I won’t say her name, but she was young, probably seventeen, a high-school student. She had come to the meeting of a school group, of which I am a member, with a proposal for a project. She was looking for a bit of funding from us. She had written up her proposal, no problem, but had somehow been unaware that she would have to make an oral presentation to the group — a dozen full-grown adults of various professions, none of whom she knew, all of whom were of some stature. She burst into a gush of tears. Couldn’t talk. A teacher introduced her, briefly summarized her proposal. There were questions. She got herself together. The tears cleared. She answered well. No stumbling.
I won’t say his name but he was, age-wise, in the middle somewhere, a hybrid entrepreneur-academic. He loved to talk to groups, large and small. Did it all the time, at the drop of a hat. Easy and charming. Then he got a contract to write a book. The blank page-screen-whiteboard stared at him. He could scribble notes in his Moleskine, no problem. He could construct bullets on a PowerPoint slide. But the book page? Made him seize up.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a former minister, was known as a brilliant speaker. He was not fond of writing. He forced himself to edit his talks and he called them books. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Emerson’s contemporary, could not stop writing. Two million words or so in his journals alone. He thought public speaking was not only a waste of time, but a shameful activity. Had to force himself to do it.
Today, to advance an idea through the maze of activities that I call the ideaplex (from TED talks to books to viral videos), the idea entrepreneur gains great influence by being bi-expressionary (usually writing and talking) or even better, multi-expressionary (good with practices, too). Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, is one of them, a readable writer and a good talker. So is Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual guru, author of The Power of Now. They have very different styles. Pink is a bit of a showman. Tolle is almost reticent.
The mistake that many of us make in this effort is to try to simply transplant the content of our strongest expression into our less-favorite one. This is rarely successful. Emerson’s books read like orations. You can still love him, but even those who do wrestle with his style. Thoreau thought of speeches as spoken books. He did not gain much influence as a speaker. Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, is magnetic as a live presence, but his writing is obviously the work of a team.
With effort, people can become bi-expressionary. What they discover is that the practice of one expression, especially in the development of ideas, generally informs and improves the other. When I’m writing and get lost in the forest of words and circling thoughts, a good dose of talking can get me unstuck. When I’m speaking and find myself rambling into a paragraph with no end, I have to sit down and write for a while.
The audience needs at least two forms of expression to really begin to understand and apply an idea. They need the structure and control of writing, as well as its freedom and porosity. They also need the experience of listening — to hear the speaker animate the idea.
The idea entrepreneur has to be the actor and the playwright, the painter and the painting, the abstraction and the material.