Bulletin n° 16 - décembre 2017

 


The renaissance of public speaking in the current technological climate and the role of Dialogic Staging

Fiona Rossette


Résumé

Alors que la révolution digitale a suscité l’apparition de formes de communication virtuelle qui s’éloignent du modèle conversationnel, et que l’humanité n’a jamais été ainsi aussi « connectée », on constate un intérêt renouvelé pour la prise de parole en public. A l’inverse de la communication virtuelle, la parole publique se caractérise par la mise en présence des participants, et exige du locuteur qu’il « incarne » son discours. Cette dimension, importante dans la culture anglo-saxonne, est renforcée par certains choix linguistiques, intégrés dans un dispositif de « Scène dialogique », qui rappellent l’oral conversationnel (ex. références à la première et à la deuxième personne, interrogatives directes, marqueurs discursifs, termes d’adresse, etc.). Dans cet article, je souligne que cette renaissance de la parole publique s’appuie sur certaines ressources offertes par les nouvelles technologies, en particulier en ce qui concerne la diffusion sur Internet. J’analyse également la Scène dialogique d’un exemple de « keynote » et de « sales pitch ». Deux genres très influencés par cette figure emblématique de la révolution digitale qui est Steve Jobs, chez qui les avancées technologiques allaient de pair avec une attention aiguë pour la dimension interpersonnelle de la parole.

Abstract

While the digital revolution has seen the development of many forms of virtual communication, and human beings have never before been so “connected”, the field of public speaking has been the object of a renaissance. Unlike virtual digital communication, public speaking requires the physical presence of participants, and that the speaker “embody” his/her discourse. This dimension, which is particularly important in Anglo-Saxon communication culture, is reinforced by specific language choices that are integrated into a setup of “Dialogic Staging” that echoes conversation (e.g. first and second-person reference, direct interrogatives, discourse markers, vocatives and greetings, etc.). In this article, I underline the interface between technology and contemporary public speaking practice, notably the visibility of contemporary formats thanks to the Internet. I also analyse Dialogic Staging in an example of a keynote address and a sales pitch – two genres influenced by the performances of one of the key figures of the digital revolution, Steve Jobs, for whom the promotion of technical advancement went hand in hand with speech that was inherently personal and interpersonal.

Keywords

Anglo-saxon communication culture, Dialogic Staging, ethos, second and third orality, rhetoric


 

1 - Introduction: the renewal of public speaking

With the advent of new forms of public address that have come into vogue in recent years, both in the professional sector and in popular culture, the activity of public speaking is no longer uniquely reserved for public figures (e.g. politicians). Specific forms of oral communication have evolved, such as corporate keynotes, product launches and sales pitches in the business sector, or “Three-Minute-Thesis” competitions (“3MT”) in academia. At the same time, public speaking is now an important part of popular culture, as evidenced for instance by the phenomenon of TED talks, as well as the spread of sales pitch competitions[1]. Generally, the English language and the Anglo-Saxon approach to communication constitute points of reference.

Public speaking skills have also become essential for anyone who wants to succeed professionally: recruiters and team managers now search for the signs of a good communicator – whatever the field. If we take the sector of engineering for example, engineers are no longer simply required to research and innovate, but to communicate about their innovations, in order to finance and/or sell them. Training in public speaking competency has hence become important in the eyes of educational bodies: for example, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (2005) places impetus on different monologic oral activities (“expression orale en continu”) for each level of competency, extending from “relating your weekend” and “presenting a project” at level A1, through to debates and round tables at level C1.

Within such a landscape, it is not unjustified to talk about a renaissance of public speaking – or a “talk renaissance”, to borrow the words of Chris Anderson (2016), the current head of TED talks, who believes that “presentation literacy should be a core part of every school’s curriculum, on par with reading and math. It’s going to be an important skill to have in the decades ahead”. Similarly, academic and communication coach Max Atkinson (2004: 369) talks about a “cultural revolution”, noting that “[t]he climate is right for a wider cultural revolution aimed at replacing the current bias towards the overwhelming importance of non-verbal factors and slide-driven presentations with a renewed confidence in the power of the spoken word”.

