches.

I would deliver them from memory. And I was happy if I got through the whole thing without some major mishap.

At the time I thought a speech was a transfer of content from me (the person who knows) to the audience (the passive recipients).

As long as I had good stuff to present and got it all said, I thought my speech was a success.

One of my speech teachers turned my thinking around.

He helped me realize that my saying that I thought needed to be said wasn’t as important as the audience hearing what they needed to know.

And he taught me that lesson in a strange way.

He asked me who my favorite comedian was. I said Johnny Carson. (Obviously, this was many, many years ago.)

He told me to watch Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show for a week, and see what I learned.

What did Johnny Carson do that made him so funny?

Here’s what I learned: It wasn’t his material. His jokes were sometimes very funny, sometimes not.

What made him funny was his interplay with the audience.

He’d throw out a joke. If people laughed, he smiled. If they didn’t laugh, he’d look pained. If they groaned, that’s when he would come into his own.

Carson played with the audience. And together he and audience often created something much funnier than before.

Johnny Carson taught me the importance of interacting with the audience. He taught me

  1. To present an idea, one piece at a time.
  2. To watch how my audience reacted to what I said. Did they get it? Were they with me? Did they smile and nod, or cross their arms and crease their foreheads?
  3. To respond to their response. If they didn’t get or didn’t agree with what I said, I couldn’t simply plunge on with my prepared remarks. I had to acknowledge and engage them.
  4. To treat a monologue (i.e. a speech) always as a dialogue, and to keep it lively.

A speech isn’t the content you deliver to the audience. A speech is how the audience interacts with you and your ideas in order to come to their own understanding.

Don't speak without a reasonPeople are giving too many speeches these days. Way too many. And it’s gotta stop.

Don’t get me wrong. I love speeches–good ones, anyway–and I believe that speeches are a great way to influence and inspire audiences. But people, especially leaders, are giving too many speeches and, by doing so, lessening their impact.

Here are 7 Reasons NOT to Give a Speech

1. You don’t have anything to say.

If you don’t have something intelligent, insightful, or helpful to say to a particular audience — or anything they haven’t heard before and already know — it would be better to say nothing at all.

2. It’s not the right time.

When do you address a pressing issue, a crisis, or a traumatic event? Do you speak when emotions are at a fever pitch, when wounds are fresh, or do you wait a while? And when it is too late? It takes wisdom to know when to speak and when to keep silent.

3. It’s not the right audience.

Don’t waste your time, consideration, and effort speaking to people who have no investment in you or your message, or who are clearly hostile and closed-minded. “Know your audience” is one of the most universally applicable pieces of advice when it comes to speaking. A corollary is, “Know which audiences aren’t your audience.”

4. It’s not the right event.

Most speakers underestimate the impact of the event in determining the success of their speeches. Before you agree to give a speech, find out 1) the schedule (when you’ll speak and what happens before, during, and after your speech, 2) the sponsoring organization, 3) the venue, 4) the room layout, and 5) physical factors (e.g. microphones, lighting, stage). I’ve been there, I know: some events are so poorly organized or present a different image from what you want to be associated with. If so, just say “no.”

5. You’re not the right person.

Just as some audiences aren’t right for you, you aren’t right for some audiences. Your unique values, interests, approach, personality, reputation, and style always come across in your speaking. (If they don’t, you’re doing something very, very wrong.) If you haven’t figured this out by now, I don’t know how to break it to you: not everyone will like you or trust you or be receptive to what you say. Vive la difference! Let someone else speak to them.

6. You don’t have the time.

Preparing a speech (a good one, anyway) requires time. Time to research your topic and your audience. Time to ponder. Time to craft your message and refine it. Time to rehearse it. If you don’t take the time, you’ll give a crappy speech or, at the very least, an utterly forgettable speech. Better not to give a speech at all than to give one that serves no purpose.

7. You don’t care.

If you aren’t passionate about the topic you’re asked to address, either find a way to turn the topic to something you do care about or decline to speak about it. How can you expect an audience to care about what you say when you don’t care?

Giving a speech is both an honor and an obligation, an opportunity to say and do something worthwhile. Use it wisely. You’ll have a greater impact if you speak less frequently and if speak only when you are the right person with the right message for the right audience at the right time.

courtesy of Neal Sanche at http://www.flickr.com/photos/thorinside/

courtesy of Neal Sanche at http://www.flickr.com/photos/thorinside/

Your credibility as a speaker is so critical that if you don’t have it — if the audience doesn’t find you credible — you might as well stop speaking.

Credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. For any number of reasons, consciously and unconsciously, people decide whether and how much they trust you. They often make snap judgments based on first impressions, which they then seek to confirm or to revise (mostly to confirm) after further experience.

Your credibility depends on three factors.

  1. Your Personal Credibility
    Are you reliable, honest, sincere? Are you a person of your word? Are you, in a word, trustworthy? (Trustworthiness and likability are not the same thing, but they are often linked in people’s minds. If they don’t like you, they’ll find reasons to distrust you. If they like you, they’ll tend to trust you.)
  2. Your Expertise
    Do you know what you’re talking about? Do you have the requisite experience, knowledge, and insight? Do you present yourself and your ideas credibly?
  3. Your Audience’s Judgment
    Their values, their likes and dislikes, their knowledge and experience, their prejudices are what ultimately determine your credibility to them. What makes you credible to one audience may make you incredible to another.

To establish your credibility when you’re giving a speech…

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