Tom Peters: High on rhetoric but low on content?

Although I’ve never seen Tom Peters in action, I’ve heard from people who have that he’s a pretty impressive performer. I also know something about the speaking techniques of ‘management gurus’ from an interesting book called Management Speak: The Live Oratory of Management Gurus (London, Routledge, 2005) by David Greatbatch and Timothy Clark.

But until I came across this short video on YouTube (below), I hadn’t realised just how much and how frequently Mr Peters uses the main rhetorical techniques of contrast, three-part list and puzzle-solution (a device that gets the audience wondering what the solution is going to be, or poses a question before revealing the answer).

How much can you use these techniques?
As you'll see from the transcript below the video, he packages almost everything he says by using one or other of these devices.

It also bears on two intriguing questions that I’m often asked, but to which I have no definitive answer. One is how much of a speech or presentation can be constructed using these devices? On the evidence of this clip, taken on its own, it looks as though the answer is ‘pretty well all of it’.

Content-free presentations?
The second question is whether it's possible, by over-using them, to could produce an 'effective presentation' that's completely lacking in content. One of the best examples I ever heard of anupme coming close to this was the late Peter Sellers, who delivered a parody of a political speech that ended with the immortal line “.. and in conclusion, let me say just this.”

Another was Alan Bennett's sermon on the text "My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man from Beyond the Fringe.

I’ve now watched this clip several times and have to admit that, however impressive his mastery of rhetoric and citation of rhetorically constructed quotations might be, I’m still not sure what exactly it is that Mr Peters is trying to tell us. Maybe one of the other 54,252 who have so far seen it on YouTube could enlighten me.

Starts by posing a puzzle that will turn out to be the first one in a sequence of three puzzle-solution fomats in a row:

[P]→ The number one problem with enterprises small or large is: [PAUSE]

The Solution to the puzzle then comes in the form of a somple contrast:

[A]→ too much talk.
[B]→ too little do.

Second (double) puzzle (‘what could this ‘remarkable institution’ and ‘ultimate oxymoron be’?):

[P]→ Now as you know we have this one remarkable institution in the United States, the ultimate oxymoron.

And the solutions (the ‘oxymoron’ is a profitable airline and the institution is South West):

[S]→ A profitable airline. It’s called South West.

Third puzzle (‘what are these words of hers going to be?’):

[P]→ Herb Kelleher the chief executive officer of South West and I agree on the essence of a strategic plan and I love these words of hers:

The solution quotes a puzzle-solution from her (‘what could the strategic plan be?’), solution - ‘doing things’:

[S]→ [P]→ “We have a ‘strategic’ plan.
[S]→ It’s called doing things.”

Then a contrast to underline how important he thinks it is:

[A]→ And literally, as I said, it was number one on my reading list twenty two years ago.
[B]→ It’s number one on my list today.

Followed by an alliterative three-part list (though it’s not very clear how it relates to what went before and what’s coming next):

[1]→ Fail.
[2]→ Forward.
[3]→ Fast.

Then another three part list:

[1]→ No screw-ups
[2]→ No learning.
[3]→ It’s as simple as that.

And two contrasts:

[A]→ No fast screw-ups
[B]→ No fast learning

[A]→ No big screw-ups
[B]→ No big learning

Three sentences set up a puzzle (what could the one favorite slide be out of so many be?):

[P]→ [1]→ Now in my major slide deck at my website there are some twelve hundred slides.
[2]→ By definition one has got to be my favorite.
[3]→ And this next one is my favorite of the twelve hundred, even though I’m using it relatively early in the presentation.

And, to keep the suspense up a bit longer, he extends the puzzle before revealing the solution:

[P]→ Comes from a Sydney Australia exec., and an extremely successful one at that, who said that he owed most of his business success to a simple six word philosophy:

The solution is a contrast, in which each of the three words in the first part contrasts with each of the three words in the second part (reward/punish – excellent/mediocre – failures/successes):

[S]→ [A]→ Reward excellent failures.
[B]→ Punish mediocre successes.

Hardly surprising that he thinks that a contrast with each of the three consecutive words in the first part are followed by three directly opposite words in the second part is a ‘great quote’. And to make the point, his assessment is the first part of another contrast, the second part of which is the first part of yet another contrast:

[A]→ Now I think this is a great quote

[B]→ [A]→ But my goal relative to you is not to have you say “nice quote, Tom”,

[B]→ but to take it literally seriously.

1 comment:

John Kelly said...


Even coming from a NLP background these language structures always amaze me in their effectiveness - and the fact that so few people know how to use them.

John T. Kelly ~ Level 3