East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Hot licks and rhetoric

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Last night I attended a lecture about the ecology of the Belbo Valley – the Belbo Valley being the place where I live.
Being an environmental scientist by trade, you can imagine my curiosity and anticipation.
The end result was an increasingly embarrassing experience – poor contents, not fully understood by the speaker, and badly presented.

Now this got me thinking, on the way back home, about the tools for connecting with an audience.
Because it was doubtless that two thirds of the audience were enraptured despite the horrid lack of contents and unnerving presentation.
How come?

Obviously, an important element was the badge – the speaker was certified, she holds an important position closely related to the subject she was obviously very little familiar with.
People are likelier to accept at face value “facts” presented by someone’s that’s a veteran in the field.

Then, there was the well-balanced mix of banalities, stuff everybody knows (after all, the subject was local) and hastily name-checked and never fully explained technicalities.
Most of them wrong or imprecise to the point of being meaningless, But the mix of familiarity and super-science worked exactly like in a story from the golden days of “Scietifiction”.
To the general public, the sense of wonder created by seeing the familiar connected with strange and new science was clearly more important than the accuracy of the science.

Finally, there was the sense of personal familiarity – the lady used local dialect and slang to somehow modulate her status as “expert” – she was certified, sure, she had an (undeserved) authority, but she was also one of the guys.

Now, take the bad science out of the equation, and the above elements are very good – a competent speaker can graduate from good to excellent by using with intelligence these tools.

Just like a writer could.
The readers might be willing to suspend disbelief and not look too much into our rationales, if we can convince them we’re good folks.
Authoritative (we’re the author, after all!) but good folks anyway.
The two – authority and familiarity, balance each other like riding a seesaw.

And yet, as Steely Dan sang, hot licks and rhetoric don’t count much for nothing.
Or if you prefer, bluffing is all right, but does not work every time, with everybody.
Being good at what you are doing should always beat cheap tricks.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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