Whether it be viewed as a renaissance or a revolution, it is interesting that such a renewal of interest in public address, together with the new generation of discourse practices that it has engendered, have coincided with another revolution: that sparked by the development of digital technologies and connected devices. These new technologies have profoundly transformed the way we communicate, and have made virtual, non-face-to-face communication a commonplace. At the same time, the advent of online video has allowed various forms of public address, including the more traditional speech types (e.g. political speeches), to be relayed to a far wider, potentially limitless public. For example, anyone can now tune in and follow a speech given by a US Presidential candidate – just as anyone can now watch a commencement address and find themselves a virtual member of the audience at a graduation ceremony at Harvard or Stanford.

In this article, I argue that not only can the renewal within public speaking practice be better understood by placing it in the context of the digital revolution, but also that public address fosters components of direct, face-to-face interaction (that are wanting in digital communication), according to a setup called Dialogic Staging. Dialogic Staging can notably be traced to the use of interactive forms typical of conversation, such as first and second-person reference, direct interrogatives, discourse markers, vocatives and greetings, and so on. Such a setup conforms to the current trend towards the adoption of more casual, conversation-like style in public discourse, and at the same time mirrors a characteristic of Anglo communication culture. In what follows, I will first briefly discuss the interface between contemporary public speaking and the digital revolution, before introducing the concept of Dialogic Staging and illustrating its influence in two genres that are moreover closely linked to the technological sector: keynotes and sales pitches.

2 - The impact of the technological revolution: reconnecting on the human level

2.1 - Technology and public speaking practice

Back in the second half of the twentieth century, Ong (1982) coined the term “second orality” to describe the specificity of the new formats of communication engendered by electronic technology (television, radio), as distinct from the “primary orality” of conversation. The digital era has ushered in a third type of orality (Rossette, 2017). These different technological revolutions have challenged the dichotomy traditionally established in linguistic description of written versus spoken language. For example, the distinctions are no longer clear-cut between categories that once informed the spoken-written divide, such as the spheres of formal and informal, public and private, immediate and non-immediate. Importantly, it is in the current context that we observe a harking back to linguistic forms that characterised primary orality.

If technology has changed communication practice, a common question is whether it constitutes an aid or an abettor. For example, software such as PowerPoint[2] has made the slideshow a quasi-compulsory accompaniment to many types of oral presentations, particularly in business. In some ways, this has made it easier to speak in public. For example, the shyness and discomfort felt by the speaker when all eyes are on him/her are now dispelled by the fact that the audience’s gaze is directed to a screen, and that the speaker can “hide behind” his/her own computer screen. However, such slide-driven presentations are often considered difficult to follow, as evidenced by the now common expression “death by/from PowerPoint”[3]: not only the words projected do not always coincide with what is actually being said, but, in addition, the software conditions an analytical and often disconnected presentation of the material[4].

Similarly, the extensive use of the personal computer has cast secretaries and stenographers out of the speechwriting process. Nowadays, instead of a speech writer dictating his/her speech to a secretary, he/she types it directly onto a computer screen. This has compounded the challenge of preparing a speech that is not designed to be read but listened to – words for hearing as opposed to words for seeing. The process of dictating to a third person allowed the speech writer to say the speech out loud and avoid the materiality of the written word and any contact with pen and paper. Dictaphones did the same job, and have gone out of fashion too, and while smart phones now offer recording devices, speechwriters no longer have the reflex to use them in the speech composition process.

Finally, live broadcasting of speeches (notably over cable television and the Internet) has affected the way speakers approach the task of public address. MPs provide an interesting case in point. As Alison Graves, head interpreter at the European Parliament, reports[5], extensive broadcasting of parliamentary sessions has made parliamentary members wary: where they used to speak with little or no notes, they now prefer to read out speeches prepared in advance in order to avoid any misinterpretation of what they say and minimise the risk of criticism in the media. (And so interpreters are now faced with the challenge of having to simultaneously interpret words informed by more complex structures and higher lexical density that are typical of written speech.)

2.2 - Reconnecting on the human level

In addition to these various technical aspects, the advent of new technologies has had a more general consequence on public speaking practice. Despite the fact that people have never been so “connected”, it can be argued that the virtual nature of the new forms of communication fostered by these new technologies have created a need to “reconnect” by more direct means. This reconnection places value on the personal communication skills of immediate, face-to-face communication – of “making the connection” and “striking a chord” with an audience. In other words, in the midst of all the means of indirect, virtual communication, there is an ever-increasing need to refocus on the individual, fundamentally human dimension of communication. This is the essence of what Chris Anderson, head of TED talks, purports:

[H]owever much public speaking skills matter today, they’re going to matter even more in the future. Driven by our growing connectedness, one of humankind’s most ancient abilities is being reinvented for the modern era. I’ve become convinced that tomorrow, even more than today, learning to present your ideas live to other humans will prove to be an absolutely essential skill (Anderson 2016: 227)

Anderson talks of the necessary “human overlay” lacking in much communication these days and that, by contrast, is fostered by the very setup of public address. The same sentiment is expressed alternatively in the following way:

[T]he prevalence of texting and social networks is creating a generation of people who will struggle to verbally express their ideas. Those who learn how to communicate offline will have a better chance of being heard and of making a difference in an ever-more crowded world.  (Donovan 2014: 5)

These authors are promoting a particular form of public address, but it is not unjustified to underline the renewed importance of face-to-face communication in the brave new world in which we now live. Indeed, technology cannot replace physical embodiment in the here-and-now of the interaction – that is, the tight association of ideas and content with a voice, a face, and a body. Embodiment of this type is a constitutive factor of public address, which occurs in public, in real time: all eyes are placed on the speaker, who lays him/herself on the line (Goffman 1981), and pays with his/her person. A speaker needs to appear truly engaged and present in the here-and-now of the speech, mastering his/her voice, and therefore “carrying off” the speech. Embodiment of the speech is intricately linked to the notion of ethos, which originally, according to the Aristotelian conception, hinges upon the way the speaker appears (cf. “that the orator’s character should look right”[6]), in order to gain credibility and secure the confidence of the audience.

Personal embodiment is therefore a key component of public address, and is particularly amplified by the influence of Anglo communication culture (see section 3.2. below). In the case of sales pitch competitions, for example, it is necessary for the investors to physically see and hear the people behind the project before entrusting them with their money. Similarly, for job interviews and auditions for selective university programs, it is easier for a candidate to create a positive impression when he/she is physically present in front of an examination board compared to being interviewed by Skype. And in the case of interpreting, it is important for the interpreter to be able to see the participants, as noted by Andrew Constable, interpreter at the International Criminal Court[7].

Next to the personal embodiment by the speaker, the live audience plays an essential part of public address, which nowadays entails three levels of participants: speaker, live/direct audience, and indirect audience (e.g. television or Internet viewers). Even if speeches are now relayed over the Internet, with Internet viewers generally far outnumbering the live audience, the live audience proves a necessary intermediary, as it fulfils the conditions of direct interaction, including audience response (applause, cheers, etc.)

As will be observed in the following section, this renewed value of face-to-face communication provides a backdrop for certain transformations within the language of public speaking in English.

3 - The increasing role of Dialogic Staging within public address

3.1 - Dialogic Staging and monologic mode

The new forms of public speaking listed at the beginning of this article have coincided with a paradigm shift. They typically foster language choices that are close to that of conversation, in keeping with the modern trend towards “conversationalisation” in many forms of public discourse (Fairclough 1994;Crystal 2001). This shift is also reflected in public speaking manuals, in which the focus is no longer on discourse as “a unidirectional process” but one that engenders a “I-speaking-to-you”, “intimate”, “direct” and “personal” relation (Sproule, 2012).

According to this trend, speakers are now adopting the traits of dialogic speech within the monologic framework of public address – unlike the prototypical orality of conversation. Indeed, while conversation is dialogic and based on turn-taking between at least two participants, public speaking hinges on an intrinsically asymmetrical relation. To adopt Crystal’s (2001, 14) terminology, it marshals a “one-to-many” as opposed to a “one-to-one” relation: it brings together one speaker and multiple addressees – that is, the public, “the crowd”. The alterity associated with the speaker’s position is materialized by the podium: physically, he is set apart from the audience, and is conferred an elevated status, a characteristic of “platform skills” as defined by Goffman (1981, 166). Such an asymmetry can even be regarded as extraordinary, in that “the unlimited number of addressees results in an ‘extraordinary asymmetry’ which brings together an enunciator and an audience, the identity and boundaries of each proving difficult to determine” (Maingueneau, 2012, 58)[8].

