This morning found me sipping coffee while reading an article in The New York Times by Ed Simon called “In Praise of Wonder.” It was timely and poignant. And, as most things are, it was highly applicable to communication. In the article, Simon proposes a new solution to the troubles of this world: wonder. He writes, “We do not have to look far into the current state of the world to realize that this time requires a return to wonder — what I would call a “politics of wonder,” predicated on both empathy and celebration of difference.”
This is the time of year for reflecting as we look back over the past year and ahead to the new one. My thoughts often drift to pondering the role communication will continue to play in society. It’s a time of divisive rhetoric. We need talented speakers who understand, perhaps more than ever, the role of the orator. We need communicators who are carefully and skillfully able to speak not only to what is but also to what if. Speakers who understand the purpose of wonder.
One of the roles of a speaker is to set the perspective for her audience. She needs to help them clearly see the here and the now, giving a state of the union of sorts. That’s easy enough in positive times, when things are thriving. You can freeze that moment in all of its glory and celebrate. And sometimes we need to do that. Slow down time. Look around. Take it all in. Be grateful for the good.
But to say “here’s where we are” is more difficult when things aren’t going as expected. Still, the audience respects a speaker who is able to paint the picture of the present in accurate strokes. Georgetown University professor of management, Robert Bies says that withholding or skewing information is never a good idea. So as you seek to define what is, celebrate great accomplishments, but also be honest and open when things aren’t great.
Once a speaker has painted the picture of what is, she gets to move toward what if. This is where much of the wonder comes in. The speaker has the unique ability to travel with the audience into the future to imagine what could lie ahead. In the Harvard Business Review, TED Curator Chris Anderson says, “When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey. A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward.” Journeys? Miracles? New views of the world? We’ve entered into the realm of the what if, into the realm of wonder.
I believe wholeheartedly in the power of speech to make the world better. I wouldn’t teach it, write about it, or practice it if I didn’t. Simon ends his article with these lines, “To put wonder at the center of our personal and political lives is not denialism, but a rebellion against the life-denying strictures of the present.” Perhaps it’s time we gave wonder a more prominent place in our presentations.
As we stand before audiences great and small, we can speak from a place of wonder. Powerful oratory in schools, in boardrooms, in churches, in government buildings, and in homes can give us great hope for tomorrow. It can move us from what is to what if.
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