Thought and Pattern Recognition

In 1899 Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech in Chicago on “The Strenuous Life.” Here’s how he set the stage:

The timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift that thrills “stern men with empires in their brains”—all these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties…These are the men who fear the strenuous life, who fear the only national life, which is really worth leading.

Only after vilifying the timid life could Roosevelt define a memorable, opposing ideal, and speak powerfully in praise of it:

Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.

The best way to honor any group – and by extension, to promote a way of life – is to call to mind its noblest virtues, and speak ill of those who represent the opposite of those virtues. This rule applies even if the examples, on each extreme, are caricatures. Roosevelt was a master at abiding by this rule, and he employed it to magnificent effect. He invited his audience to gaze upon lofty ideals, he flattered individual instincts, and he applied them to the nation as a whole. To make his case, Roosevelt used an irresistibly powerful technique:  he dismissed the opposing case point by point.

But it wasn’t Roosevelt’s technique that carried his message home, it was all the elements that went into his technique. His message landed, not because he chose one technique over another, but because of his constant desire, well before he ever spoke, to put as many concepts in order, as many times as possible – and for as long as possible – in his own mind. 

I’ve written before that clear communication is the product of clear thinking, and clear thinking is the result of arranging concepts in some logical order. Today I want to add one more layer to those ideas:  if you put concepts in order often enough, they start to form patterns in your mind.

For anyone to perform at a high level, the goal is to create new patterns of thought, to revise them based on new information, and to call upon them so often that doing so becomes second nature. Recognizing and acting on these patterns (and in Roosevelt’s case, articulating them), is the essence of expertise in any field. Anyone can copy technique; not everyone can call on a lifetime of accumulated patterns, and not everyone started with the talent to recognize and act on them in the first place.

Let me offer an example from recent history, also on the subject of political speech. On September 5th, 2012, former President Bill Clinton delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. I want you to notice three things about this speech.

First, notice how President Clinton makes his case. Like Roosevelt, he doesn’t make his case at the outset. Instead he starts by explaining and dismissing the conservative case, point by point, and building his argument from there. This technique is far more effective because it allows Clinton to educate his audience at the same time he’s convincing them. By the end, the audience believes they’ve heard the truth, not just one side of a debate.

Second, look at this transcript. The day after the speech I found two transcripts, one with the text as-prepared for delivery, and another of the text as delivered (i.e. including the President’s extemporaneous additions and deletions). I standardized the formatting of the drafts, compared them in Microsoft Word, and created a new transcript showing the differences between the two speeches. The results are astounding. There were 3,000 words in the teleprompter, and Clinton delivered twice that many during the speech. And in almost every instance where Clinton changed the speech in real-time, the explanation off the top of his head is stronger and more appealing than the original.

Third and most important, Clinton didn’t invent anything he said at the podium. He saw what was in the teleprompter, caught on to the basic theme, and then pulled together patterns on the same theme. Those patterns had accumulated in his mind over the course of years and decades; the small flourishes, the laugh lines, the personal touches, and the intellectual substance, these thoughts were already there. For Clinton it was just a matter of recognizing patterns and articulating them.

Gifted speakers, and those gifted in just about any skill, recognize patterns; require less thinking in execution and more intuition, are quicker and more decisive; and fully express themselves unencumbered by deep reflection, because deep reflection is a habit that’s been cultivated since long ago…

One thought on “Thought and Pattern Recognition

  1. Nicely put, Justin. Once you know your subject really well, it is easy to expand, I still can’t believe Clinton did that much in one speech, though. That’s impressive.

    Have you seen Nancy Duarte’s books on presentations? Your note about starting out by vilifying the other side, or showing what’s wrong with the current situation, then showing what is possible sounds just like Nancy. I find her way of organizing thoughts to put into a persuasive presentation to be quite good. She did Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which was a surprisingly large influence on me.

    Thanks for more excellent thinking, I always look forward to reading your posts!

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