In the context of public address, the speaker is therefore faced with the challenge of negotiating this asymmetry, of bridging the divide as it were in order to connect with the audience, and one strategy consists in adopting language that imitates the inherently personal, direct and one-to-one interaction of conversation. Such a strategy is informed by various devices that have received attention from different scholars. For example, Atkinson (1984) has analysed audience response, revealing a number of systematic ways by which the speaker engineers involvement of the audience in the form of applause or cheering. A “collaborative” dimension based notably on the device of story-telling is identified by Capone (2010) as a necessary ingredient of the electoral speech. Construal of intimacy, instantiating “intimacy at a distance” (Horton & Wohl, 1956), typifies political speeches delivered in specific contexts, such as political party meetings (Debras & Hôte, 2015). These different elements contribute to a staged dialogism, or what can be termed “Dialogic Staging”. The term “Dialogic Staging” qualifies the use of such forms that are carried over from casual conversation into a format that stages a language construed to be performed. Language choices are made not simply to produce language that imparts content (at the level of the signified) but also to create effects both at an interpersonal level and at an aesthetic level (at the level of the signified), in terms of rhythm, euphony, etc.

Dialogic Staging can be contrasted with “Rhetorical Staging” which defines the theatrical and rhetorical style synonymous with more classical oratory (Rossette, 2016). The means by which these two setups are enacted within speeches will be discussed in section 4 below.

3.2 - The influence of Anglo communication culture

The encroachment of Dialogic Staging within contemporary instances of public speaking, and therefore the reduced role of Rhetorical Staging, can be explained not only due to the posited “need to reconnect” brought on by digital communication, but also due to intercultural factors, notably the influence of the Anglo-Saxon model of communication.

Defined by the cultural critic Deborah Cameron (2000) as a “permanent quest for authentic, integrated and presentable selves”, Anglo communication culture is inherently individualistic and interpersonal. According to Boromisza-Habashi et al. (2016: 28-29), it is based on the “norm of authenticity” which is both individualistic, on the one hand, and personal, original and intimate, on the other, and “prompts the speaker not only to speak in an authentic manner but also to be the type of authentic person to whom the audience can easily relate” ­– hence choices that are part of the Dialogic Staging setup.

This norm contrasts with the “norm of authority” that characterises some non-Anglo cultures, which give preference to “eloquence, tradition, authority, and community”. Such a distinction helps to explain difficulties encountered in teaching public speaking in English to non-Anglo Saxon cultures (e.g. Carbaugh 2005;Boromisza-Habashi et al. 2016) - for example, Carbaugh (2005) highlights problems encountered in teaching college students from the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana, who do not share the (Anglo-Saxon) belief that everybody has the right to speak. Pedagogical problems also arise in the French context, which is not typically conducive to the fostering of a personal embodiment of one’s speech. Institutionally, French education gives preference to technical, academic requirements as opposed to activities that found professional expertise (Chaplier & O’Connell (2015: 62). I would also say that it does not favour taking a personal stance. This may be one reason why French students display a “remarkable lack of physical presence and interactional engagement” (Botinneau 2011: 118).

4 - Dialogic Staging in keynotes and sales pitches

4.1 - Description of the genres

I have chosen to present here the keynote, and more briefly another genre closely associated with it, the sales pitch. Both have been greatly influenced by a person who played a significant role in the digital revolution, Steve Jobs.

The term “keynote address” originally designated, according to an American usage dating from the late nineteenth century, “a speech intended to set out or summarize the central theme of a conference, convention, etc.” and, more generally, “the main or most prestigious speech at a conference or other event.”[9] Keynotes provide an opportunity to showcase new products, and have become a highlight of the Apple company’s event-driven communication, based on “Apple Events” (e.g. Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, running since 1988; MacWorld Expo; “Special Events”). “Keynote” is also the name Apple gave to its software program to create slide presentations (competing with Microsoft’s PowerPoint program). Interestingly, some commentators have coined the term “Stevenotes”, which underlines to what extent Steve Jobs ushered in a new presentation style, and perhaps even founded what can be considered a new sub-genre.

As for the sales pitch, its development is also closely associated with the digital revolution. It came into vogue due to the rise of start-up companies, some of which are conceived over “start-up weekends”. These weekends bring together budding young professionals who create projects for start-up companies within forty-eight hours. The weekend generally begins with pitches by individuals who present their idea of a company to recruit associates; once teams of associates are made up, each team prepares a detailed project that includes a financial plan, and the weekend concludes with a competition between teams who pitch their projects to a jury of potential investors. Compared to other types of business communication (e.g. product launches, briefs, debriefs, etc.), the sales pitch is a highly constrained genre due to its limited duration: depending on the imposed format, it generally lasts between one and five minutes, and is a race against the clock.

