How to Speak: Watch the Lecture on Effective Communication That Became an MIT Tradition for Over 40 Years

In his leg­endary MIT lec­ture “How to Speak,” pro­fes­sor Patrick Win­ston opens with a sto­ry about see­ing Olympic gym­nast Mary Lou Ret­ton at a Celebri­ty Ski Week­end. It was imme­di­ate­ly clear to him that he was the bet­ter ski­er, but not because he had more innate ath­let­ic abil­i­ty than an Olympic gold medal­ist, but because he had more knowl­edge and prac­tice. These, Win­ston says, are the key qual­i­ties we need to become bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tors. Inher­ent tal­ent helps, he says, but “notice that the T is very small. What real­ly mat­ters is what you know.”

What some of us know about com­mu­ni­cat­ing effec­tive­ly could fill a greet­ing card, but it’s hard­ly our fault, says Win­ston. Schools that send stu­dents into the world with­out the abil­i­ty to speak and write well are as crim­i­nal­ly liable as offi­cers who send sol­diers into bat­tle with­out weapons. For over 40 years, Win­ston has been try­ing to rem­e­dy the sit­u­a­tion with his “How to Speak” lec­ture, offered every Jan­u­ary,” notes MIT, “usu­al­ly to over­flow crowds.” It became “so pop­u­lar, in fact, that the annu­al talk had to be lim­it­ed to the first 300 par­tic­i­pants.”

Now it’s avail­able online, in both video and tran­script form, in the talk’s final form from 2018 (it evolved quite a bit over the decades). Pro­fes­sor Win­ston passed away last year, but his wis­dom lives on. Rather than present us with a dry the­o­ry of rhetoric and com­po­si­tion, the one­time direc­tor of the MIT’s Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Lab­o­ra­to­ry offers “a few heuris­tic rules” dis­tilled from “prax­is in com­mu­ni­ca­tion approach­es that incor­po­rate Neu­rolin­guis­tics, Lin­guis­tics, Pale­oan­thro­pol­o­gy, Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence and Com­put­er Sci­ence,” writes Min­nie Kasyoka.

Winston’s research on “cre­at­ing machines with the same thought pat­terns as humans” led him to the fol­low­ing con­clu­sions about effec­tive speak­ing and writing—observations that have borne them­selves out in the careers of thou­sands of pub­lic speak­ers, job seek­ers, and pro­fes­sion­als of every kind. Many of his heuris­tics con­tra­dict decades of folk opin­ion on pub­lic speak­ing, as well as con­tem­po­rary tech­no­log­i­cal trends. For one thing, he says, avoid open­ing with a joke.

Peo­ple still set­tling into their seats will be too dis­tract­ed to pay atten­tion and you won’t get the laugh. Instead, open with an anal­o­gy or a sto­ry, like his Mary Lou Ret­ton gam­bit, then tell peo­ple, direct­ly, what they’re going to get from your talk. Then tell them again. And again. “It’s a good idea to cycle on the sub­ject,” says Win­ston. “Go around it. Go round it again. Go round it again.” It’s not that we should assume our audi­ence is unin­tel­li­gent, but rather that “at any giv­en moment, about 20%” of them “will be fogged out no mat­ter what the lec­ture is.” It’s just how the human mind works, shift­ing atten­tion all over the place.

Like all great works on effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Winston’s talk illus­trates his meth­ods as it explains them: he fills the lec­ture with mem­o­rable images—like “build­ing a fence” around his idea to dis­tin­guish it from oth­er sim­i­lar ideas. He con­tin­ues to use inter­est­ing lit­tle sto­ries to make things con­crete, like an anec­dote about a Ser­bian nun who was offend­ed by him putting his hands behind his back. This is offered in ser­vice of his lengthy defense of the black­board, con­tra Pow­er­Point, as the ulti­mate visu­al aid. “Now, you have some­thing to do with your hands.”

The talk is relaxed, humor­ous, and infor­ma­tive, and not a step-by-step method. As Win­ston says, you can dip in and out of the copi­ous advice he presents, tak­ing rules you think might work best for your par­tic­u­lar style of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and your com­mu­ni­ca­tion needs. We should all, he empha­sizes, hone our own way of speak­ing and writ­ing. But, “while he nev­er explic­it­ly stress­es the ulti­mate need for rhetor­i­cal devices,” Kasyoka points out, he demon­strates that they are imper­a­tive.

Pro­fes­sor Win­ston mas­ter­ful­ly uses per­sua­sive tech­niques to ham­mer on this point. For exam­ple, the use of anadiplo­sis, that is the rep­e­ti­tion of a clause in a sen­tence for empha­sis, is very man­i­fest in this snip­pet from his talk: “Your careers will be deter­mined large­ly by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the qual­i­ty of your ideas… in that order.” 

How do we learn to use rhetoric as effec­tive­ly as Win­ston? We lis­ten to and read effec­tive rhetoric like his. Do so in the video lec­ture at the top and on the “How to Speak” course page, which has tran­scripts for down­load and addi­tion­al resources for fur­ther study.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lit­er­ary The­o­rist Stan­ley Fish Offers a Free Course on Rhetoric, or the Pow­er of Argu­ments

Nov­el­ist Cor­mac McCarthy Gives Writ­ing Advice to Sci­en­tists … and Any­one Who Wants to Write Clear, Com­pelling Prose

The Shape of A Sto­ry: Writ­ing Tips from Kurt Von­negut

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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