The Megaphone of Power

The famous South African film director jumped out of his chair and ran up to me, stopping only when his nose was six inches from mine. "I'm right here. I'm this close," he nearly whispered to me. And then he held up his right thumb and index finger four inches apart and said, "I'm this big and I live in the lens of that camera. You're talking to somebody this big. Do you understand?"

Yeah. I suddenly understood. I was making television commercials for Disney's Winnie the Pooh, and I had never acted before in front of film cameras. I was speaking to fill the enormous sound stage. I needed only to reach the microphone. Later, I saw a great video on acting done by Michael Caine where he talks about people making a transition from stage to film. Actors accustomed to projecting back to the cheap seats and gesturing on a big scale had to become accustomed to a medium where a raised eyebrow might be all that it took to convey a point.

In today's New York Times, I came across a very good article by Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, entitled, "When You're In Charge, Your Whisper May Feel Like a Shout." The point of the article was that when you're in a position of power or authority over others, your words tend to get amplified far more than you may realize. A whisper can sound like a shout. You have to watch what you casually say, because there's a megaphone effect at work, and you're not on the end where you hear the extra volume.

I had been a Notre Dame professor speaking in the early years without a microphone to hundreds of students in big auditoriums. My wife always had to remind me at home that I didn't need to project. Oratory was not required in the kitchen. And it wasn't just me. Winston Churchill knew a man who could not make the transition from public speaking to private conversation, and once said of him, "He addresses me as if I were a multitude." We're not always aware of our tone, or volume, when talking to others. Adam Galinsky's essay reminds us that when we're in charge, our words are large. We need to be aware of that, and modulate appropriately.

In my favorite blog, Brain Pickings, I came across a remark this morning that was once made by Gloria Steinem that's both related to this point and wise. She said:

One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.

When we listen to people more, we learn better what they need to hear and how they need to hear it. And when we encourage them to speak up, we can become less likely to use our own voices, as leaders, in ways that are loud and alarming.

I'm a pubic speaker. But I've learned over the years that to do it well, I have to be just as good at being a public listener. Then I know what to say, and how to say it. I hope the same for you.