4.2 - Extracts from the 2007 iPhone keynote

Returning to the keynotes (or “Stevenotes”), a striking emphasis is placed on the personal and the interpersonal – despite (or precisely because of) the place of technology within the overall scenography of the presentations. Designers strive for an atmosphere that is not too academic or technical but is instead in keeping with the “cool and casual” ethos of the company, as typified by the casual dress code (for example, the suit and bow tie worn by Jobs at the first Mac launch in 1984 was later replaced by the now iconic jeans and turtleneck). It is also in keeping with the philosophy of the products Apple wishes to promote – that is, user-friendly technology designed to be part of everyday life. However slick and technically savvy the presentation (via the use of slide presentations, prompters, product demonstrations, etc.), it is almost as if a determined effort were made to hide such technical assistance. For example, the presentation is no longer delivered from behind a pulpit: the speaker walks around the stage, and there is no trace of a prepared script. Use of technology must appear effortless. It is also a well-known fact that Jobs meticulously prepared every detail of his presentations, and it is clear from the transcriptions of his speeches, which do not resemble transcriptions of casual conversation, that every word had been crafted to foster theatricality, and also to synch in with the text and visuals of the slide presentation. Jobs learnt his text by heart. He promoted a delivery style that can be termed “falsely spontaneous” – or, rather, he reinvented for the modern era a delivery mode fostered since Antiquity based on “memoria”.

A lot has been written about how Steve Jobs revolutionised presentation style, but one point that has not been emphasised is the way in which he integrated language choices that are essentially interpersonal and dialogic in nature – and are emblematic of both the shift towards conversationalisation in contemporary public discourse as well as the personal and interpersonal dynamic of Anglo communication culture. He subtly alternates between language choices of this type and those that echo a more up-beat, theatrical and rhetorical style. In other words, his discourse strikes a balance between Dialogic Staging and Rhetorical Staging. Both setups are interwoven throughout his presentations, with one or the other coming to the fore at precise moments.

The combination of language choices is perfectly illustrated over the famous 2007 keynote in which the first iPhone was presented. Let us begin with what is probably the most well-known passage of the presentation, leading up to the unveiling of the identity of the new product, and the one-liner “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone”:

This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years. Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. And Apple has been, well, first of all, one’s very fortunate if you get to work on just one of these in your career. Apple’s been very fortunate. It’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world. In 1984, we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry. In 2001, we introduce the first iPod, and it didn’t just, it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry.

Well today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device. An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone, are you getting it? These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone. Today, today Apple is going to reinvent the phone, and here it is.

Unlike some quotations made of this speech, the transcriptions presented here correspond to the exact wording that can be heard in the recordings, including traces of on-the-spot linguistic construal typical of conversation, such as repetition (“and it didn’t just, it didn’t just change the way...”) and rewordings (e.g. “And Apple has been – well, first of all, one’s very fortunate...”). Other traces that appear in passages below include hesitation marks (e.g. “uh”). The fact that such marks are absent in this precise passage points to the degree to which this part of the speech has been prepared, or “staged”. Staging also comes to the fore in the style of delivery, which is slow, and contains much marked pausing (pauses are indicated via slashes / and particularly long pauses are indicated via double slashes //). This type of pausing (cf. the dramatic pause), which is not typical of conversation, serves to focus on specific words. Other delivery phenomena contribute to the staging such as variation in rhythm and intensity and euphony.

Returning to the wording of the extract quoted above and the fact that it does not resemble spontaneous conversational English, it should first be noted that it is highly structured. Construal of chronological and ordinal series is signalled by parallel structures (“In 1984...”; “In 2001...”; “today...”; “Well, today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this class. The first one... The second... And the third...”). Structuring at the macro level is also accomplished via rhetorical figures, particularly repetition at sentence structure level, such as the repeated antithetical structures (“it didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry”; “it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry”). There are also contrasts in sentence length, brought about by some short sentences (“Apple’s been very fortunate”), and sentences lacking a verb (“So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone...”). These different phenomena are traces of Rhetorical Staging, which here outweigh the traces of Dialogic Staging that are nonetheless present in the form of first and second person reference (“I”, “we, “you”), use of discourse markers, typical of turn-taking in conversation (“Well”, “So”), and one direct interrogative (“are you getting it?”).

The staging is enhanced by the fact that the verbal “script” is synched in with the words that are displayed on the slide presentation: when Jobs utters the words “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone”, this coincides (save for the change in tense) with the utterance projected on the screen at that moment: “Apple reinvents the phone”. This utterance is then replaced on the screen by a photograph of an iPod displaying a phone dial reminiscent of the phones used thirty years ago (clearly to humour the audience), which is then replaced by a photograph of the new iPhone product.

