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Mind Control 101

After my more advanced course in Speech & Drama met today, and I showed the students a few tricks about getting the audience to relax and feel sympathetic to a speaker, one of the girls in the class asked me, with a big friendly smile on her face,

How do I control my audience’s mood?

While it sounds like a scary question, it’s quite understandable as a question coming from one of the higher-level students, and if you knew her you’d probably guess she doesn’t mean anything as Manchurian Candidate-esque as real mind-control.

You don’t just need to know she’s a sweethearted kind of kid, though. It helps to know that when most Korean learners of English say “mind”, they’re expressing something we usually relegate to older metaphors, like “heart”, or to other related words like “thinking” or “mood”.

I suspect that, were she a fluent English speaker, she would ask, “How can I really grab my audience?”

It was interesting, because after all, if anyone can explain this, then someone who’s worked hard at teaching is a likely candidate. The longer version of my advice follows, though of course I didn’t get into quite this depth in the hallway:

A. Small talk counts for a lot. Whether you have a major language barrier between you, or come from the same small town, small talk — “How are you this afternoon? So, how about this rainy weather? Did you have a nice weekend?” — is quite usually a way of drawing people out, and if it doesn’t seem insincere, it tends to make people feel more comfortable.

B. Exuding confidence will convince other people you know what you’re talking about. This will make people more eager or willing to listen to you. This is even true if you don’t know what you’re talking about, unless of course you’re fabricating answers in the presence of experts. Even then, though, they’ll hesitate to contradict you directly. While there is a sort of strange enjoyment — of the perverse kind one finds in passing a train wreck — to be found in watching someone whose poorly-prepared speech is crashing and burning, most audiences would much rather you succeed; they’re secretly rooting for you.

C. Asking the right questions is a major way of getting people to see things your way. You’re working, always, from the assumption that you’re right. The questions you ask, especially rhetorical ones, are there to give people the blank suspense that precedes your supplying of the answers you find most tenable. The loaded question is one of the most powerful rhetorical/oratory tools there is.

D. A little humor wins them over. Humor, especially humor that “proves” your point, is a major help. If you get people laughing at your jokes, you get their natural, viscerally-felt sympathy. If you make people laugh, they accept you somehow, even if, in principle, they object to your observations, evidence, or conclusions. They’re bound to be less hostile and likely to be a little more receptive to what you have to say.

Now, the funny thing that hit me when I explained all of this is that not only are these the tools of the good orator, and, more darkly, of the charismatic leader; they are also, quite plainly, the central interpersonal tools of a good teacher, especially a good EFL teacher.

With EFL teachers, small talk is sometimes the only talk low-level students can do, and it’s important to get them to use what they already have, or the game is lost from the start. Confidence is a must in a classroom where confidence can be sadly low, especially since a lack of confidence can really rub off on an inexperienced teacher. A rookie EFL teacher often doesn’t know what the veteran knows about questions: that only certain questions get the kinds of answers that demonstrate whether knowledge has sunk in or not, whether a certain grammatical structure has been mastered or not; the rookie needs to learn how to ask the right questions. Finally, I have found that in my classes, the groups that are most receptive to my jokes, teasing, and antics are the ones who relax most, manage to pick things up relatively more quickly, and are more willing to take risks, goof up, and laugh at their errors instead of feeling dreadfully embarrassed about them.

Anyway, that’s my teachable moment (to myself) for the day. Now, off to kill a few hours until my night class starts. I think I’ll stay at the office, since going home will take an hour.

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