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Communication That Unites Us
Ben Klutsey and Bob Ewing discuss knowing your audience, the importance of listening and why we should be conversational scientists
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Bob Ewing, president and founder of the Ewing School and author of the Talking Big Ideas Substack, about how to make speeches that unite people, whether speaking and listening are skills that can be learned, harmful and helpful conversational habits and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we’re talking to Bob Ewing. He’s the president and founder of the Ewing School, which is a company that trains leaders to communicate ideas. Bob and I have known each other for a very, very long time. Throughout my career at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of talks, speeches, panel discussions, and I have to say that Bob has been instrumental in my career as he’s helped to train me and coach me to improve as a speaker, as a communicator of ideas.
That’s really the subject of our conversation today, to talk about how we can communicate better in a liberal society that fosters open inquiry, where we can contest ideas, raise questions, have good civil conversations so we can learn and improve our knowledge. Bob, thanks for joining us today.
BOB EWING: Absolutely, Ben. It’s great to be here.
Knowing Your Audience
KLUTSEY: Now, this series is focused on liberalism, as I had mentioned. One of the core values of a liberal society is open inquiry, the ability to raise questions, contest ideas. Obviously, you can’t do that without communication. The Ewing School was founded to help people communicate professionally: doing speeches, talks, presentations. What would you highlight as the element of a great speech or talk that actually unites people? What are some of the things that you will highlight as really amazing things for great speechmakers that actually unites people versus dividing people?
EWING: Sure. That’s a big question.
KLUTSEY: It is a big question.
EWING: We could go down that path for a long time. I will say at a high level, out of the gate, a good speech is one that brings the speaker’s ideas to life in a way that resonates with the audience. And that from the very highest level, the speech is framed in a way that connects with that particular audience at that particular moment in time. There’s an engineering writer named Ken Haemer who has a great quote that I use all the time, which is, “Giving a speech without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘To whom it may concern.’” That’s not a very good love letter.
A lot of people, particularly academics, will give the same talk to different audiences, and we don’t want to do that. With the clients we work with, at the very beginning, we start with, “Who is your audience, what are they interested in and how can you help them?” Instead of thinking about being persuasive, we think about being useful. How can you be useful to this audience at this particular moment in time? That’s where you start the speech.
KLUTSEY: Now, if your goal is to inspire or to unite, and I guess it could be both, what should one do if that’s the goal? What are some of the elements of that?
EWING: There’s a lot of different things that would be happening in that context. First and foremost is creating an audience-focused speech. If you want to inspire the audience, you have to be talking in their terms, not in your terms.
Second is, you want to think about what are the core elements of a speech that inspires. In this context, I’ll say think about audience, messaging and delivery. The audience is, who’s your audience, what are they interested in and how can you help them? The message is what you say. We divide that into content and structure. And then the delivery is how you actually deliver that message to the audience.
Let’s talk for a minute about messaging. How do you inspire that particular audience? From a messaging perspective, in addition to being audience-focused, I would say for content—we’ll talk a minute about content and then structure—there are particular narratives that you can use that are conducive to inspiring an audience.
One narrative is called a linked narrative. This is a classic structure that we encourage folks to use that want to inspire an audience. The basic formula for that is three stories that are linked together: story of self, story of us, story of now. What’s a speech that you have coming up, for example?
KLUTSEY: I’ll be talking to a group of policy center leaders.
EWING: What would you say is a value that you guys share together?
KLUTSEY: Building a civil and pluralistic society.
EWING: How would you take that and boil it down to one or two words on the value of that that really resonates with all of you?
KLUTSEY: Living together peacefully.
EWING: What we would say is, if that’s the value, then we would say, let’s go back to a moment in time in your life where you felt that value strongly. There was a moment where you either saw it reflected well or you saw it reflected poorly. Maybe in your case, growing up in Ghana, there was a moment where you saw, say, the moment with your father and the business, right? Then you could take that story from your past—that’s what we’ll call a story of self—and it shows that this value resonates with you, and then you connect it to a story of us.
In fact, this is what we did with you in your talk you gave a couple of years ago, is you take a story of self and then you connect it to a story of us. Here’s the audience that’s in that room, and here’s how all of us connect to this value. You say, “Here’s why the value matters to me. Here’s how the value matters to all of us.” Then story of now: “Here’s how, working together, we can advance this value to make the world better.” This is a formula that Obama used in his 2004 commencement address that catapulted him into the national limelight. You see this basic narrative played out over and over in stories to inspire action.