Let us now turn to a less well-known extract from the same speech, in which Dialogic Staging is more predominant. Compared to that of the first extract, the feel of the discourse is quite different here, notably due to (underlined) linguistic forms that are typically used in conversation:

So, before we get into it, let me uh talk about a category of things. The most advanced phones are called smart phones. So they say. And uh they typically combine a phone plus some e-mail capability, plus they say it’s the Internet. It’s sort of the baby Internet, into one device, and they all have these plastic little keyboards on them. Uh and the problem is that they’re not so smart and they’re not so easy to use, so if you kind of make a business school 101 graph of the smart axis and the easy-to-use axis, phones, regular cell phones are kind of right there, they’re not so smart, and they’re, you know, not so easy to use. Um but smart phones are definitely a little smarter, but they actually are harder to use. They’re really complicated. Just for the basic stuff a hard time figuring out how to use them. Well, we don’t want to do either one of these things. What we want to do is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has ever been, and super-easy to use. This is what iPhone is. OK? So, we’re going to reinvent the phone. (Keynote, iPhone, 2007)

In terms of delivery, Jobs speaks faster, and pauses less. In addition, the rate of first and second person reference is higher here, and the syntax of the sentences is quite different. Instead of rhetorical figures there is frequent use of coordinative syntax, particularly additive and, and use of discourse markers (so, well). Specific discourse markers construe a less dogmatic style in order to create complicity with the audience (sort of; kind of). Use of super and way as modifiers (“way smarter”; “super easy”) typically belong to casual speech. The imperative form “let me”, as well as the interrogative use of “OK?” add to the conversational and interactive feel.

Interrogatives play an even greater role in the following passage, in which Jobs introduces the new user interface. He does this by talking the audience through his own reasoning process, using a technique based on a series of direct questions and answers that, together with other items (also underlined) simulates a dialogue:

Well, how do you solve this? Hmm. It turns out, we have solved it. We solved it in computers 20 years ago. We solved it with a bit-mapped screen that could display anything we want. Put any user interface up. And a pointing device. We solved it with the mouse. Right? We solved this problem. So how’re we going to take this to a mobile device? What we are going to do is get rid of all these buttons and just make a giant screen. A giant screen.

Now, how are we going to communicate this? We don’t want to carry around a mouse, right? So what are we going to do? Oh, a stylus, right? We’re going to use a stylus. No. No. Who wants a stylus? You have to get them and put them away, and you lose them. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus. We’re going to use the best pointing device in the world. We’re going to use a pointing device that we’re all born with – we’re born with ten of them. We’re going to use our fingers. We’re going to touch this with our fingers. And we have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal.

Here, hmmm suggests that the speaker is engaging in a thought process, echoing well[10] and now, that suggest a two-way reasoning process in which the audience participates. Oh suggests spontaneity and so on-the-spot deduction. Despite these forms that simulate a dialogue, the passage cannot be confused with casual conversation: it is staged and belongs to presentation style. There are also elements belonging to Rhetorical Staging, such as the repetition of the segment “we’re going to use” at the beginning of three consecutive sentences that make for an example of anaphora, one of the most frequent figures of speech in public address. Similarly, there are several very short sentences lacking verbs (“And a pointing device”; “A giant screen”).

Finally, I will mention one specific area of keynotes in which Dialogic Staging particularly comes into play: that of the product demonstration. Product demonstrations exemplify procedural discourse in which language accompanies an action rather than being the main source of interest. Here, a tension is created by the fact that the discourse is nevertheless embedded in a public presentation. The following extract coincides with the beginning of Jobs’ demonstration of the iPhone:

So, I want to show you four things. I want to show you the phone app, photos, got a calendar, and SMS messaging. The kind of things you would find on a typical phone, but in a very untypical way now. So let’s go ahead and take a look. So let’s go to our phone first. You see that uh icon in the lower left-hand corner, the phone? I just push it right here, and boom, I’m in the phone. And I’ve got five buttons across the bottom: favorites, recent, contacts, keypad and voice mail. I’m in contacts, right now, again. How do I move around my contacts? I just scroll through them. And so, let’s say I want to make a call to Jony Ive. I can just push here, and I see Jony Ive’s contact, with all his information: his three phone numbers, his e-mail, whatever else, his address, whatever else I’ve got. It’s all in one place. And if I want to call Jony, all I do is push his phone number. And I’ll call his mobile number right now. And now, we are calling Jony here.

