Cut those long meetings short!

DOWNEY - It's been a while since an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review about the communication process. It has become a classic.For any effective communication to take place, it said, three requirements have to be met: first, the speaker has to speak clearly and in a voice loud enough to be heard. Secondly, care must be taken to have one's message well-articulated, leaving no room for ambiguity. Thirdly, we must make sure the listener hears and understands the object of our speech. There's no more ideal setting than at City Council meetings where the workings of the communication process as defined above can be observed. Remember, the meetings provide a wonderful opportunity for both holders of public office and those who must speak in public to use their speaking skills to achieve certain ends. And because they engage in discourse that affects the quality of life in the city, these people are held to higher standards than usual. When a department head or staff makes a presentation, it is clear that they're there to explain as carefully and as fully and as distinctly as they can what there is to explain-both for the benefit of the Council and the public. As a matter of common sense, this is a no-brainer. What's the use of making a presentation when, even with a microphone, the presenter can barely be heard? And as a rhetorical tool, isn't one supposed to develop a good, strong voice to make sure you get your point across? (You get extra points for a sonorous voice). OK, the members of the City Council, presumably after doing their homework, first listen, then they ask questions, then they vote. But at bottom theirs are speaking roles. As elected officials, they advocate for their constituents' concerns. They discuss budget line items. They argue about certain provisions of this or that proposed resolution or ordinance. Indeed, it is their business to talk. It is their duty to persuade. But it is also, so as not to unnecessarily waste the audience's time, their duty to be brief, to address the issue head on and not digress, not ramble. The Council has important, and substantial, business enough to take care of, that meetings should be done with dispatch. (If you want to see how a meeting ought to be conducted, go to any Downey Unified School District board meeting, and you'll see what I mean.) Some successful CEOs have been known even to conduct their meetings standing up. They'll do anything to speed up their sessions, so they can get on with their work, with their routines, with their lives. The listening public raise their voices to be heard, too. Usually, they complain about this or that issue. At times they want some action to be done, for their or their neighbors' benefit. Often, their presentations suffer from lack of organization, proper emphasis, force. Why is the political landscape filled with lawyers? Because of their training in logic, in the law, in rhetoric! They are expert at preparing a brief, they took pains to learn how to speak! (If their diction is not up to par, or if their delivery leaves something to be desired, they work on it. It's the same with Demosthenes, or Cicero, or Lincoln. It took them years to hone their speaking skills). OK, we'll never be like them. But at least we, every last one of us, should try to improve our speech (OK, rhetorical) skills. It's not impossible. It's a joy to see and hear holders of public office, or those who must speak in public, with a modicum of these speech skills. There's a whole range of them, with each latticed with a host of syntactical and stylistic nuances. For my money, it's well worth the effort to look them up or brush them up. Then perhaps attending the meetings at City Hall can be fun.

********** Published: April 17, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 52