The key thing is that you think less about the detailed abstractions and more about the particular values. What are the value or values that resonate with me and my audience, and how do I show that they’re important to me? Then how do I connect them to the audience and then elevate them to feel like we can apply this value in a meaningful way to make the world better?
KLUTSEY: In your experience, as you work with leaders and public intellectuals, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, do you see people using this approach? If you don’t, why do you think they do not?
EWING: I would say that speaking is a skill that’s totally teachable. We often see people that say, “I’m just not a natural,” in every skill. “I’m just not a natural when it comes to drawing. I’m just not a natural when it comes to sports. I’m just not a natural when it comes to speaking.” We’ve all said this at a certain point. The bottom line is, what that actually means is, “I haven’t put a lot of time and energy and attention into drawing or into speaking or into sports.” If we put enough time and attention into something, we get better at it.
Speaking is a learnable, teachable skill. Anyone could become excellent at speaking who has just a basic ability to function in the world. You can absolutely become an excellent speaker. We have worked with thousands of people now all around the world and seen many of them go from absolutely terrible to just totally crushing it onstage, getting standing ovations like you, getting people to cry and hug you and say, “I wanted to give you a job,” like you have done. It’s a totally teachable skill. What I would say is, most people don’t follow a framework like that because they haven’t been taught it and they haven’t practiced it.
KLUTSEY: Do you think that we should be teaching people and helping them learn and train using this approach? The reason I ask this is because we work in the space of pluralism and civil exchange, how to help people to coexist and live together amidst deep divides and differences. Most people would say that it seems as though we are very divided in our society right now, particularly along political lines. The reason that we might be divided is because we’re not spending as much time with people who have very, very different backgrounds and come from different places.
I ask because I wonder if there is a way in which we can scale and teach more people about how to communicate to different audiences so that they inspire toward unity versus toward division. Because it seems as though division can sell and sometimes sells a lot. I wonder if there is a way in which we can scale this approach and just have people do more of this stuff.
EWING: Totally. I’ll step back for a minute and say the link narrative is just one specific structure for one specific style of speech. More broadly, if you said, “Should we be helping people to learn how to better connect with each other?” I would say that the answer is probably yes, right?
Messaging and Design Problems
EWING: When I was talking about messaging, I would say that there are things we could do to really help people to bring their ideas to life from a messaging framework. We work with our clients to say, whatever your ideas are that you want to talk about, let’s figure out, first off, how do you clarify that in one specific theme? What’s the one big idea that you want to get across in this speech, in this conversation? Now, how can you boil that down to something that’s as simple as a proverb so you could stick that in their head, so they’ll walk away with, “Oh, I know that’s what Ben was trying to say”?
Then, how do you bring that proverb, that big idea to life in a way that resonates with that audience? What are the analogies that you can use that resonate with that audience or with that person? What are the stories that you can share to bring those to life? The three core components of stories that we teach our clients on are: Good stories are vivid, they’re emotional and they’re simulations. We can dive into that if you want, but if you’re talking about people are divided and how can we help them to be less divided, that’s a huge structural problem.
There was a classic book written in the ’80s called “The Design of Everyday Things.” And the author’s thesis was if there’s a problem in the world—whether it’s small like people are pulling on a door that they’re supposed to push, or large like people in North Korea are starving to death—whatever it is, look first to design problems. And then figure out how you can design things better.
If there’s a bunch of people dying in car accidents, instead of attributing that to a moral failing, attribute it to a design problem. Maybe we could pull out that intersection with the confusing signs and put in a roundabout with really clear signs, and then let’s see what happens. For the door, maybe one side can have a handle and the other side can have a flat plate. For North Korea, North Korea and South Korea were the same country not that long ago, and now we see how totally different the people are: their life expectancy, their height, their quality of life.
There are design problems at play. When you say if people feel more divided, like your guest Sam recently said, a lot of that might be rose-tinted glasses that the past was amazing, but also there are probably some design things that are happening. And we could think through, how do we design an environment that is more conducive to people interacting rather than being divisive?
Talking to the Other Side
KLUTSEY: Right. I think most times it’s easy to speak to a group of people who agree with you on pretty much everything. You might be invited to do a talk, and the audience is fairly friendly. They agree with you on everything. Do you teach people to also talk to groups of people who may disagree with them, with their main points?
EWING: For sure, yes.
KLUTSEY: How do you basically help them to prepare for that kind of talk or scenario?
