What lies ahead in 2016 for public speakers

A presidential election year usually means that it’s silly season, but this one tops them all, the author says. In other news, video will become ever more popular as a content format.

Once a year about this time I get the inescapable urge to predict the year ahead in public speaking.

For the last few years, I haven’t acted on that urge, but this year I’m going to, mostly because the world has become so silly and, well, stupid, that it’s impossible not to comment.

So, here goes—with the caveats that it’s just my opinion and we’re only in mid-January—my take on what the year 2016 will look like. Be warned: This is a bit of a rant. If you don’t like rants, don’t read on.

1. Put on your rhetorical seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. It’s silly season in the United States—the presidential elections. This time around, the candidates are already throwing in the towel on the truth—facts no longer matter, and we haven’t even had the first primary. The lies that the Republicans are telling about the Democrats are equaled only by the lies the Democrats are telling about the Republicans.

It promises to be the saddest, dumbest, most hate-filled public discourse we’ve ever seen here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave—and that’s saying a lot. All when we need intelligent discussion more than ever.

Two particularly egregious examples come to mind—the Republicans trying to outdo each other on cracking down on immigration, when the net flow at the Texas border is now negative—people are going the other way. The opportunities are better in Mexico.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are trying to sound tough on terrorism, when the facts are that since 9/11, fewer than 50 Americans have died on U.S. soil because of Islamic terrorism, and more than 200,000 have died from ordinary murder. On top of that, some 50,000 Americans die every year from opioid overdoses.

We are worrying about the wrong things.

The TSA will spend some $42 billion dollars in 2016 on what the experts call “security theatre” (and that’s not a compliment) purportedly to stop terrorism at the airports, when Americans are in greater danger of drowning in the bathtub or being struck by lightning.

2. Donald Trump’s success so far means that the call for authenticity is more irresistible than ever. We have finally eschewed marketing hype altogether for authenticity. Weirdly, Trump’s fast and loose relationship with the truth doesn’t seem to hurt him in the authenticity stakes-because he’s emotionally available. So, apparently, what we’re really talking about is the ability to emote.

We now officially mistake intensity for authenticity. W. B. Yeats said it best, in 1919, after World War I:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Perhaps it’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s still upsetting. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of authenticity—just not fake authenticity.

3. If you can’t tell a good story, you won’t get any attention. I see this trend as positive, more or less, because good storytelling is memorable, clear and colorful. Still—as noted in point No. 1—sometimes the facts get lost in a good story. The best stories provide a shape—an arc—to the experience they’re relating, so by definition they stretch or modify the truth.

Those Hollywood movies that begin with the “based on a true story” disclaimer do so because Hollywood knows that you’ll pay more attention if you think the story has some relationship to the truth, not because the writers, directors and actors in Hollywood care more about the truth than politicians.

Enjoy the stories, but check the facts when it counts.

4. Forget about the word; this is the era of the image. Since about 2007, we’ve lived in a blogger’s paradise, where a blog was defined as a written piece. Now, we’re in the middle of moving to a visual world. Blogging won’t die, but it will change. Instead of writing this, I should be shooting it on video.

The single most important skill in the future will be the ability to get your point across in a short video. By short, I mean not much longer than a Super Bowl ad—and some of those tell a complete story in 15 seconds. That’s a kind of art.

5. Finally, the anger, misinformation and misery of our era will continue unabated. I used to predict a return to optimism, or at least civility. I no longer think that’s possible this year. The world is too afraid, upset and paranoid to let us return to decency. Sorry.

As W. B. Yeats said in that terribly percipient poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Thank goodness for air bags. Stay safe out there.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.


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