In the News: Soldier or Scout?

Yesterday on TED Ideas, Julia Galef wrote about two different mindsets we can take: the soldier mindset and the scout mindset, asking: “What do you most yearn for? Do you yearn to defend your own beliefs or do you yearn to see the world as clearly as you possibly can?” The former is the mindset of the soldier, the latter, the mindset of the scout. (If you prefer to listen, she also spoke about this last year at TEDxPSU. The content of the talk and article are nearly identical.)

As always, the question here is: how might we apply this insight to speaking?

As a speaker, you want your audience to be scouts, open to exploring your ideas. But how can you encourage this mindset in your audience?* The answer, I believe, is to be a scout yourself.

Many speakers approach persuasive speaking from a soldier mindset: “if I defend my beliefs, the audience will see that I’m right, and they’ll come over to my side.” But as I note in The Science of Speaking, this approach often backfires because it turns the audience into soldiers too and causes them to reflexively defend their existing beliefs. At the risk of overextending Galef’s lovely metaphor, if a scout meets an enemy soldier on the battlefield, they’re not going to continue being a scout. They’ll either turn into a soldier themselves, or simply retreat to behind their own lines. Neither of these options helps you persuade them.

So how can you present yourself as a scout, extending an olive branch to your audience, and increasing your persuasive abilities? As I mention at several different points in the book, it’s a good idea to meet the audience where they are, and find common ground, rather than just attacking from afar. Another good strategy is to admit uncertainty, or even to admit a weakness in your argument, because this will make you seem more credible. Alternatively, you could engage in an open-ended discussion about their concerns, rather than giving a one-sided presentation. Or, if you struggled to get to where you are—if you once believed as the audience believes—you could tell them a story about that struggle, which will make them much more likely to trust you.


* If you want an answer to the related question of how you can cultivate a scout mindset in yourself, Galef has a great video about this.

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