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November 20, 2002
What I, um, Meant to, um, Say
I was talking with a friend at another company, and we both had occasion to recall executives we've heard who seemed unable to give a coherent speech. You've heard the sort of thing: unfocused thoughts drift by, like plastic bags being blown around an abandoned lot. . .no thought makes it all the way through a sentence before another one lands on top of it, splintering it with an irreversible crack. . .main points are composted under a heap of irrelevant clippings. I've spoken about this before, in reference to Sam Waksal and people who are very smooth at presenting their own work in the best possible light. This is at the other end of the scale - people who should, you'd think, be a lot slicker than they are.
How does someone get to a position like that and remain so inarticulate? This question comes up in politics as well, and in both cases I think it's because the person must be a lot better one-on-one or in small groups. There are plenty of people who can handle themselves well in a conversation who can't give a decent talk. (Not that I really can relate to that - I'm rarely tongue-tied, although I can think of a few times when I would have been better off that way.)
There are plenty of professors that bring the same question to mind, of course. I can't safely quote from the executives that I'm thinking of, but here's a sample of one of the worst professors of my experience. (Note: the subject matter has been changed to a cake recipe, to protect the guilty.)
"OK, you remember that last time we were going to learn how to mix a - well, I think I told you that we were going to try one of these, and if I didn't, then - this is a little like the stuff that we're actually going to get to next week, except that that doesn't have so many eggs in it, because eggs, well, eggs are a tricky thing because they have, they have the protein in them that makes stuff - well, that's not something that we're going to get into for a while, but at any rate you may know that the egg white has a lot of, a lot of properties that are really useful when you try to whip things up with a lot of air in them, which is, which isn't what the cake today really has, actually, because this one starts out with this mixture that I think I told you about last time - I'm not sure if we finished the entire thing, so just try to remember where we left off and sort of, sort of. . ."
I'm not exaggerating. I can round up witnesses that heard this person lecture - not on baking, but by the time he got through making a batter out of his chosen field, it might as well have been. You'd have been able to learn just as much about layer cakes as you could about the subject matter of the course. I would sit there for the entire hour and no note-taking impulse would ever trigger my hand to move. I've seen some good lecturers, and plenty of mediocre ones, but I've only come across a couple that actually could do you harm. You could feel yourself becoming less intelligent as you sat there; the only way to handle the course was to make sure to miss as many lectures as possible.
So, at what point does someone really think like they talk?
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