Should a speaker be an authority figure over the audience? Are you on that stage because you are superior to the people watching you? That was the old way, when figures like Aristotle and Alexander the Great commanded prestige and respect from the masses. Old-fashioned authoritarian mentality once ruled the world of public speaking, as well as education and the workforce as a whole. An authority figure on stage, in the classroom, or in the office held absolute rule.
Fast forward to today, you can see that times have changed. Leadership means promoting two-way communication. Educators teach student-centered lessons, (some) businesses value their employees as human beings, and speakers leave the pontification of yesterday aside in favor of meeting their audience at eye level. However, we still have one hill left to climb.
Welcome to the ivory tower hour
The one field where top-down self-anointed experts still rule is in academia. If you have ever studied psychology, perhaps you know the case of Gloria. Back in the mid-1960s, three famous therapists applied their counseling techniques to a gracious volunteer. Students, scholars, and therapists alike have praised the film as the gold standard in psychotherapy. Sixty years later, we can finally tell the truth. The Gloria sessions were a disaster. For the same reasons that audiences reject an arrogant speaker, Gloria walked away with zero insights on the problems she brought to the couch.
While cameras rolled, Carl Rogers counseled Gloria with his client-centered therapy, Fritz Perls grilled her with Gestalt, and Albert Ellis ranted and raved with rational emotive therapy. The three see no intellectual capacity in their client and seek only to belittle her. They never accounted for the fact that she was already in therapy, nor what she had already learned about herself.
FIT System -- Step 1
In other words, they never applied the first step in the FIT system, which is to filter misconceptions from background knowledge. Whether it is psychotherapy, fitness, or any other topic, everybody brings a certain knowledge into the conversation. If not, they wouldn’t be in the office or in the audience. Had they respected her self-awareness from the beginning, she would have bought into each therapy session. They could have used her contributions as a framework, so that the insights they discovered together would have led Gloria to make real changes.
The therapists took a position of authority over Gloria. Even Carl Rogers, Mr. Client-centered, talks to Gloria as a child. He toggles between patronizing and cliche-dispensing while accomplishing absolutely nothing. Fritz Perls irritated Gloria and questioned every gesture and facial expression. At the end of the session, Perls instructed Gloria to make a cup with her hands, and he flicked the ashes of his cigarette into her hands. Ellis spoke most of the session and raised his voice at times. Ellis himself admitted the session was a waste of time, but that doesn’t stop the YouTube commenters from singing his praises.
FIT System -- Step 2
This article is not a deep dive into clinical psychotherapy, but rather a look at how you can outperform the most seasoned professionals in any industry by promoting the oft-forgotten human element. Your lesson is worth more than all of the knowledge from all of the sages you will ever meet, as long as you present your message in a story form. Storytelling as a means of teaching is the I in the FIT system, to instruct with stories and examples, rather than bullet points, instructions, or statistics.
The three wise men never asked Gloria to tell any stories. They relied on her broad generalizations in order to jump to false conclusions. Gloria talked about one interaction with her daughter during her session with Rogers, and you can see her personality come out for a moment. Rogers shows no interest in her story. Right back they went to rigid, awkward dialogue. He closes with a very creepy, “I feel close to you in this moment.” Note to all speakers: Don’t close with that line.
FIT System -- Step 3
Rogers, like his contemporaries, finishes by failing to apply the final step in the FIT system, to Transfer the lesson to the audience. A speech, just like a therapy session, has no value if the audience has no message to take with them. Perls had a very thorough wrap-up after the session which made me believe in Gestalt therapy a lot more than I believe in its inventor. Ellis left Gloria with some crumbs for thought, but he had already force fed her so much drivel that his parting words didn’t matter anymore.
When does the client first believe in the value of therapy? At the same time that your audience sees the value in you. The moment that the audience believes in you does not come from your bio or your introduction. It doesn’t come from you impressing them with your greatness. It comes from when they play a part in creating the experience. They buy into the message when they help create it.
Would you trust a counselor who speaks to you from a position of absolute authority? How about a speaker? How about a district manager? When you sit in the audience, you are the absolute authority figure on whether or not the speaker has any value. The deciding factor is always whether or not the speaker placed the audience experience ahead of the prepared material. As Craig Valentine says, “When you make them visible, they make you valuable.”
Lessons in leadership
As a parting lesson in leadership, let’s take a look at how this event happened in the first place. Gloria was already in therapy, where her regular therapist called in the three experts. He put a vulnerable patient in the limelight and profited by inflicting further emotional damage. Would you take somebody who trusted you and put her under the bus like that? If so, keep reading the FIT Presenter blog until your conscience is purified.
Who benefitted from the experience? Certainly not Gloria. The three stooges didn’t fare much better. Perls came across like a total jerk, Rogers was kinda creepy, and Ellis himself called the whole thing a dog and pony show. The original therapist got semi-famous for coordinating the event, that is, until Gloria sued him.
The only winners in this saga are you and me. We have seen firsthand that we as speakers can reach into the soul and subconscious of our audience better than the most renowned psychotherapists can do with their patients. Our advantage comes not from expertise, but from expression. Step away from the pulpit and lead from within. The results will be, quite frankly, Glorious.