The Great Antidote

Bob Ewing on Communicating

November 17, 2023 Juliette Sellgren
Bob Ewing on Communicating
The Great Antidote
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The Great Antidote
Bob Ewing on Communicating
Nov 17, 2023
Juliette Sellgren

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Bob Ewing is the founder of the Ewing School, which helps clients with public speaking and listening skills, and writes the Substack Talking Big Ideas. Today we talk about communication, breaking it down into the components of speaking and listening. We discuss why communication is so important and how it can bring value and guide success, and what success might mean. 

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Send us a Text Message.

Bob Ewing is the founder of the Ewing School, which helps clients with public speaking and listening skills, and writes the Substack Talking Big Ideas. Today we talk about communication, breaking it down into the components of speaking and listening. We discuss why communication is so important and how it can bring value and guide success, and what success might mean. 

Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Juliette Sellgren 

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith

Welcome back. I do a lot of talking on this podcast and so do my guests. We talk about free speech, which is talking about talking, but something we don't talk about often or at all is how to talk or why we talk as human beings and as thinkers. That's why we're going to be talking about talking today, but in a different way. On November 1st, 2023, I'm excited to welcome Bob Ewing onto the podcast. He was my former public speaking coach, I guess is what I'd call you. I don't know if that was entirely correct. I was thinking about it and I don't know if that's right, but we're going to roll with it and you can correct me when I'm done. From the early days of the podcast when it was called Juliette's Uncommon Knowledge. Since then, there's been a name change. Bob is the founder of the Ewing School, which teaches public speaking and communication skills, and he writes a weekly substack called Talking Big Ideas, which is connected to the work that he does elsewhere. It's really awesome. You should check it out. I absolutely love it. And listen, listen, read it every week. Welcome to the podcast.

Bob Ewing 

You bet, Juliette. It's always a pleasure to hang out with you.

Juliette Sellgren (1.39)

So did you know that you were actually a baseball player? I was kind of looking you up and I was a little confused about that.

Bob Ewing 

I've had multiple lives. That's correct.

Juliette Sellgren 

Alright. What is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?

Bob Ewing (1.57)

My experience with people in college today is that you're remarkably adaptive and it seems like many of you don't want to be consigned to a typical rat race life. Instead, it seems like a lot of you want to build well-rounded, meaningful lives. So I think it's possible for your generation to do better than everyone who's come before you. When it comes to redefining how you play status games,

Juliette Sellgren 

Huh? Elaborate?

Bob Ewing (2.25)

Sure. So we're all programmed to create appreciation. William James, the thought their modern psychology said the deepest principle in human nature is the craving for appreciation. We all are desperate to be a part of groups and to show that we have high status within these groups, and so much of our lives are focused on this. Everything from careers to social media to what we do and say and think. And I'm positing that your generation can play these games differently. So for example, when it comes to communication, say everyday conversations, our default is to constantly look for ways to shift the focus back onto ourselves and usage to try to elevate our status. You can flip this on its head, you can default to really listening to other people, help them to feel high status and use conversations to work together as a team to learn, to grow, to explore ideas. So economics terms, you can switch the default from playing zero sum games to playing non-zero games. And I think we should all be playing more games where everybody wins, especially in economics and communication.

Juliette Sellgren (3.27)

You get me with the econ. I love it. That's a great answer and it's right on topic, so let's jump right in. Absolutely. I want to ask you something that seems super simple, but the more I thought about it, the more confused I was. So I figure it's something worth exploring. What does it mean to speak and what does it mean to communicate? And are those two things the same?

Bob Ewing 

Well, so what's your default? What do you think?

Juliette Sellgren

At first I thought yes, but I don't think so anymore.

Bob Ewing 

Okay. Why is that?

Juliette Sellgren (4.04)

Because speaking doesn't necessarily mean you are sharing, it doesn't have the goal that communicating has, it's an action that could be tied to the same goal, but it isn't necessarily, what would you say? Yeah,

Bob Ewing (4.21)

I say that speaking well begins with listening. Well, and I think this gets to your point, that it's part of this larger context of communication and when we work with our clients, we always say at the most fundamental level, we divide your speaking into these three buckets and we call them audience, message and delivery. So super simple stuff. And to give a good speech, we encourage folks to start by understanding their audience, right? A good presentation should not be ever the same twice. One of the most famous speeches in American history is called Acres of Diamond. I think the guy gave it over 5,000 times and he prided himself that he never gave the same talk twice because he'd always show up earlier, he'd talk to people, he'd go to coffee shops, barbershops library, he'd interact with people, and then he would give a speech and he'd pepper those people and their thoughts and their concerns into his presentation.

