Sunday, September 7, 2014

Authority is a Responsibility

There was a time in my professional life when I worked with researchers to help them make better presentations.

I always began my sessions with two things: a demonstration of common faults, and a mantra to give the speakers a mental support post. Classes in public speaking generally focus on voice projection, enunciation, and how to stand and move on a stage or lecture platform. Those are skills many otherwise assertive and vocal people lack when they stand before an audience of their peers. Developing those abilities however, demands more than physical moves and voice control.

The common faults are easy to demonstrate. Using the podium as a rock, for instance: grabbing it and holding on as if one were about to be blown off the stage by a tornado. Another is pacing back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, distracting the audience and getting tangled in the microphone cord. There are others, and techniques to overcome them. Those techniques are demonstrable, and can be learned. The mantra is much more difficult, especially if you are new to being the center of attention among  strangers. Public speaking, whether it is a conversation with a small group or a presentation from the stage of a large auditorium, requires a certain mind set.

“The podium is your authority,” I would say. I would repeat it many times in the days we met as a group: The podium is your authority. Standing at the lectern, or simply being introduced as the speaker, you are granted a position of authority. People will believe what you say or take issue with your assertions and conclusions, but if you are challenged, you have a bigger hammer than someone in the audience. The same is true for writers.

When you have published an article, or a story or a book, the very physical properties of the printed word lend heft to your opinions and conclusions, your assertions and your interpretations. That applies especially to electronic publication, whether an e-zine or social media site.

Being published, and thereby becoming an authority, brings with it certain responsibilities as well as rights. One must at some point take responsibility for one’s assertions and beliefs, especially it they are put forward by the professional and public “you.” That responsibility extends, it seems to me, to whatever mischief one may create, or harm one may cause. It is a heavy responsibility. But the originator is not the only one responsible.

As a reader, just as when you are part of a live audience, you have a responsibility to probe for the truth of what you hear and read. Do you trust your source? Believe everything you hear? Support as true everything you read? And is it possible to do that? Given the amount of information coming our way every day, every hour, from reporters, researchers, even politicians, do you have time to examine every news report, book, television program or even conversation critically and objectively? If you don’t, then you may be contributing to misinformation, misunderstanding and mischief in general.

In this modern world, one cannot believe everything one hears. Or reads. Or sees. So here’s a simple way to pursue truth: when the first news reports of an incident or event come to you in whatever way you receive news, put it aside. Wait a few days or a week before deciding on its validity. If the facts reported first don’t change materially in that time, then you have a solid podium on which to lean. You have authority.

You have a responsibility to seek the truth; it is what makes us free.

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