EWING: Absolutely. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes into here. I’ll quickly share an anecdote where Milton Friedman one time was debating Michael Harrington. And Milton Friedman was a classic free market economist; Michael Harrington was a classic socialist economist. And they did not agree on a lot of stuff. Friedman would start some of his answers with, “As unaccustomed as you might be to think that I would agree with Mr. Harrington, let me agree in part with what he’s just said.” He’ll start with, here’s the thing we can agree on, and let’s build from there.
People are not as divided as it seems. People agree on a whole bunch of stuff. We could say, “Okay, in this particular audience, how do I frame a conversation in a way that will resonate with them and from a perspective that appeals to them and with a value that we agree on and speaking their language?” Are you familiar with Arnold Kling’s book “The Three Languages of Politics”?
EWING: Okay. Have you had him on?
KLUTSEY: Not yet.
EWING: Oh, you should absolutely have him on. Right, so he talks about how when it comes to politics, that there are three specific languages that people speak in the United States right now. Then he added a fourth, and he called them progressive, conservative, libertarian and populist. If I’m talking to a progressive audience, the progressive audience tends to frame things in oppressed, oppressor language. Conservative audience frames things in a totally different way: Civilization to barbarism is their axis. Libertarian: tyranny, liberty. Then the populist would be nationalism to globalists. The different audiences that you’re talking to, it’s important to be able to speak their language.
KLUTSEY: Yes. It seems to me that the main lesson here is that you should always know your audience, do your homework, understand who they are and what resonates with them in order to engage and whether to persuade or have a good interaction or discussion with them.
EWING: Yes, and I would say that from the design perspective, there’s how you design your actual speech, and then there’s how do you actually design the framework in which you’re interacting with people.
I think one of the problems that happened with the rise of the internet is, we have switched to interacting more and more from System 2 to System 1. In Dan Kahneman’s book, the System 1 thinking is quick and intuitive. It’s really important. It’s also laden with emotion. The System 2 thinking is slow and deliberative, and it’s filled with thought. When we’re on Twitter, it’s very easy to send out an emotional tweet. It’s very easy to respond in a System 1 way.
If you had a heuristic—do you know Chuck Grimmett? I call this Grimmett’s law. Chuck’s a good guy. Chuck says that you should never, ever put anything out on social media in an emotional state. If everyone just simply followed Grimmett’s law, the world would be a totally different place. Now, we can’t control anyone else, but we can control ourselves. We should say, “I’m not going to violate Grimmett’s law. I’m not going to post or say anything in a System 1 way that could be offensive.” Because so much of our communication now is not about trying to persuade or connect; it’s showing tribal loyalty.
Giving a Speech vs. Having a Conversation
KLUTSEY: Yes. I was going to ask about how this speaking on the big stage, how that translates into interpersonal conversations and communication. It seems to me that that would be the No. 1 thing to be mindful of, to not engage when you are in a very, very emotional state, because it could lead you to say things that you do not want to say and could create some issues.
What are some of the things that you think are important when giving a talk on the big stage but also are important—they transfer the same way in regular day-to-day conversations with people, whether they agree with you or they do not agree with you?
EWING: I’ll share a quick story.
EWING: When I worked with you here at the Mercatus Center, I was at a dinner at the Willard Hotel. It was a VIP dinner. I was there to help facilitate conversation, a closed dinner up on the second floor. The Willard Hotel, famous hotel in D.C., lots of presidents have even lived there. Lots of high-status people hang out in the Willard Hotel. We’re there, it’s an awesome dinner.
The guy to my right isn’t talking. He’s not saying anything. Half the dinner goes by, and he hasn’t said a word. I’m thinking, “Maybe he’s nervous. Do I try to get him to participate? But if he’s really scared, I don’t know.” Maybe three-quarters of the way through the dinner, the conversational ball lands in his lap, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. He gets a follow-up question, and he knocks it out of the park. Then the rest of the dinner was just this guy putting on a masterclass. Afterward, normally, people gather around the highest-status person. In this case, everyone gathered around this guy.
Afterward, I got to walk out with him, and he became a good buddy of mine. We’re poker buddies—Adam Thierer, who worked with us here at Mercatus for a long time. I said, “How did you do that?” He said, “Well, for about 20 years, I’ve been doing research on a whole wide variety of stuff, and I always make an effort to think about, how can I best bring these ideas to life?” All these complex, typically tech issues in his case. He comes up with stories and analogies and ways of saying these things that resonate. He tests them in speeches and in social media posts and all this different stuff, and he saves all of the best, what I would call, proverb stories and analogies into what he calls, I think, a storytelling catalog.