There's a famous quote that I love that says, giving a speech without an audience in mind is writing a love letter and addressing it to whom it may concern. That's a bad love letter. So I think it's important you start with your audience, who's my audience? What are they interested in? How can I help them? And then you think about your message, what's my big idea? How do I clarify it? How do I bring it to life? And then how do I deliver it in an effective way so it resonates with this specific audience and can be useful for this specific audience that would be for public speaking. And then communication is much more broad than that, which is why I started with everyday conversations.

Juliette Sellgren 

So then in everyday conversation, if you know what you're going to say without knowing who you're talking to, you're kind of just speaking to yourself for yourself and you're not communicating

Bob Ewing (6.03)

Potentially, right? Let's say Churchill helped to save the world with his speeches that he gave into the radio. FDR was iconic for his speeches and to the radio. And so there are contexts in which giving a speech to a large audience is really important and useful in everyday conversation, even in that context. So it's important to understand who is my audience and what are they interested in, how can I help them? In this case, it may be just giving people resolve, giving people hope, giving people a feeling that we're not in the middle of some sort of existential hellhole from which there's no escape. So there's different contexts, but the more we can understand our audience and the more we can focus our communication on our audience, the more likely we are to connect and have a positive impact.

Juliette Sellgren 

So how would you say that public speaking differs other than, and maybe this is the only way other than just by the number of people listening, how is it different from other speech?

Bob Ewing (7.07)

Yeah, it's a good question and it's an important question. And with communication, I like to say that there's not ironclad laws and there's not algorithms. This isn't physics, it's more judgment and heuristics. And so if you're talking to a group of 10 people that very well, it's different than if you're talking to a thousand people that you've never met. And so it's always important to consider the context and then use your judgment the best that you can. The messaging, delivery audience framework will always apply and will apply it in different ways in different contexts. And so if you have a big speech, it's important that you are both eloquent and natural sounding. And so the guy who started, or the guy who made Ted Talks into the icon that they became was a guy named Chris Anderson. And he talks about this idea of the uncanny valley in everyday conversation.

We sound very conversational, we sound very natural, we sound authentic, but we tend to ramble. We tend to be self-absorbed. We tend to do all of these things wrong. And so he says that once you start to build a presentation, the benefit of public speaking is that you can add in all of this eloquence, you can clarify your ideas, you can create a structure that optimizes how they're received by their audience, and you can really drive it home in a way that leaves a powerful and compelling impact. So all of that eloquence comes when you craft a formal public speech. The problem, as Chris says, is you enter this uncanny valley where once you gain eloquence, you tend to lose your authenticity. And what most people do then is they get scared and they run away from practicing and they just spend their whole lives just talking conversationally.

But what Chris says, and what I absolutely a hundred percent agree with and see with all of our clients is you push through the uncanny valley until you pop out on the other side and you become both eloquent and natural sounding. You internalize your key ideas, you clarify and internalize them so well that you can present them in a clear, compelling, engaging way where you're both, you're both eloquent and natural. And so the big picture goal is to say you take all of that eloquence from formal speaking and bring it into everyday conversations, and you take all of the authenticity from everyday conversations and bring it in to your more important, highly leveraged formal speaking

Juliette Sellgren (9.33)

Opportunities. So how much time, and this is a little bit of a weird question, how much time does it take to push through to the uncanny valley even developing public speaking skills? From what I've seen and from what I've heard from other people, it varies based on the person, but sometimes it's really hard to achieve even that. So once you're in the uncanny valley, how far do you have to go to traverse into the breakthrough point?

