Of preachers and lawyers

Some have the gift of impromptu eloquence. Some, like me, do not. I have been humbled many times, after speaking to a topic tersely and inadequately, hearing a colleague offer their own explication that is as fitting as it is lengthy. I can speak my mind, but I have difficulty improvising; I covet others’ fluency.

I’m comforted to know that my slow-wittedness is a phenomenon known throughout history, and therefore, I suppose, quite normal.

In the 1570s, Michel de Montaigne, in an essay called “Of prompt or slow speech,” wrote: “So we see that in the gift of eloquence some have facility and promptness, and, as they say, can get it out so easily that at every turn they are ready; whereas others, slower, never speak except with elaboration and premeditation.”

Eloquence is the profession of lawyers and preachers, he says. The quick person would do better as a lawyer, and the slow person would do better as a preacher. A lawyer adjusts in the moment, adapting to every novel twist. A preacher delivers premeditated messages in a continuous stream without interruption.

I think our teams would do well to include both: the deliberate along with the nimble.

The traditional hiring process favours lawyers. The way we interview candidates prioritizes the ability to think on one’s feet. Some basic questions a candidate can prepare for, but hiring panels really like candidates who are articulate in the face of questions that are unanticipated. In these situations, the preacher, sensing disadvantage, compounds the problem by becoming nervous. With little to go on, interviewers see only the nervousness and conclude the candidate is not a fit.

Most roles in Operations do not require the incumbent to argue in court – or perform improv comedy, or field questions from the press. Why the interview process has been made to resemble these activities, I’m not sure.

A bias in favour of lawyers is not mistaken; it only lacks balance. There are ways to achieve balance. I have sometimes provided a question or two in advance, given exercises to work on, and invited candidates to deliver a prepared presentation.

I limit the amount of time to prepare. As Montaigne wrote, anxiety to present oneself well leads to overworking the material and yields an unnatural result – what we call overthinking it. “We say of certain works that they smell of oil and the lamp,” he wrote. “If it doesn’t go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going.”

Montaigne has a reputation as a bookish hermit but in fact he was mayor of Bordeaux, aspired to statesmanship, and was embroiled in the hazardous politics of his day. He preferred conversation to writing.

On the job, where again conditions often favour the lawyer, we should ensure all types get their share of the conversation.

The virtual work world presents some opportunities. I have seen effective use of meeting software that encourages team members to provide input in the form of written statements, which other participants in the meeting can upvote. The author may then be invited to speak to the statement. It is easier to elaborate on an idea that one has already put out there, especially an idea that has been upvoted, than it is to break in on others’ full flight with a new thought.

It helps if the meeting is run by someone skilled at facilitating who can gently elicit comments from quieter members of the group. The preacher isn’t necessarily a shy or unconfident person; it just takes a bit to prime the pump.

The goal is not to shut up the quick-witted in favour of the slow, but to allow the quick and the slow to contribute more equally, leading to stronger teams and better decisions.

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