He has it in his office. He prints it up regularly and updates it, and then he has it in the cloud. He says, “Whenever I’m going to an event, on the Lyft ride over or whatever it may be, I just pull up my catalog. And I flip through it and I think, okay, what’s this audience going to be interested in? Which stories, which analogies will resonate with them?” Then even during the conversation or during an event, he could even pop into the bathroom and pull it up and flip back through it. We encourage all of our clients to do that as well. The more clarity we have on our messaging, the more likely we are to effectively connect with our audience.
Paul Graham, the famous tech entrepreneur, he says that good writing is hard because it’s downstream from good thinking, and good thinking is hard because we live in such a System 1 world now. The more people can carve out time to engage in System 2 thinking—if everyone said, “Instead of tweeting, I’m going to write one Substack article a week,” that would force them to clarify their thoughts.
Then if you clarify those thoughts and bring them to life with proverb, stories and analogies, and then you save them, you can use those in whatever context it is, whether you’re going and giving a keynote, whether you’re going to a networking event, you’re going to a panel, you’re having a conversation with someone at the grocery store. You’ve clarified your thoughts, you’ve clarified your content, and then you could structure it in whatever way makes the most sense for the specific context.
Logos, Pathos and Ethos
KLUTSEY: Amazing. Oftentimes when we’ve done trainings and we’ve had conversations about speaking, you’ve talked about logos, pathos and ethos. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that and how understanding that can help you to become a better communicator.
EWING: There was a guy named Josh Bell, still alive, one of the greatest violinists ever. He’s like the LeBron James of playing the violin. Travels all over the world. Wherever he goes, he sells out. He is awesome. In 2007, The Washington Post columnist won the Pulitzer Prize for an experiment he did with Josh Bell. The guy’s name was, I think, Gene Weingarten. Josh Bell played a sold-out gig in Boston, I think, tickets probably over $100 apiece. Then a few days later, he plays a similar set in D.C. The only difference is that he didn’t play it at the Kennedy Center. He played it in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.
He wasn’t wearing his tux. He was wearing a baseball cap and a t-shirt and jeans, baggy jeans, and he plays his, I think it was his Stradivarius violin. It was like a $3 million violin or something. It’s Josh Bell. About the same amount of people in Boston—I think there’s 1,000 people that saw him in Boston—about the same amount of people saw him play in L’Enfant Plaza, 1,007 people who walked by him. This is recorded. You can watch it on YouTube.
Out of those 1,007 people that saw Josh Bell play his amazing violin—he played one of the most famous and difficult pieces ever created, this famous Bach piece that some people have said is the greatest accomplishment of one person ever, the Bach piece. Josh Bell plays it on his Stradivarius. How many of those 1,007 people just stopped and listened in awe? What’s your guess? How many of those 1,007 people stopped?
KLUTSEY: Half of them.
EWING: 7 out of 1,007. You have one of the greatest violinists alive playing one of the best instruments alive, playing one of the best pieces of music ever written, and yet almost nobody stopped. Why is that?
KLUTSEY: The setting.
EWING: Yes. What this is a great illustration of is Aristotle’s point. To effectively connect with people, logos isn’t enough. The logos, pathos, ethos idea is that logos is your logic, your facts, your figures, your statistics. It’s the big ideas that you’re bringing to the table. Or in Josh Bell’s case, it’s the actual music that you’re bringing. It’s the guts of and the skeleton of what you’re bringing. The pathos is putting your audience in the correct frame of mind so they’re in a situation which they want to listen to you. Then the ethos is your status. We are a status-obsessed species. If you have high status, I want to pay attention to you. If you have low status, I don’t.
Aristotle said—and this is absolutely true—if you want to effectively connect with someone, you have to create an environment or design a setting in which people are going to be likely to connect. When Josh Bell played in Boston, his name Josh Bell, sitting there, everyone knows who he is. He has super high status. He walks in the room, I want to listen to him. LeBron James walks in the room, it’s like we’re going to listen to him. We actually, just down the hall from where we are right now, I got to have dinner with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That was awesome. Everyone listened to him when he talked; he’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
When he was playing in L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, nobody knew it was Josh Bell. He was just some guy in scrubby clothes, so there was no ethos. Then a concert hall is designed to elicit an emotional response between the people on the stage and the people in the seats. It’s set up with perfect acoustics. It’s set up so we’re facing them. It’s set up for the right lighting and all of the right mood. The pathos is set up so we can listen and pay attention. Without ethos and pathos, the logos falls flat, even if the logos is perfect. So many academics think, “All I need to do is create a nice argument, have good logos and that’s enough,” but it’s not.
