Substance over Style

The English language, the only one I can speak and write, leaves tremendous room for both error in delivery, and misinterpretation in receipt. This is complicated by other factors like body language, tone, etc. There are some who are comfortable in public address to a room, or even an auditorium, full of people. There are others who struggle to communicate one-on-one – especially with a difficult subject. At a basic level, for the sake of civil discourse and truly advancing a subject, let’s please try to focus on substance over style.

Convincing People

Among the most convincing, are those who can articulate thoughts in a well organized manner, making it easy for an audience to follow and buy-in. More effective still are those that can do so and in an impassioned manner. In personal settings this could be an effective clergyman, a good salesman, a subject matter expert, or a con man.

hitlerAn audience, a crowd, even a nation can be swept up by the conviction of an effective orator. Though there is little redeemable about him, there was a German Fuehrer who captured many hearts and minds with strong, passionate, hyperbole and many falsehoods. A lunatic and a con-man combined.

mad_scientistConversely, there are climate-scientists today with crucial, factual, messages to convey. But, they are less able to penetrate the general public’s thoughts and actions because they are not smooth or orchestrated in delivery. While the overwhelming amount of evidence, and scientific consensus, clearly identify the causes, the threats, and scary trajectory of global warming, a few continue to succeed in stalling action because they are more effectively controlling a counter message. Style is winning out over substance in this example (for now).

It would seem we are somewhat predisposed to follow the forceful and eloquent more easily than folks lacking those qualities. But we can engage more actively.

With that said, while a message poorly delivered should not be too easily dismissed, neither should one well constructed and delivered be automatically discounted. I encourage active discernment.

More than the words

crossed armsAnd then there are the non-verbal elements: facial cues, body language, tone of voice, etc. People trained to do public speaking learn a variety of tricks in order to improve their ability to deliver ideas. Tricks such as: effective (and ineffective) gestures and physical stances; methods of looking at and connecting with portions of the audience; pace of message; varied tonality; and more. I have been fortunate enough to have received some training is this area via work over the years. I confess, I can leverage it pretty well in public speaking, and yet not so well in difficult personal encounters. Most of us are not trained in this way. So, we are probably encumbered in relating important thoughts because we are unaware of how some non-verbal signals weaken receptivity in others.

More commonly – small groups

Most civil discourse happens in a one-on-one or few-to-few dialog as opposed to the orator and the crowd. So here, we have an opportunity to do better.

A few ways we can seek substance over style include:

  • Active listening – really focusing on trying to get the content
  • Check-pointing – Stop and ask the other(s) to see if what you think you heard is what they meant. If not, allow them to reframe, adjust and clarify.
  • Willingness to respond to check-pointing – If they want to confirm, help them. It means they really want to understand your point. Try rephrasing for clarity.
  • Allow someone to rephrase – Don’t hold too fast to their first utterance. Let them try to clarify.
  • Make allowances for non-verbal mistakes – look past them, if you can, for the “meat” of their message.
  • Respond rather than react – Try to evaluate and interact rather than judge what they mean. (see a post here for more on this).
  • Be wary of “Making Meaning” – We all bring our biases and suppositions to the table. Be careful that you are not shaping their words and intent into your pre-supposed version of what they “really mean.”

Common to all of the above is that these are steps we take ourselves. Behaviors we can enact. A good portion of the burden is on us. Being a passive participant in civil discourse is silly. Being a passive aggressive participant is beyond counterproductive.

A specific example of Making Meaning

iphone4 txt msg SOBI was communicating with someone via text message on an important and difficult topic. This is someone with whom I am very familiar, very close. After sending one message, I was dumbfounded by the mean-spirited-words I received in return. I re-read what I had sent and could not see what I had sculpted that would elicit such a response. Later I talked to the person face-to-face to try and understand if, and why, my words had angered them. They admitted theirs was an angry response. The reason: “because of my tone of voice.” I’ll let that sit for a minute. My tone of voice? Via a text message? I think that is a pretty strong example of making or adding meaning beyond what I was actually communicating. Ironically, I had tried a text exchange in order to mitigate errant non-verbal cues including tone-of voice.

I also must admit, I am as guilty as anyone of making meaning on occasion. It is something we all do, and important to try to minimize in crucial exchanges. Making meaning taints the substance of the dialog.

Another Example

There is another (filtered) example I would like to share. I asked someone close to please provide and answer to a question that was very important to me. They had avoided answering it repeatedly in previous attempts to elicit a response. I had done my best to create a “safe” dialog and gained agreement to have a conversation. I had even practiced establishing a clear and calm way to frame the question. I asked the question. They answered, and their first response was very hard for me to hear. I asked them If I had heard them properly (check-pointing, and in this case hoping I had heard wrong). I actually said something like: “Do you know you said X in response to my question?” They said “no” I was mistaken – they had not said that. I asked them to rephrase. They did. That is an example of trying to put some of these ideas into practice.

Now, in order to lend what I hope is credibility to this example, I will share that, unfortunately, in their rephrased response, they said essentially the same thing. They realized that is what they had originally said – and meant. The substance of their response was not what I would have preferred. But it was accurate, authentic – the real thing. The good news is that we were able to get around it eventually.

I’ve decided not to provide an example of a “fully” effective use of the suggestions above in this post. If brief, it would be too filtered and appear contrived. To sufficiently flesh them out would make for too lengthy a post. Perhaps I’ll craft one in a future contribution.


So, in the name of improving civil discourse, and more, I encourage all of us to put in the effort to reflect, and question, to accommodate awkwardness, and check, and validate, what we thought we heard, what we thought was meant, what they really meant – look for the substance (over the style).