Bob Ewing (10.01)

Yeah, we were just chatting before you pushed record about how I just got back from Alaska and I was up there working with the leadership group and there were a couple of guys that were in that leadership group that were expert speakers. One was a prosecutor and one was a politician. There was another guy that was a dentist. And the month prior when they were all talking about how comfortable they are with speaking, the dentist said, I'm terrible at speaking. I suck at it. I hate it. It's horrifying. I never want to do it. We did a one day public speaking workshop and everyone, we captured their baseline in the beginning and then we'd spent the full day iterating, iterating, iterating, learning principles, going out and practicing them and iterating. And then at the end of the day, we had a contest where all 14 of these leaders presented a presentation and they voted on a winner. It was a People's choice award, if you will. And the amount of progress it ever would've made just in one day was awesome. It was awesome to see. It was really inspiring. And the one that won first place wasn't the politician, wasn't the prosecutor, it was the dentist, and he won because he actually did the best job. And I see this all the time. I think you've had Ben Klutsey on your podcast, is that right?

Juliette Sellgren 

Not yet. Not yet. Something to look forward

Bob Ewing (11.17)

To. Yeah, you absolutely had that Klutsey on. He's amazing. He grew up in Ghana and he was so shy as a kid that he got bullied in school, he got picked on. He was incredibly closed off. And when I first met him, he had this big speech he had to do. We were both working at the Mercatus Center and he was scared. He was staring at the ground, he was speaking in abstractions, and we ran a bunch of reps, ran a bunch of reps, he put a lot of work in, and he iterated a lot. And by the time he got on stage in front of hundreds of people from all over the place, he did so well that he got a standing ovation that some people cried, some people hugged him, some people emailed him after and offered him jobs. The amount of progress that he made in a short amount of time was remarkable. Now he's this award-winning public speaker. He's won several public speaking contests. He won a $10,000 prize for first place public speaking. And my point is that when it comes to public speaking and when it comes to listening, and when it comes to everyday conversation, it doesn't matter where your baseline is. If you put in some effort, you can achieve excellence and everyone can achieve true excellence when it comes to their communication skills.

Juliette Sellgren (12.30)

These stories are truly amazing. I want to rewind a little bit to get at the reason why we're having this conversation. It's something maybe somewhat nebulous and we'll maybe get into it a little bit more later, but my generation and the world as a whole, as connected as we are, we seem to be less connected than ever before. And how else have we survived, evolved as a species then through communication? This seems to be our comparative advantage. Why is it so important to be able to speak well and to be able to communicate with one another?

Bob Ewing (13.16)

Are you familiar with the Harvard study that came out that started in 1938?

Juliette Sellgren 

The happiness one?

Bob Ewing 


Juliette Sellgren 

Vaguely. Vaguely.

Bob Ewing (13.23)

So basically, this study started in Harvard in 1938, and it's been running ever since. It's the longest study, prospective study of its kind, meaning that they're studying people in real time, not asking people to think back to the past. But in real time they grabbed a whole bunch of undergrads, actually, John F. Kennedy was one of them. And then they expanded it to include underprivileged kids in Boston. And then they added, as the kids grew up, they added their spouses and then they added their children and their grandchildren, and then other schools around the world have started doing it. Now we have this huge, unprecedented look at all of this data on human beings and how they live their lives and what they deemed important and what factors led to living a meaningful life. And this has been running for over 80 years now, and they include all including health records and MRI scans and psychologist studies, and even they have a dozen brains that people have donated.

They have an insane amount of information. And a book came out at the beginning of this year called The Good Life, where the two guys that are currently running this study, they say something to the effect of, out of all of this insane amount of data we've collected, the single most important thing we've learned, and I'll paraphrase them, is that they say positive relationships are the key. Positive relationships are the essence of human wellbeing. They're the engine of the good life. And it's about our connection with others. The key takeaway from that study is that the better connected we are with people, the better our lives become. And the best way to learn how to connect with people in a meaningful way is to improve our listening skills and our speaking skills.

Juliette Sellgren (15.03)

So I've mostly been asking about communicating, which is both speaking and listening, and you've been answering on both sides of this, but what is listening? I asked what speaking was, but what on earth is listening?

Bob Ewing 

Well, what do you think it is?