It’s three legs of a tripod. If you knock two of the legs out, it’s not a good tripod. How can we more effectively connect? I need to incorporate pathos and ethos. One timeless way to incorporate pathos as a speaker is to use stories and analogies and proverbs because they help to put the audience in the correct frame of mind so they’re willing to listen to the logos. I like to use the analogy of giving a dog medicine. Have you ever given your dog medicine?
KLUTSEY: No. I don’t have a dog.
EWING: Otherwise I hope you occasionally give him medicine. [laughter] If you have a dog and you have to give him a pill, nobody just hands them the pill. You put it in a hot dog, you wrap it in cheese. You wrap the pill in some tasty thing so the dog wants to eat it. It’s the same thing. The pill in this analogy is your logos, whatever the idea is you’re trying to convey. The pathos is the hot dog, the cheese. I have to think, who’s this audience? What are they interested in? How can I help bring my ideas to life in a framework that makes sense for them? What are the best stories and analogies for this specific audience so my logos will resonate with them?
Being a Conversational Scientist
KLUTSEY: Reminds me of Adam Grant’s book “Think Again.” He says that oftentimes when we are confronted with ideas or challenges to things that we hold very dearly, we become either prosecutors, preachers or politicians. The politician will say anything to get people on their side. The preacher is unyielding; they have to hold firm to their beliefs and make sure that they’re proselytizing to get more people to bind to the faith. Then you have the prosecutor who’s exploiting the weaknesses in the other person’s arguments to make theirs sound really, really good.
He says, ultimately you want to be a scientist, where you’re asking questions and learning and trying to figure these things out. He says, ultimately we are not in a battle or a war or a debate with our fellow citizens. We’re having these conversations with them, but it’s a dance. He uses a story about someone that he was mentoring and helping them think through some career options that they had. He kept nudging her to move toward a particular direction. He was basically using logic for the most part. Whenever she would ask a question or raise a point, he would logically demolish her arguments to highlight his point, to make his look really, really good. He was winning the argument.
At the end of the conversation, she says to him, “I really agree with you. I think you’re making a lot of good points, but I still won’t do this thing that you want me to do.” He asked, “Why?” She said, “Because you’re a logic bully.” It ties into what you’re saying in terms of having very good logic, but you’re still not able to connect with the person that you’re having a conversation with, the audience, because there is no pathos and there is no ethos.
EWING: Yes. Another way that I like to—and this is an excellent example that you bring to life on the idea that we are not computers that are just logic machines; there’s a lot more to humans than that. That’s important to understand. We want to talk to humans in a way that’s friendly to humans, whether it’s the numbers we use or the structure we use or the specific methodology. Another way that I like to divide communication is to think of it as, we can be persuasive or we can be useful or we could simply just be healthy. The healthy point is one that’s really important and is lost.
Persuasion going back thousands of years—Aristotle, again, in “The Art of Rhetoric,” he says that rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Cicero talks about the amazing feeling you have of manipulating people’s minds to come to your way of thinking. There’s certainly something to that, but I think that today we’re so jaded and turned off by folks that are maybe—where it feels like folks are trying to manipulate us or trying to push their ideas on us. We’re pretty skeptical, I think. We don’t encourage our clients to think about persuasion. We really focus on saying how can you be useful.
I think that that’s liberating, is to say, instead of me trying to win an argument or push my logic onto you or be a logic bully, I just want to listen to you and figure out, is there some way in which I can be helpful? Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. If there’s not, then regardless we can still have conversations that are healthy. I would define that as the Hippocratic Oath of communication. “First, do no harm,” to paraphrase Hippocrates, and to think about John Rawls, who wrote “A Theory of Justice.” He followed it up with a book called “Political Liberalism.” In that book he said, we cannot agree on everything.
If you believe in Islam and I believe in Christianity, you and I are not going to have a persuasive conversation where we convince one that the other is right. If you are fundamentally pro-life and I’m fundamentally pro-choice, you and I are not going to sit down and have a conversation where we convince one that the other is right. There’s no way around that. Those are fundamental differences in core beliefs. What Rawls says is, what we have to do is understand that. Rather than trying to use logic to push my worldview on you, we have to say we live in a world in which it’s okay that there’s differences in core beliefs, and we can treat each other like adults in a healthy, respectful way.
KLUTSEY: You mentioned the Hippocratic Oath in communication, that we should “do no harm.” What are some of the things that we do in conversations that are harmful, that we may not be aware that they are harmful, but we do it in all regular conversations with people that are just not helpful?
