“Unless I’m wrong, and I’m never wrong, they are headed dead into the fire swamp.”
Prince Humperdinck, The Princess Bride
Which of these people would you rather pay attention to? The first is from an opening paragraph of a movement assessment book; the second from an introduction speech by a new MD of a business. Both are talking about rehabilitation of sorts.
“I can speak about poor logic because I’ve used it, and can discuss reductionism and isolated approaches because I’ve practiced them. I can identify with every mistake that can be made in exercise rehabilitation after owning them all. That is the perspective under which we’ll discuss some of the philosophical, practical and social mistakes surrounding movement.”
“Good morning everyone. My name is [...]. I have never failed, and I am not going to fail here.”
I’m guessing you preferred the first person, most people do; and I’ll explain why I think his introduction is so good. What disturbs me is how many people use the trust-me-I’m-perfect, approach of the second person when they write or speak. This, despite not liking that approach when they’re reading or listening.
If you liked the second person, then you may not think this article is for you; but if you give me ten minutes of your time to read it, then I hope to persuade you that there’s some merit in the approach you didn’t like.
Decent First Impressions
I think there’s truth in the claim that people give an author at most five minutes before deciding whether to continue reading. But people begin forming a mindset about an author as a person almost immediately, during his first few words. At the outset, their focus is just as much on characterising the author as it is on what he has to say. If the author is credible and likable, it’s somehow easier to take on board what he’s got to say. If the author comes across as flakey or has inadvertently got the reader’s back up, it’s really hard work to stay open minded, even to any decent insights.
Teachers of rhetoric understand this in readers and listeners, and look for speakers to have decent ethical appeal in their openings. I just look for someone who is competent, thoughtful and good company; and it’s a bonus if they’re funny. But more than anything else, I want them to be humble.
The first reason I like an author to be humble is that I think it leads to better content. They're inquisitive at the outset because they feel they know so little, or they're aware that their limited knowledge will be improved if they pay better attention. So they’re more likely to have thought things through. This works the other way too: if they’ve challenged themselves sufficiently, they’ll have made mistakes, learned from them, and be humbler as a result.
The second reason I like humility is that it can lead to better communication. A humble author will realise that what he’s got to say isn’t the last word on a subject; it will have limitations; it will inevitably be shown in future to be at least partly wrong; and parts of it in retrospect may even be stupid. Newton’s writings had all of these characteristics except maybe the last one; Joe Author is unlikely to be better. So rather than saying, “This is the truth, listen to me,” a humbler author will say, “this is the best I can think of right now, so I’m going to go with it.” They will be overt about their work’s limitations, which is much more helpful to the reader than grand claims that are inevitably seen through or disappointed.
Now I want to clarify what I mean when I propose being humble in opening a piece of work. I don’t mean being an obsequious Uriah Heep. That’s just creepy. Declaring your limitations up front enables you to be bold about what you do surmise. It’s a lot easier to be genuinely confident saying, ‘this is what I think is best, based on my current knowledge and previous failings,’ than to proclaim superior or faultless status and claim to know the truth.
And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be excited or committed. I’m just saying I’d rather listen to someone who’s also committed to learning, has reflected, made mistakes and is conscious of his present shortcomings, than to someone who’s a know-it-all or bedazzled devotee of someone’s dogma, which he’s never challenged. There's a place for arrogance, but not at the start of an article.
Finally, I’m not proposing that anyone affect humility, which is excruciatingly common in meetings of big wigs, and is as transparent as a badly made swim suit. But I’m confident than anyone who isn’t genuinely humble won’t have read this far anyway, which gets me onto my final subject.
When I started writing this, I thought it was about opening an article or speech. Now I realise it’s really about opening any investigation, of anything, for all the reasons I’ve described. And it’s relevant well before the conclusions are turned into an article or argument. If you’re humble about what you know, your assumptions, the limitations of your perspective, and the massive likelihood that even your best effort for now can be improved upon continuously, then I think there’s a decent chance that your investigation will yield some genuine insights, and that your argument will be fair and solid. Being humble in writing is then just a matter of saying it how you really, honestly believe it is, with no pretense or affectation. To misquote Quintilian, good writing is just a good person speaking naturally.
For completion, let me tell you something about the two people whose gambits I compared at the start. The humble first speaker is Gray Cook, probably the world’s authority on body movement, and consultant to top NFL teams. The bombasting second speaker was the MD of a business I worked in many years ago. The poor guy antagonised his staff with that opening salvo, and it went downhill from there. He was replaced after 6 months.
Prince Humperdink, our know-it-all character from the Princess Bride, didn’t fare any better. But he stuck to his omniscient way to the last. Here are his final words, having been bluffed into tying himself into a chair by an incapacitated Wesley:
“I knew it! I knew you were bluffing! I knew he was... bluffing.”
Cook, G. (2010) Movement. Santa Cruz, California. On Target Publications
Quintilianus, Marcus Fabius. Institutio Oratoria
The Princess Bride: from a novel by William Goldman. (1987) Film. Directed by Rob Reiner. USA: 20th Century Fox