The discourse has clearly been planned and follows a tight organization (cf. “I want to show you four things”). At the same time, the syntax is additive: there are seven instances of clause-linking via and, and four via so. Dialogism is enhanced by the preponderance of the pronouns I/you, the let us imperative, and various interrogative forms. At the same time, staging is created by a “Jobism”, that is, boom, that functions like a discourse particle to indicate a causal link (“I just push it right here, and boom, I’m in the phone”).

4.3 - An example of a sales pitch

I will conclude by quickly illustrating how language choices identified in the above extracts of the keynote carry through into the sales pitch genre. Reproduced below is the transcription of a winning pitch at a Start-up weekend hosted by MIT in 2010.[11]

Everyone, how many of you guys are using your email to collaborate with people outside of your organization? And how many think that’s really efficient? Exactly.

We’ve built a web-based work platform that organizes work across people and across organizations, because we believe that is where work is heading. We also believe that each organization has a unique way of doing things, so we’ve just built the platform on which you build the functionality and the applications. Whether it’s for organizing a meeting, events, sharing your tasks or fixing your box, you get a tool that works like you, not the contrary. We want to become your platform for work like Facebook is for your social life.

Therefore, we have entered this enterprise market with a consumer business model, with a fermium player and premium on top, and that makes us grow 40% a month. Currently though we’re still in private data.

So, in short, we help you out with the problem that is there to start with, so we organize your work.

The pitch lasts for one minute, and within this tight timeframe, the speaker must conform to the following progression: (i) introduce a need; (ii) introduce the product that fulfils the need; (iii) present some elements of a business plan. Just like the keynote, the sales pitch fosters an ethos which is casual and cool, including lexis that echoes casual conversation (e.g. “you guys”). It is important to appear not only casual but also a “nice guy” – that is, someone friendly, to whom investors will warm, and therefore entrust with their money. It is therefore paramount to build up a rapport with the audience through the interpersonal dynamic. This is done from the outset, thanks to the two interrogative forms that launch the pitch and include second-person reference (you). Similarly, the speech ends on a clause in which first and second person reference are juxtaposed (“so we organize your work”).

These interpersonal elements frame some linguistic choices that belong to Rhetorical Staging. The pitch exploits the rhetorical figure of accumulation of noun phrases (“Whether it’s for organizing a meeting, events, sharing your tasks or fixing your box…”) followed immediately by a one-liner built on a contrast (“you get a tool that works like you, not the contrary”). The utterance that follows is built on a comparison and also works as a one-liner (“We want to become your platform for work like Facebook is for your social life”). Similarly, clause linkage mixes use of so and and with connectives that belong to a more analytical register (therefore, in short).

The sales pitch genre is an interesting case in point as it integrates prototypical elements of both Dialogic and Rhetorical Staging that are juxtaposed within a very short stretch of speech. It is indicative of the way the style of face-to-face communication has been transposed to presentation and performance mode.

5 - Conclusion

While digital technologies foster virtual communication, public speaking hinges upon face-to-face interaction. Interestingly, the past two decades have seen both a revolution in digital communication as well as what some have qualified as a public speaking renaissance.

Not only has technology had an impact on public speaking practice (and I have simply touched upon some of the issues in this article), but, in addition, public speaking fulfils a true need in the face of new digital forms of communication because of the necessary “human overlay” it entails, and the impetus placed on the person of the speaker, who must embody his/her speech. Interestingly, the society in which we now live requires that we all be technically competent but at the same time prizes more and more initiatives on the individual level (e.g. the start-up phenomenon).

The concept of Dialogic Staging highlights the role of a certain number of interpersonal linguistic resources that are staged in a performance format in order to simulate face-to-face interaction. Dialogic Staging therefore constitutes one means of “making the connection” with the audience. The setup has been exemplified over two genres closely linked to the technological revolution, produced by speakers who work in the sector of engineering and innovation. However, Dialogic Staging is also emblematic of other contemporary forms of public address, from TED talks to political speeches (e.g. Rossette, 2017).

6 - References

ANDERSON, C. The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

ATKINSON, M. Lend me your ears. London: Vermillon. 2004.

BARON, N. Always on: language in an online and mobile world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

BIBER, D., JOHANSSON, S., LEECH, G., CONRAD, S., FINEGAN, E. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman, 1999.