EWING: A lot of our conversations are based on signaling that we’re part of a particular tribe. If you work at a libertarian outfit, you might speak in ways which resonate with other libertarians. If you are working in a progressive organization, or if you’re simply on Twitter and something happens, we tend to frame it within the particular tribe that we identify with.
If you’re hanging out with other people in that tribe and you’re saying things that help you to feel high status, which tends to be, “I agree with this worldview, and people who have a different worldview are somehow less moral or less intelligent,” then that tends to help you elevate your status in your tribe, but it tends to further the division.
In conversation with people, it’s important to be mindful of all of the subtle power dynamics at play. One of the differences—in many ways speaking on a stage is the same as having a conversation. In some ways, it’s different, and I call this the Teddy Roosevelt-Ben Franklin split. Teddy Roosevelt, he called them weasel words and said that weasel phrases were a scourge on the country. This was the idea of saying things like, “Oh, well, I’m not so sure. Maybe you could consider this,” or that qualifying meek language. Teddy Roosevelt said get rid of all of that.
Ben Franklin, by contrast, used them all the time. Who’s right? I would say they’re both right depending on the context. When you’re onstage, do not use all of that weak qualifying language because it lowers your ethos; it lowers your status. You want people to pay attention to you. You’re there because you are an expert that has something that’s worth listening to, so do not use that qualifying language. When you’re in a conversation, follow Franklin’s lead because there’s these weird power dynamics at play. It’s important for us to make sure that we’re not trying to elevate our status at the expense of the people that we’re interacting with.
KLUTSEY: That’s really good. You mentioned tribes, and I wanted to ask about the ways in which we’re divided. That comes up a lot. It’s come up in our conversation. I’m curious as to your theory of the case, your theory of why it seems as though—maybe we’re not as divided as we might think sometimes—but why it seems as though it’s hard for us to agree on a lot of things. We’ve seen COVID happen, and we saw Black Lives Matter protests. We saw January 6, that there is a lot that is happening around us that give us the impression of division. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on why that might be the case. Is it because we’re spending a lot of time within our own tribes?
EWING: I think that there’s a whole bunch of stuff that we can unpack there, and I’ll start by saying I’m not any sort of expert in any of these areas. Some of it feels just intuitively like it makes sense. One thing is, Tyler Cowen just posted on Marginal Revolution on some study that showed that since about the year 2000, the way that the media portrays things has gotten increasingly negative. The more people listen to media, the less they actually understand the reality of the world around them, which didn’t use to be the case. You have this media that’s gotten very negative, this environment. And then social media came out, and then Jon Haidt’s hypothesis that it’s really had a negative impact on mental health and helped to increase division.
There’s all of that happening. There’s also the idea that—pick any year at any point in history and look at the actual violence statistics, the actual death statistics, the actual statistics and say, how does this actually compare to other years? There are causes for concern in different countries at different places at different times. Derek Thompson just had a piece in The Atlantic showing that the life expectancy in the United States for someone his age, some kid in his 30s or man in his 30s, is much lower than it used to be and is lower than other countries.
There are some legitimate problems right now to address. I don’t think it’s always as bad as the media makes it out, though. There are all sorts of amazing things happening, and for most people all over the world, they actually tend to get along with each other. I just officiated a wedding, and the groom was a very left-of-center progressive activist. I don’t agree on a lot of policy issues, but he asked me to officiate his wedding. His best man, I think, supported Trump. You have talked and I have talked about this before, on how there’s so many folks that we are friends with and that we interact with, that come from a whole diversity of ideology and thought.
Many of my best friends disagree with me on a whole host of things. I think that that’s great. I think that there’s more of that happening than you would think if you listened to the news and if you spent a lot of time on social media.
Be Interested, Not Interesting
KLUTSEY: That’s great. What role does listening play in good communication? I wonder if that’s something that can be taught. I know that in your work with entrepreneurs and leaders, while you’re doing a lot of work in communication, listening also comes up because listening is an important part of communication. Maybe first you could talk about how important listening is within communication and whether it’s something that can be taught.
EWING: For sure. Dale Carnegie uses this analogy in his book “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” He says that he loves to go fishing, and whenever he goes to fish, he likes to bring strawberries and cream with him. You can imagine him sitting there on the bank eating his strawberries and cream and fishing. He says, “I’ve never tried to put a strawberry on the fishing hook to cast it out. I always use worms,” and why is that? Because the fish are more interested in the worms than the strawberries, is his theory.
