I’ve been reading and re-reading the basic Asian books of wisdom over the years in the hopes of acquiring a little myself. Not much has stuck, but I do find the insights fascinating and the opaque language maddening. So there’s that.
On my latest re-read of The Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, it occurred to me that this seminal, mysterious book on sword fighting and strategy might have some wisdom for public speakers. So I read three different translations of these five chapters or books (Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, Void) with their advice about how to stand, how to fight large groups of people, how to fight one-on-one, how not to use a particular system, and on and on.
Musashi himself has always fascinated me. He claimed to be self-taught, and to have worked out something deeper than a system as he wandered around Japan taking on challengers, Ronin, and anyone who wanted to fight. At first wanting to prove that his “no system” was better than anyone else’s system of fighting, he killed everyone he took on until he tired of killing, and then he merely disarmed them. Ultimately, he stopped fighting altogether and took up painting and poetry. He died of cancer in meditation in the mountains at a fairly young age, probably his late 50s.
In Musashi’s fight or flight world, five ideas stand out that apply in helpful ways to public speaking.
First, there is only one strategy in war – to kill. Musashi never wavered from this, even when he stopped killing in his exhibition matches. Similarly, in public speaking, a speech should always be about one idea and one idea only. Ruthlessly eliminate everything else. As you’re prepping your speech, throw out everything that doesn’t support that one idea, even if you love it because it’s your favorite funny story about the time your dog sang the national anthem and it always gets a laugh.
Don’t look, just see. This is an interesting idea. What Musashi seems to be saying is that, in battle, if you look hard at someone’s sword, or a particular alignment of troops, or whatever – you’ll miss the bigger picture. So you set your eyes ‘soft’, and see everything without focusing on any one thing. This advice holds up very well in speaking – in alternation with making eye contact with specific people, of course. At regular intervals, set your eyes on soft focus and take in the room. How is everyone feeling? Is the audience generally attentive? Restive? Are they still with you? You can be misled by focusing only on particular people, who may not be a good sample of the whole.
Empty your mind. Musashi advocates going into battle with the ‘mushin mind’ or ‘no mind’. The idea is to be empty of specific intent so that you can be completely present and react to circumstances without hesitating. In war, it’s how you stay alive. In speaking, it’s how you come up with that hilarious quip in response to the audience member who asks you a challenging question out of the blue.
Understand the enemy mind. Musashi, it will not surprise you to learn, heavily stresses thinking harder about the enemy’s mind than your own fears, concerns and predilections. The audience is not the enemy, but thinking about the audience, and putting yourself in their shoes, is the essential beginning point for developing any speech.
Be flexible. Musashi’s point of pride was that he had no system, so he could, in essence rise above any system and beat it because of his superior meta-level thinking. And he proved that superiority over and over again by defeating everyone who tried to take him on. Similarly, in public speaking, anyone who is too committed to a particular approach is going to appear overly scripted to the audience and thus not authentic.
The Five Rings was written to explain Musashi’s non-system system of sword fighting and strategy. It has some interesting applications to public speaking, but don’t take it too literally. Don’t bring your sword to your speaking event, unless of course you’re giving a speech on the samurai.