Robert Benchley: “My good man, would you please get me a taxi?”
Uniformed Man: “I’m not a doorman. I’m an admiral in the United States Navy.”
Robert Benchley: “Alright then. Get me a battleship.”
I bet you rarely agree with people who cry when you ask them tough questions—or buy things from salesmen who wave their arms and scream at you. (Wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men notwithstanding.)
But what about a politician who stands on his convictions, who fights for them with enthusiasm—or a salesman who knows everything about the product and exudes confidence? Sold!
When you’re giving any form of public talk, sales pitch, or even sharing an opinion with your friends, one factor that can make or break the outcome is how you manage your demeanor. Do you get angry easily? Do you speak softly with little conviction? Do you make eye contact?
It’s all a matter of poise, and it can affect your ethos for better or worse.
We often hear about poise as a single attribute. Either someone has it or they don’t. Like the flu. But upon reflection poise seems to be a more complicated concept. I’ve seen people “lose” their poise mid-speech, and I’ve seen people “gain” it after stumbling out of the gate.
So what exactly is poise?
I like to work out what I think words refer to in reality before I reach for a digital dictionary. My working idea for poise was “mastery of your demeanor.” Not a great definition, but I never claimed to be Webster! When I looked it up at Merriam-Webster, I had a “duh” / “oh!” moment. I need to pay more attention to word roots:
a stably balanced state: equilibrium
While this definition isn’t exactly what we refer to when we discuss poise in the rhetorical sense, it should inform how we think about it. A second definition:
easy self-possessed assurance of manner: gracious tact in coping or handling
Now we’re getting somewhere. It seems to me that poise has two, balanced components that make it such an important concept. Lose either and you throw your poise out of equilibrium. Poise is, then, a harmonious tension and power and stress. How zen!
Yin: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
“Poise is power under control.”
We’ve all had moments when someone presents a terrible argument and every fiber of your animalistic being just wants to reach out and strangle them … or at least shout loudly. The first component of poise is your ability to control this raw power that roams your subconscious like a caged panther.
But poise isn’t just about anger, as Howard Dean learned in his … passionate … campaign speech in 2004. It’s widely recognized that his … enthusiasm … turned off many primary voters.
Rhetors with outstanding poise keep their passion in check. This is not to say that they suppress completely suppress emotions. Not at all! Pathos is a vital component in any persuasive endeavor. Imagine, instead, that good poise requires you to harness emotions and to wield them on a leash.
You should show passion for your point, sympathy for something sad, excitement over genuinely exciting things. Poise is about the extent to which you demonstrate it. And as with all rhetorical situations, context is king.
Tipping Point(er): It’s easy to knock your poise out of balance if you’re feeling frustrated. Don’t let your opponent (or any other issue) mess with your zen. If you find frustration building and anger rising, take a moment to cool down. Pause for a few seconds and become conscious of what’s bugging you. If it’s something you can use to your rhetorical advantage, acknowledge it. Teachers in recent years have started openly acknowledging text messages and phone ringing during class, for example. I had one professor who, instead of getting angry, calmly insisted that he be able to answer the call.
Yang: Freaking Out (on the Inside) Is Acceptable
“Poise: the ability to be ill at ease inconspicuously.”
– Earl Wilson
The first time I gave a public talk, I knew I was going to vomit. I knew it the entire time I was speaking. When I was finished my gut returned to normal, but I was sure that the audience had been turned off by my obvious look of death.
Yet afterward the most common compliment I received was how “relaxed” and “confident” I looked. It came as news to me (good news), and it’s something that has continued throughout my career. Not to boast (OK, just a little) but I have a natural capacity for the second element of poise: feeling one thing, expressing another.
Rhetors who look nervous or uncomfortable make the audience feel the same way. Sometimes it elicits sympathy for the speaker, but that’s rarely the goal. Keeping your negative emotions in check will allow you to focus on the important aspects of your argument.
Tipping Point(er): There are two ways to minimize negative feelings about being in front of an audience. The first is practice. Just do it. A lot. Even so, veteran rhetors can still feel ill at ease, especially in new situations or when presenting new arguments. That’s why the second and even more important tip is preparation. Know your @$%#. The better you understand your argument, the easier it will be to communicate it.
BONUS Tipping Point(er): Drink coffee. It helps me immensely. I’m not sure why, nor do I claim that it will work for everyone, but I suspect it has something to do with caffeine. Other people drink other things.
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Poise is an integral part of a rhetor’s ethos. People make judgments about your arguments based on how you present yourself—your tone, your gestures, your enthusiasm. Master the art of poise and you’ll be a better rhetor.