Category Archives: Persuasion

The Rules of Bragging

The following post could have been written by Polonius.

What’s more rewarding than being understood? Something we all  want.  Simple, right? Not so fast.

La Rouchefoucauld’s maxims have phrased these ideas — and many others — far more gracefully than I have in this quick post. But I have him in mind — the penetrating analyst of vanity.

The great aphorist lived in a milieu of vanity, the French court. But vanity — Catholic theology calls it Pride, that tree trunk from which grow the other deadly sins — knows no single court or season or person. It is fundamental to our nature — a weakness, a flaw. It is not self-esteem that’s in question. Not the “good” sort of pride of craftsmanship or ethical choice or professionalism. Vanity is blindness. It is Lear blind to the evil sisters’ perfidy and Cordelia’s love. (“He never knew himself but slenderly.” It is shallowness. It is meanness. And it’s transparent and detestable and ridiculous. Mostly, it’s farce. But it can be tragic, as with Achilles. But in polite society it’s merely regrettable, cringe-worthy, graceless, awkward and off-putting. It’s Malvolio.

Take a guy I’ll call Jerry. An academic who teaches, writes, publishes and brags. (Don’t we all brag, especially in the digital age when it’s as easy as posting, tweeting — the sound of blowing your own horn?)

But there’s bragging and there’s bragging. Some people do it better than others. Some folks can’t seem to do it without sounding, well, like braggarts. Mine’s bigger than yours. Abrasive. Contentious. Invidiously comparative.

Bragging’s an art. It can be done so gracefully that it doesn’t seem like bragging at all. To know how to do, it’s useful to understand how poorly it can be done — and do otherwise.

Here are the rules of bragging. Or marketing. Or PR. So much in common.

1. Be modest. After all, if the point is to show off, drop magisterial feats, do it with a wink. Not false modesty (Dickensian character’s “umble” obnoxiousness). But don’t brag in capital letters. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, we’re not going to be bowled over. And Pulitzer Prize winners really don’t have to brag, do they? Others — family, friends, syncophants — do it for them, inserting themselves into the limelight. Modesty is, after all, a matter of realistic self-assessment — and realistic self-assessment is a matter of realistic comparisons with other baggarts and Pulitizer Prize winners.

2. Show self-irony. Bragging is so unsubtle, like a pitcher who can only throw fastballs. Feature a curve, a knuckleball. Some wit. A steady diet of fastball bragging is witless. It diminishes your reputation, not contributes to it. Self-irony (is this my own neologism?) navigates a path between false modesty and braggadocio. Self-irony requires a kind of metaphysical thinking about oneself — an expressed public recognition of the self-within-the-self that we admit, recognize, monitor and supervise. Self-irony is intra-personal communication. We are in perpetual conversaton with ourselves. We hear voices — or we ought to — which makes us sane, not crazy. Not to hear voices is to be a self without a history — which is both absurdity and poverty.

3. Credit others.  Sure you earned that doctorate, published that novel. But didn’t you have teachers, mentors, editors, agents? Listen to a few award acceptance speeches. Download the Academy Awards show. It’s the Team Thing. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and so forth. It’s all true, all those cliches. Failing to recognize them is merely simple arrogance. What Samuel Johnson called ‘blockheadedness.’ Don’t be that person.

4. Know you’re lucky.  Listen to that famous speech by a guy you wouldn’t think of as particularly lucky — Lou  Gehrig. Standing in the middle of Yankee Stadium in front of 50,000  fans who knew he was dying, he told them he was the luckiest man alive. Do you know why they cried? Of course you do. Because they were knocked over by his brave lie. And because his lie contained a great truth: He was a lucky man — in the face of the awful wasting disease. And they knew in that moment that  for all his athletic greatness, this was his greatest moment of all — the one we remember him for. If Gehrig could make the theme of his fall, his illness, his imminent death less important than his great good luck, then so can the rest of us.

