Business Rhetoric: How to turn your words into gold by Mette Højen

Posted on 8 February 2019

The corporate world needs to redefine the word ‘performance’.

This big idea sits at the heart of Mette Højen’s new book. Instead of focusing on productivity and profit, business leaders should develop their performing skills – because, in every encounter, it’s their ability to persuade and move their audiences that will determine their success.

Ms Højen looks to music for inspiration. She’s a fine brass player and wrote a dissertation at university on the rhetoric of conducting. She understands what business can learn from performers, both in the arts and in sport, as well as the challenges of making the connection.

Musicians and athletes distinguish clearly between training and performing; business professionals find the distinction harder to make. ‘The entire working day takes place in ‘performance mode’’, she writes, and doing business – unlike playing an instrument or running marathons – includes no embedded element of regular practice.

Rhetoric may be the solution. Although she claims that need ‘a new kind of rhetoric’, many of the book’s models and exercises draw on the classical tradition.

The book is structured, for example, around the five canons (although they’re never mentioned), and astute readers will see hidden references to stasis theory, kairos (‘the rhetorical situation’), copia, and the ars memoria. Maybe she should trust the tradition a little more.

For example, her chapter on argumentation could usefully pick up themes from classical invention, as well as later models of argument. And structuring devices from Cicero to Monroe could help with outlining, not only speeches but meetings and other managerial conversations.

I found myself hungry for more specific advice. Take ‘Mood Buttons’: they apparently ‘activate a chemical reaction in the nervous system called mirror neurons’. That garbled explanation supports a sound point: your audience’s assumptions about your feelings ‘become part of their conception of you and your message’. ‘When you are aware of this,’ writes Ms Højen, ‘you will be able to actively send out those exact signals’. But we don’t learn how to do it.

The Power Circle holds more promise. This beautifully simple exercise – perhaps echoing her study of conducting – involves moving your arm in a circle in front of you while speaking a sentence. ‘How much do you have time to say in one circle with a diameter of approx. half a meter [sic] at normal speed?’ That, apparently, is the length of a powerful sentence. But what’s ‘normal speed’? I needed more practical help.

I hoped to find some by following the link to the homepage associated with the book. The address differs slightly from the one printed in the book itself; I did manage to find a useful 45 seconds on the Power Circle, but none of the promised exercise sheets. They would be a great way to foster the culture of practice that the book advocates.

Seeing and hearing Mette Højen herself perform reinforces the impression that this book misrepresents her passion and enthusiasm. The key problem is language. Or rather, English. The chapter on language use contains powerful ideas – about antithesis and metaphor, for example – but too many of the examples are stylistically clunky. Here and elsewhere, the book would benefit from thorough copyediting. The translation, too, consistently lets the author down.

Mette Højen is definitely onto something. She’s not alone: across Europe and beyond, theatre practitioners and storytellers, orchestras and choir leaders, are tempting managers and leaders to find the inner artistry of business. And rhetoric is at the heart of the enterprise.

Alan Barker

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