Is Speaking Ability Over, Under, or Properly Rated?

I was listening to a panel discussion at a conference, and realized that I was rating the ability and intelligence of the panelists based on their speaking ability.

Now if I do this, it’s likely that others do so as well. Which led me to ask myself, is speaking ability overrated?

As someone who considers himself an excellent speaker, and has the evidence to back it up, from being chosen to teach the subject at Stanford, to the many times I have been the top-rated speaker at a conference, I likely have a bias towards valuing speaking ability.

Yet at the same time, I can’t help but think that speaking ability is overrated. The ability to quickly compose and deliver appealing sound bits is certainly one form of intelligence, but is it as generalizable as we think?

Speaking ability doesn’t correlate perfectly with intelligence, work ethic, or other such positive characteristics. It doesn’t mean that the person’s opinions are correct.

I had coffee with some friends who told me how obsessed they were with “WeCrashed,” the mini-series starring Jared Leto (yes, of Morbius fame) and Anne Hathaway as Adam and Rebekah Neumann (of WeWork infamy). I haven’t seen the show, but they detailed how as you watch the show, Leto as Neumann is so charismatic that despite the fact that you know he destroyed more shareholder value than any other entrepreneur in history, you start liking and rooting for him.

That sort of charisma, which combines speaking ability and Leto’s absurd handsomeness is incredibly powerful. Yet as WeCrashed eventually reminds us, it can blind us to incompetence and corruption.

I think that in the end, how we rate speaking ability depends on the context.

Speaking ability is incredibly powerful in the fields of communication and persuasion. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., or a great teacher. This means that speaking ability is essential to catalyzing mass movements and mindset change.

Yet there is no moral valence to speaking ability; Adolf Hitler rose to power because of his remarkable speaking ability, which certainly catalyzed a mass movement and mindset change…much to the detriment of the world.

What this all suggests is that simply evaluating speaking ability on its own is not enough. To properly rate a person’s impact, positive or negative, requires us to further ask to what extent their goals require communications or persuasion, and to what extent we consider those goals good, neutral, or evil.

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