Opinion- 28 April 2007



pdf file-available from Australasian Science



Harry Robinson Relays Some Hot Gospel for the Tertiary Sector to Meditate



Melbourne Uni's Vice Chancellor Glyn Davies has been repeating a statement that the Australian electorate has no interest in furthering the cause of higher education. He is right and Prime Minister Howard's private polling has been reinforcing the notion -- hence the lean ration regime for universities and their top end activities.


Those are the facts of the matter but as Prof Sumner Miller used to say, "Why is it so?"


It is so because the vast majority of "the electorate" have no idea of what higher education is or does. The socio-economic group called A are usually aware, the B-C and D groups range from black ignorance to hazy guess. Merely the profile shapes up of universities in general -- never mind the post graduate levels -- shape up as place where older kids go to get bad ideas, act out their crazy impulses and experiment with sex an' drugs an' rock an' roll. Moving up the scale, some think unis are places where you send the young to get work tickets. A degree is a pathway to a good job. The concept of a research scientist or a scholar with the gift of revelation is a rare entrant in the electorate mind.


If the top end of education is to get a good slice of the national economic pie, it needs to enlighten and persuade.


Challenging? Yes. Where do you begin -- with opinion leaders or with the mass of the great unwashed? How to approach them? With facts, with emotional pleas, by sneaking into popular entertainment? A can of worms indeed but sometimes clues are to be found in surprising places. Fred Bratman of Manhattan sees light in the skills of evangelical pitchmen. Bratman is president of Hyde Park Financial Communications, a public relations outfit serving corporate clients in the US. Previously he served as director of marketing and communications for Deutsche Bank's investment bank in North America.


He's been doing some meditation on communications, persuasion and such.

I have a confession. Sometimes when I am travelling and unable to sleep, I turn on the TV and channel surf. In those early morning hours, very little holds my attention, not even a Seinfeld rerun. Instead, I end up watching a sermon on a religious channel.


I'm not a Christian, but I'm often captivated. The reason is the preacher's rhetorical power and skills.


What a successful preacher knows is that the hundreds or thousands sitting in the pews could be spending their Sunday mornings playing golf, sleeping in, or gazing through a bulky newspaper. But there they are filling the auditorium, listening. Actually, when the preacher is especially gifted, they do more than listen. They react with enthusiasm. What's more, they come back week after week.


Over the years, while watching these sermons and even reading a few books on preaching, including Communicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, I can see that there are few points that are shared by the better preachers.


For one, they limit their sermons to a single point, avoiding the temptation to cram every fact or insight that could be bolted on. They understand that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to sit through a 30- to 40-minute talk and remember a lengthy list of points. An effective preacher picks one point and then builds everything around his position, which becomes his anchor. Every sentence supports or elaborates on that point.


For another, I noticed that they almost never read from a script or even note cards. It's not that they have memorized their talk word for word, but they have internalized a road map that lays out a course they wish to follow. They know where they are going and aren't afraid that they will lose their way.


What's also common for good preachers is a deep-felt desire to connect emotionally with their audience. This sentiment is no different than an actor's. Their motivation may be aimed at saving souls, but they recognize that to have a fighting chance they first must connect.


Otherwise, what they say goes in one ear and out the other. Facts alone don't win over an audience.


Senior managers giving a presentation to investors, employees, or the media would benefit from spending time watching great preachers ply their craft. While there are certainly different styles and one size doesn't fit all, the principles stay the same.


Steve Jobs of Apple is one of the most effective CEO speakers. He usually leaves his PowerPoint presentation at home and rarely looks at a script. He keeps his talks limited to one point and rarely strays. You can feel his enthusiasm, for instance, for the product he's unveiling.


You get the feeling that he is talking directly to you, even though the auditorium is jammed with 3,000 people. Like a great preacher, Jobs wants his audience to leave and do something that they may have not done before listening to him. In his case, he wants you to hunger for a new product. And when he's succeeded, you've been persuaded."

Fred Bratman is not proposing a blueprint and nor am I. But I feel it is worth noting that if it's good enough for preachers and Steve Jobs to study and practice their approaches to paying publics, it ought to be good enough for Higher Education devotees.


Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald. He and Fred Bratman  keep in touch.