Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

Plan B

A goal of any presenter should be to show up early and troubleshoot all of the equipment.  That cuts your chances for a problem by perhaps half.

If you give presentations to groups you know the anxious moment when it dawns on you that the equipment you counted on is not working.  A teacher confronts this more every year, with no shortage of PowerPoints, streamed content, websites and cued videos to manage while still keeping a class on point.  These external elements can be so numerous that almost every class needs its own ‘pre-concert’ sound check.  Lucky are the lecturers and old style speakers who must simply offer a well-organized presentation in a package that is pleasant enough to hear. The rest of us who teach regularly seem to have fallen into the habit of running ersatz Youtube channels.

A recent address at Harvard represents this older style.  House of Commons Speaker John Bercow explained his role and this peculiar moment in British politics to a packed room with a magnificent timing and his usual panache.  His prose has the spaciousness of someone who knows he need not rush or show pictures.

In the meantime, the rest of us are scrambling for the clicker to keep our students engaged.

In a larger auditorium the chance for things to go wrong is greater.  Microphones can be unreliable and sometimes, work only intermittently. Outside noise can intrude.  Large spaces can have challenging acoustics. And ad hoc set-ups of projectors, cables and computers can easily let us down.

A goal of any presenter should be to show up early and troubleshoot all of the equipment.  That perhaps cuts your chances for a problem by half.  For the risks that remain. . .  well, you are pretty much on your own.  At a minimum, prepare by forcing yourself to consider what you will do if a key piece of equipment resists all attempts to revive it.  Think of this as your Plan B.

A few tips:

  • Be sure the mic works as its supposed to, without feedback noise and with as much clarity projected into the room as possible.  But also be aware that if you are wearing it, you may be ‘live’ to the audience longer than you intended.  In addition, repeat any questions that come from the audience.  They may not be able to hear each other.


  • Resist turning PowerPoints into a written lecture.  Remember that you need to remain the primary agent of communication.


  • Never set PowerPoint slides to run on a timer.  I think the most dysfunctional presentation I ever saw used just such a timed sequence which, of course, set a pace the speaker could not keep up with.  She faded into total confusion as pictures behind her appeared and vanished, seemingly at random.


  • If a space is noisy, ask if the air handling system can be turned off just for the length of your presentation.  As the presenter you need to assume the obligation of making sure you can be easily heard.


  • Put new batteries in the wireless remote  you may be counting on.  Double As are the usual size.


  • Ask the audience to move closer if the room is not full.


  • Keep your sense of humor.  Nerves or a flash of anger can make audiences uncomfortable. Think of an equipment failure as your chance to show that you are a change agent for all seasons.


  • As a last resort, a little tap dancing might buy some time.

In Praise of the Longform Documentary

There is simply no narrative form that is quite as effective as an extended video or film exploration of a complex person or trend.

Our heads are now and too often cast down to small screens so we can read even smaller messages.  Sometimes it seems like we are spending our time looking at the equivalents of fortune cookie aphorisms.

We can do so much better.  The technology is there.  We just have to show an interest.

One of the more recent advances in our media is not particularly “digital” at all; it’s the rebirth of the longform documentary focusing on important histories and cultural trends.  It’s not an overstatement to note that the culture changed after CNN broadcast Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 83-minute documentary, Blackfish  in 2013.  More viewed it when it was distributed as a feature by Magnolia Pictures. Once people saw the trailer  they were drawn to the film.  Cowperthwaite put the issue of animal abuse front and center at the moment when the topic was at a cultural tipping point.

The prime advantage of most documentaries  are that they are inviting entry points into an important narrative. The subject could be popular a single musician, a saga about one family, or our financial system.  Diverse subjects have been explored with sensitivities to the people whose dreams have been realized or dashed by mostly systemic pressures that are not visible in shorter narratives.  Most are personal; documentary filmmakers understand that their focus needs to be on individuals with stories to tell and tough choices to make.  Many have also been trained to structure stories that are coherent even without an off-screen narrator.  That was once a novel mode of working, tried by Frederick Wiseman, which has since become the norm.

The longform documentary is sometimes still used by PBS, though they are often more enthusiastic about non-confrontational elements in the natural world.  And CBS once had a crack documentary unit headed up by Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow, now just a distant memory, but recalled in the feature-length docudrama, Good night and Good Luck (2002).  Now it is mostly the larger streaming services and cable services that buy and schedule hard-hitting documentaries.  HBO, Showtime and Netflix are examples. To be sure, financing documentaries and selling them is still a rugged and difficult process for a filmmaker, even though shooting can now be done using more economical digital equipment.  We can thank a handful of dedicated professionals who have persevered–Alex Gibney, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Ken Burns, Michael Moore–among many others.

Here are a few favorites that are generally available for streaming and found with a simple Google search:

Working and Workers

  • American Factory (2019)
  • Roger and Me (1989)
  • The Last Truck (2009)
  • Last Train Home (2009)
  • Harlan County USA (1976)


  • Jazz
  • Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019)
  • Seymour: An Introduction (2015)
  • 20 feet from Stardom (2013)
  • Glen Campbell, I’ll be Me (2014)
  • Moon Over Broadway (1997)
  • The Last Waltz (1976)
  • Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened (2016)
  • Woman of Heart and Mind (2003)

Politics, Culture and Society

  • Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
  • The Inventor (2019)
  • Alive Inside  (2010)
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
  • Man on a Wire (2008)
  • The Fog of War (2003)
  • Sound and Fury (2000)
  • Hearts and Minds (1974)
  • An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
  • Gasland (2010)
  • Fyre (2019)
  • The War Room (1993)

There is simply no narrative form that is quite as effective as a well-made 90-minute exploration of a topic.  We are lucky that the form has never been more accessible.