BOROMISZA-HABASHI, D., HUGHES, J., MALOWSKI, J. Public speaking as cultural ideal: Internationalizing the public speaking curriculum. Journal of International and Cultural Communication 9:1, 2016, p. 20-34.

BOTINNEAU, D. ‘Le rôle de l’interculturalité dans l’enseignement de langues étrangères en école d’ingénieurs’  in Cazade, A., J.-F. Chanlat, D. Leeman, L. Gilles and S. McEvoy (eds.) : L’interculturel en entreprise : quelles formations ? Paris : Lambert Lucas, 2011, p. 115-126.

CAMERON, D. Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. New York: Sage. 2005

CAPONE A. Barack Obama’s South Carolina Speech. Journal of Pragmatics 42, 2010, p. 2964-2977.

CARBAUGH, D. Cultures in conversation. NJ: Lawrence Erlbum Associates, 2005.

CHAPLIER, C., O’CONNELL, A.-M. ESP/ASP in the Domains of Science and Law in a French Higher Education Context : Preliminary Reflections. The European English Messenger 24:2, 2015, p. 61-76.

CRYSTAL D. Language and the Internet. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

DEBRAS, C, L’HOTE, E. Framing, metaphor and dialogue: a multimodal approach to party conference speeches. Metaphor and the Social World 5: 2, 2015, p. 184-204.

DONOVAN, J. How to deliver a TED talk. Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations. New York: McGraw Hill, 2014.

FAIRCLOUGH, N. Conversationalisation of public discourse and the authority of the consumer. In: KEAT R., WHITELY, N., ABERCROMBIE, N. Dir. The Authority of the consumer. London: Routledge, 1984.

GOFFMAN, E. Forms of talk. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

HORTON, D., WOHL, R. Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry 19, 1956, p. 215-229.

MAINGUENEAU D. 2012. Analyser les textes de communication. Armand Colin : Paris, 2012.

ONG, W. Orality and literacy. The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen, 1982.

ROSSETTE, F. Rhetorical versus Dialogic Staging: “Our Moment is Now”, or the discourse that made a president. Rétor, 6: 2, 2016, 216-247.

ROSSETTE, F. Prendre la parole en anglais. Armand Colin : Paris, 2017.


1 - The first “Three Minute Thesis” competition was introduced at the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2008.TED talks, delivered at TED conferences, can be viewed at the website <https://www.ted.com/>.Sales pitch competitions, where budding entrepreneurs sell their business plan to potential investors, constitute a new form of reality television (e.g. “Shark Tank”, <http://abc.go.com/shows/shark-tank>, “Black Enterprise”,http://www.blackenterprise.com/, Dragon’s Den, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006vq92>).  [retour]

2 - PowerPoint® is a registered trademark of Microsoft since 1987, and is the most widespread software in its field.  [retour]

3 - The expression triggered 23 500 000 references in a Google search (conducted 20/3/2017).  [retour]

4 - See F. Frommer, La Pensée Powerpoint. Enquête sur ce logiciel qui rend stupide, Editions La Découverte, 2010.  [retour]

5 - Allison Graves. « «The changing face of interpreting: a new age of human/machine interaction », Colloque international « Réalités culturelles et mondes connectés : quelle place pour l’humain ? », ISIT, Paris, 23-24 mars 2017.  [retour]

6 - The Rhetoric, Book II, chapter 1.  [retour]

7 - Andrew Constable. « Les nouvelles technologies pour l’interprétation », Colloque international « Réalités culturelles et mondes connectés : quelle place pour l’humain ? », ISIT, Paris, 23-24 mars 2017.  [retour]

8 - My translation of : “[L]’ouverture illimitée du nombre de destinataires résulte en ‘une asymétrie extraordinaire’ qui repose sur un énonciateur et un auditoire dont l’extension et l’identité sont difficilement déterminables”.  [retour]

9 - The Oxford dictionary.  [retour]

10 - Well functions as a “‘deliberation signal’, indicating the speaker’s need to give (brief) thought or consideration to the point at issue” (Biber et al. 1086).  [retour]

11 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBNJh2rOOlI.Consulted April 4, 2014.  [retour]

ISIT - CRATIL

39 bis rue d'Assas
75006 Paris
+33 (0)1 42 22 33 16 
Design: Page18 Interactive
Le Bulletin du CRATIL - ISSN 2263-7591 2015-Tous droits réservés ©