5. Be kind. Kindness, some say, is the greatest wisdom. The world can seem a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. So your good fortune, trophy wife, BMW, honorary Ph.D., American Idolatry may well be — and often is — someone else’s rotten break, harridan, clunker, flunkout. Don’t be a lunkhead (not in the Johnson Dictionary but probably in Webster’s). Know that when you announcing what you’ve won, you may be laughing at what someone else has lost.

Yes,  I know. It sounds trite and platitudinous. But ignore these platitudes at your peril, you self-important, pompous fool. Laugh sarcastically. Earn the enmity of the world. We will be laughing at you behind your back, just out of your hearing. And sometimes right in your face.

Who are my heroes of irony? Swift showing the absurdity of a ridiculous scientific experiment that so impressed Gulliver: (“Yesterday I saw a woman flayed alive — and you can hardly imagine how it altered her appearance for the worse.”).

Dickens. Gogol. Kafka. Sid Caesar. Lucille Ball. Woody Allen. Henny Youngman. Degas. Warhol. (I’m not talking role models.)


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Law and Love

Four decades ago, a Shakespeare professor remarked in connection with the religious theme of “The Merchant of Venice,” that the difference between the New and Old Testaments comes down to the choice between love and law. Moses brought the commandments; Jesus commanded us to love one another.

My favorite passage in either testament is what I think of as Paul’s concise version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: I Corinthians 13. Its theme of love reflects the spiritual center of the Sermon — the greatest public speech in the history of Western civilization. (Go ahead: Name a better one. A more important one. Or name a speaker — Lincoln, Churchill, King– who would be likely to disagree with my assessment or fail to say of Jesus’ speech what Mozart said of Bach — that all composers are his children.)

I make that assertion on the real, if slender experience of having been a professional speech writer for corporate executives and college presidents. (Well, president — singular.)

The professor’s sermon today is not particularly about either law or love, but rather the uses to which they have been put by speakers — persuaders. Politicians, if you will. Certainly, Paul was one. Indeed, he was all three, not to mention a merchant (he came from makers of sails), a manager (with a secretary), and a martyr (appears to have been met his fate in Rome), the founder of Christianity (that wasn’t Jesus’ ambition) and, of course, a saint.

N0t bad for a Jew.

As I’ve written in the pages of the Public Relations Review, if Paul wasn’t the first public relations practitioner, he was certainly one of the most influential, ever.

But to the theme of my sermon — persuasion. It would be hard to find a more effective persuader than Paul. But then again, religion is among the the world’s richest sources of persuaders, along with politics, business and the military. And while some poems are famous for laying out a persuasive case — Andrew Marvell’s sexy seduction of his coy mistress — when it comes to persuasion, poets are strictly second rate, along with beggars, corporate CEOs and college professors.

Musicians have a special place in persuasion’s hall of fame. What would propaganda be without Beethoven, an army without Strauss, a policeman’s funeral without bagpipes? On the down side, radio commercials are all too seldom without the very worst, grating, generic or cliched sorts of background music, as if awful music were the way to guarantee the sale of GM trucks. (I’m neglecting to mention that generic, American Idolish belting that is the aural wallpaper of dentistry, so falsely advertised as painless, given such hysterical noise.)

Not that religion, much like business, politics and other professions, fails to make instrumental use of music for the purposes of persuasion. I don’t know whether Paul had a musician open for him, or whether like young David he was accomplished on the harp. (Acts is silent on this matter.) And yet there most certainly is music in Paul’s epistles, in their cadences, their structure, their spiritually soaring assertions.

At times I have thought that religion has a monopoly not on music but on love. Both testaments indicate that the Supreme Being is a God of love — even the famously irascible, vengeance-exacting Old Testament Jehovah. Christian theology softens God’s personality with the introduction of a principal actress, Mary, and further reduces the furious intensity with the  mind-boggling triangulatory conception of a three-in-one godhead, a trio that brings onto the stage with Father and Son a Holy Ghost.

Even for theologians, that’s an intellectually challenging collection.

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