How can we measure ideas?


“We owe almost all of our knowledge not to those who have agreed, but to those who have differed.” Charles Caleb Colton

At a recent speaking engagement, I noticed the evaluation forms neatly distributed around the seats of the room. The audience were to measure my presentation. My immediate and unconscious reaction was, ‘I hope they like me.’*

But then I started to think…

What are they measuring? The fact that the forms were neatly laid out and had exactly the same questions on them, spoke volumes about how we view our society and how it should be run. They could only be measuring a narrow band of data from the entire experience of hearing me speak. Who decides if that narrow band is the ‘best’ one to measure?

Should I have studied the evaluation form and then attempted to modify my message in whatever way I could, so that I could score more highly in the areas the client seems interested in? If I am a professional speaker, it makes sense to please the client so that they will recommend me to others or even hire me again. To do this, I need to know what the client really wants to hear, and to give them what they want in an attractive package. A high evaluation score would result and I would be pleased.

But should I be pleased?

If I tell them what they want to hear, am I not just confirming prejudices, misconceptions, and false confidences? If you are following my reasoning, you will have noticed that I just made an assumption. How can we be sure if they are prejudices, or misconceptions or false confidences? Well, who is asking the questions that re-examines cherished and long held beliefs? If none of your values and beliefs are challenged, how can you be certain that they are sound?

You can’t.

So what is the job of a professional speaker? If it is to ‘motivate’ the workforce to work harder, research has shown that any kind of attention will do the trick, in which case, forget the expensive speaker and just take the workers out for a meal or provide free massages in their break times. If it is to facilitate change or to improve productivity in the long term, then the speaker will have to address significant aspects of the world views held by the audience members and get them to re-examine them. This can be uncomfortable and challenging. People hate change, even if that change can be of benefit in the long run.

Thus, if a speaker proposes something unpleasant to an audience, how is that going to affect their evaluation score? Does a low score mean more has been achieved? Is a high evaluation score a badge of anodyne blandness, and a lack of originality?

Or is the mark of a truly great speaker, the ability to make the difficult seem desirable, and render any sort of evaluation irrelevant?

* A natural mistake. Being liked, has nothing to do with the job of communicating ideas.