There is no fisherman, to my knowledge, that’s ever tried to catch a fish with food that the fishermen find tasty. Fishermen always understand that if you’re going to catch fish, you have to use the food that they find tasty. This is absolute common sense. Yet we tend to violate it when we’re trying to reel in people. We tend to try to talk to them about things that interest us. Carnegie would say that you can win more friends and influence more people in two weeks by being interested than you can in two years by being interesting.
Social media is structured in a way to try to make us seem interesting. “Look at how cool I am. Look at how high status, and look at this person that I interacted with, this place that I went.” We have designed our interactions to be not conducive to connection. If we can flip that and say, “I’m going to be focused on being interested. I’m going to bait the hook to suit the fish,” so to speak, then we will be much more successful in connecting. If you say how important is listening, it’s a bit of a loaded question because, of course, understanding our audience is fundamental to being able to connect. The better we can understand our audience, the more likely we are to connect with them.
I think that one tool that everyone can use now that we didn’t have just even a few months ago is ChatGPT. This would be a fun heuristic just to apply. If you’re going to have a conversation or give a speech or engage in some situation where you’re going to be communicating with people that speak different ideological languages than you, is ask Chat beforehand to steelman all of the different positions.
If you say, “I’m going to be talking about whatever the issue may be. I’m going to be talking about the COVID pandemic. I want you to present the absolute best-case scenario you can for these four different ideological worldviews. How does a progressive see it? How does a conservative see it? How does a libertarian see it? How does a populist see it? Present the absolute best case you possibly can. Apply Sturgeon’s law in that.” Just having that ability to see the world through other people’s eyes—
KLUTSEY: Explain Sturgeon’s law.
EWING: I’m sorry. Ted Sturgeon was a famous science fiction writer. There was someone who wrote a book or gave a review of a science fiction book. He said, “This book is crap. All of science fiction is crap.” Then sometime afterward, Ted Sturgeon was at a science fiction gathering with all these famous folks, and Heinlein’s in the audience and Asimov’s in the audience, all these icons of science fiction. And Sturgeon gets up there to talk. He says, “You guys saw the review.” He said, “90% of science fiction is crap.” Then he pauses and he says, “Well, they’re right,” which is unexpected. Then he says, “Here’s the thing. 90% of everything is crap.”
He says, “If you want to effectively critique science fiction, go after the best stuff, don’t go after the crap. If you want to effectively critique anything, you’ve got to go after the best stuff.” I used to work at a law firm, the Institute for Justice just down the road. It really stood out to me when I was there, how the attorneys would spend weeks or months pulling together potential cases. Then, when they would present them to the organization, they would say, “Here’s the absolute best case. Here’s the absolute best reason why we should take the case; here’s all the best reasons. Here’s all the best reasons on why we should not take this case.”
Like Karl Popper says, this is fundamentally the distinction between science and dogma: Dogma looks to reinforce its perspective, and science looks to discredit its perspective. A good scientist will look for disconfirming evidence to prove his idea is wrong. The more we can adopt that, like you had mentioned in the Adam Grant book, that System 2 thinking.
Now, Jon Haidt—I know you’ve read “The Righteous Mind”—Jon Haidt says, “We all engage in System 1 thinking, quick intuitive judgments, and then we use our System 2 thinking simply to justify our intuitions.” That happens a lot. I think that we’re not enslaved to that. I think that you could use your System 2 mind as a lawyer, as Haidt says, or you can use it as a judge. You can use it as a scientist.
You could say, “I’m going to honestly try to see the other person’s perspective, and I’m going to figure out how can I possibly be wrong. How could I iterate?” All progress in our universe comes from iterating, bringing in feedback and iterating. The more we can listen to folks that can correct us or help to change and improve our thinking, the more we can grow, whether that’s in skill development, whether that’s in knowledge acquisition or whether it’s in anything else.
KLUTSEY: I’d love for you to reflect a little bit on your journey as an entrepreneur, startup founder and the lessons you’ve learned working with people who want to communicate their ideas to make an impact in the world. Just your reflections on your journey.
EWING: Sure. I’ll say, since I’m here at Mercatus, that I came over here to work on the media team. Occasionally, I would embarrass myself because we’d be in a meeting and somebody would mention someone’s name, and I’d say, “Who’s that?” They say, “Oh, that’s the head of NBC Nightly News, Mr. Media,” like I was the head of the media team. Something that I got pretty good at was helping people to effectively talk, whether they were testifying before Congress that had nothing to do with media, or giving a keynote speech that had nothing to do with media.
