Why Aristotle didn’t need PowerPoint

I’m just back from four thought-provoking days at the wonderful Hay Literary Festival.    This year, I took the opportunity to attend a number of talks and presentations about subjects central to the theme of this blog – philosophy, science, creativity and the future of work.    I believe we communicators can learn a lot from emerging developments in neuroscience and some of the latest thinking around human behaviour.    But I also think we can learn from history – from some of the great thinkers, communicators and innovators from the past.   By doing so, we might be ready to change some of our traditional approaches to internal communication and employee engagement.    The more I learn, the more convinced I am that we are doing some things wrong.   We need a new mindset, or if I may say so, a new philosophy, for workplace communication.     It’s a view I’ll expand upon in this blog in the coming weeks.   Anyway, one of the many interesting conversations I had over the four days was with science writer Christopher Lloyd, who that day had written an article in the Telegraph bemoaning the absence of rhetoric in modern life … a point reinforced in an excellent lecture by the philosopher A C Grayling the same day.     2,500 years ago, in Ancient Greece, rhetoric was one of only three subjects taught in schools (the others being gymnastics and geometry).    Without any recognised form of written literature, the ability to speak in public – to articulate an idea through persuasion and language – was a key skill for Greek students wanting to get on in the world.    Great philosophers such as Aristotle (pictured) and Epictetus would lecture whilst walking, using the music of their delivery to teach, persuade and convey ideas.   But the rise of writing, and then printing, steadily eroded the power of rhetoric.   As A C Grayling said, we live now in a post-rhetorical world of TV sound bites and perfectly crafted autocued speeches.    In business, modern day communication ‘crutches’ like PowerPoint have made us even lazier still.    We rely too much on left-brained writing which starts on page one and moves in a linear way from top to bottom, start to finish.   That’s now how humans evolved.    We started with pictures and the spoken word.   In the workplace, few of us have leaders who can orate and communicate via ears alone.    The written word is of course a wonderful and accessible way to learn and to seek engagement, but let’s try to learn from history and recognise the power of rhetoric to persuade, motivate and articulate a message.