Rothschild, the executive director here, Dan, he took me out to lunch and he said, “Hey.” He’s like, “You love helping people to communicate, and you don’t seem particularly interested in media. Why don’t you start just a communications training team here and just help anyone who wants to communicate better? Just help them out. What do you think about that?” I said, “I would absolutely love to do that. That’d be awesome.” I got to do that. I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but Mercatus was very supportive of me. Me and Kim Hemsley, who works here now as a training director, we worked together; we built a program. It was awesome. I loved it.
Then, after about a year, I thought, “I can do this beyond just Mercatus.” I had been doing side work for probably 15 years, doing little workshops and presentations to help people. I thought, “What if we took the show on the road?” I started hanging out with Maryrose by then, who was also working here with us, is now my CEO and wife. She encouraged me to say, “Hey, if you’re interested in being an entrepreneur, then why don’t you just go for it?” In October 2018, I did. It’s terrifying because you cut out your safety net and step into the void.
Mercatus was amazing because Mercatus said, “Let’s just have you keep doing what you’re doing. Keep being our training director.” They gave me a year contract. In fact, I’m here now in D.C. to do workshops with Mercatus tomorrow. So five years later, I’m still working with Mercatus, or four and a half years later. Are you familiar with the Japanese concept, ikigai?
EWING: It’s this idea that, what are you good at? What does the world value? What do you love to do? What can you get paid for? If you could find a way to create an intersection between those four things, that’s what they call ikigai. That’s where you create fulfillment. Again, you create value for the world. I felt like I was in that intersection. Then I had Maryrose to help me with all of the logistics of starting a business because I was good at this one thing, and she was good at a whole bunch of other things. She was just finishing up her MBA. We were able to team up and work together. It’s been super fulfilling.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Now it’s a family business.
EWING: It’s a family. Yes. It’s great.
Choosing To Be Healthy and Useful
KLUTSEY: Yes. Do you have a call to action when it comes to communications and how people should be better at it, or how they should improve upon their communication skills? If there was a call to action where you’re getting people to charge, to go for it, what would you say?
EWING: I would say that we always have the freedom to choose to be healthy and useful. That’s it. Let me share an anecdote on that. You should read David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. It’s absolutely fantastic.
KLUTSEY: Oh, I have.
EWING: You have read it?
EWING: Okay. It’s fantastic. Anyway, you could read any biography, or even read one of his autobiographies that he wrote. He talks about 10 years after he escaped from slavery, he was very well known and he was very well read. He wrote a famous letter to his former slavemaster, Thomas Auld. To paint that picture, he talked about how he would tremble at the sound of Thomas’ voice. He talked about a moment where his cousin Henny, who was a young girl who was physically crippled, how he had tied her to a joist and beat her so bad that she had passed out and she’s bleeding on the floor, and he comes back hours later and beats her again.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be in that situation, to live Frederick Douglass’ life. Ten years later, he writes this open letter to Thomas Auld, to his former slavemaster, and everyone should read this letter. Ask yourself, if you were Frederick Douglass and you were writing this letter, what would you say to Thomas Auld? What would you say, Ben?
KLUTSEY: Oh, gosh. Probably full of insults.
EWING: He ends it, he says something to the effect of, “There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine. There was nothing that you, if you needed it, that if it would aid in your comfort, that I would not provide. I would esteem it an honor and a privilege to show you how human beings should treat each other.” That’s how he ends it. That’s the model. That’s the lesson, is that we can transcend outrage. If Frederick Douglass can transcend outrage, then certainly you and I can. There’s a design problem with our current structure, with social media in particular, and this collapse that’s happening in institutions we used to be really connected to.
Not as many people go to churches that used to. Not as many people hang out. You’ve probably read “Bowling Alone.” Not as many people are involved in different civic things as they used to. I think politics has filled that void, and then social media has set it up so we’re doing System 1, tribalistic, angry thinking. If Frederick Douglass can find a way to transcend outrage and to show with clarity and compassion the correct path forward, then clearly you and I can. We all have the ability. We all have the freedom to choose how we respond to everyone we interact with.
KLUTSEY: Are you optimistic that we actually can?
EWING: I would call myself a radical optimist on the world. I think that the future is not written. We have to build it, and I’m confident that we will continue to build a better world to live in. Problems are solvable, and we’ll work together and solve them.
KLUTSEY: Well, on that very radically optimistic note, thank you, Bob, for taking the time to talk to us.
EWING: I appreciate it. Thank you, Ben.