Juliette Sellgren (15.23)

Oh, you ask me. Okay. I once had it explained to me that when a person communicates it is taking a thought, an image, a feeling in someone's mind or in someone's core, whatever you want to refer to it as, turning it into words, trying to depict whatever it is that is nonverbal in words. And if it is done accurately, and if it's done well, the person receiving will be able to conjure up a close representation or perhaps the same image or feeling in their body, in their mind. So then following off of that, which I think is pretty true to listen, is to first empathize, sympathize. If you're going with what Adam Smith calls it to put yourself in the other person's shoes and to think a little bit, well, what are they trying to get me to see or feel? But it doesn't have to be such a conscious question as that. Yeah,

Bob Ewing (16.47)

I think you have a lot of wisdom packed into that. Yeah. I'll add that. There's this lovely anecdote in the memoirs of Lady Randolph Churchill. She was born in Brooklyn, but she became a British icon and she ended up holding sway over some of the most powerful people in the world, including her son, Winston Churchill. And so Lady Churchill, as she came to be known, she in her memoirs and they're fantastic, I encourage you to get a copy of them, but she writes about how she would dine separately with these icons. And she talked about dining with William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, and they were both prime ministers of the UK multiple times. They were absolute juggernauts of their era. And she talks about how when she said something to the effect of When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought that he was the cleverest man in all of England.

But when I sat next to Dera, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman. And so you say, okay, well whose company does she prefer? Right? And so the point that she makes is that we live in a world that's filled with people who are focused on trying to impress others to elevate their own status. For most of us, this is our default setting. We show up to an event. We are having a conversation where at a networking event, whenever it may be, we tend to talk about ourselves in the things that interest us. We try to show people how smart we are, how high status we are. And Lady Churchill says that there's this magic where we can rise above this self-centered default desire to showcase our importance and instead help other people to feel important. And this was Israeli's genius, was his ability to deeply connect with people, to make them feel valued and to help empower them to realize their full potential.

There's this idea in psychology called the shift response versus the support response. And our default is to be Gladstone into shift conversation and focus and attention back onto ourselves whenever we can. But the ability to listen well is about starting an Israeli and starting with a support response. So you say, I am listening to you, you are important, the focus is on you. And so we begin with this authentic support of the other person. And so shift is default, it's immature, it's pay attention to me, support response is mature, you are important. And it's not about trying to fix things or about trying to talk about our perspective on things. It's simply helping people to exhale and to open up. And often it begins with follow-up questions like tell me more or, and what else? Or what's really going on here? And that basic support is the foundation for effective listening and effective connection,

Juliette Sellgren (19.39)

And that's what makes us happy in the long run.

Bob Ewing 

Well, I would say there's a lot of different ways that you could break down good listening, right? And I've written a whole bunch on this. There's actually a book that came out this week that I a hundred percent recommend by David Brooks. It's called How To Know a Person, and it's absolutely fantastic. Everyone should get a copy of it. It's interested, you've read it already with people. I'm almost done. I'll finish it tonight. In the beginning, he talks about the difference between diminishers and Illuminators and that our default is to diminish people like we're in a zero sum game and we have to rise above. But he says, really effective leaders, really powerful listeners are illuminators, or they help to illuminate the people around them. And you create this positive non-zero sum situation where everyone ends up learning and growing. Right? When I do workshops on listening, I always ask if there's any fishermen that are in the audience or fisherwomen, and someone always raises their hand.

And I'll have this fun exercise where I'll say, okay, imagine that you can have the absolute tastiest meal in the world. You win a thousand dollars or anything that you want. What's the tastiest thing in the world? And people will say things like, oh, I love steak, or french fries or pizza or ice cream, or whatever. And then I'll say, okay, so when you're out trying to catch fish, do you use pizza and steak and french fries and ice cream? Right? And the answer of course is no. No fishermen would ever do that. That's idiotic, right? All fishermen bait the hook to suit the fish. They focus on what the fish is interested in. And so we should follow that. Basic advice is what is our audience interested in? How are they feeling? You had Arnold Kling on the show, so in Arnold Kling Speak, what ideological language does your audience speak? What are they really trying to say? And then what's important that's actually not being said? And can I be present? Can I give my full attention verbally and non-verbally instead of defaulting to trying to be interesting to rise above that and focus on being interested?

Juliette Sellgren (21.34)

So when thinking in terms of success, right? There's this success culture, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but if left alone and without the help of other sorts of goals can be kind of isolating, at least that's the conclusion I'm reaching. I'd like to get your thoughts on that as well. But it's almost as though an illuminator or someone who listens, maybe sets titles aside, sets self-importance off to the side and success off to the side. And it seems almost as though an implicit result instead of the goal. So if you strive towards success as everyone at school with me, including me and all of everyone's generations maybe does do, is that the way to go? Could we actually be successful by trying to be successful? Or do you think that we'd actually be more successful by instead focusing on something else or something in addition to success?

Bob Ewing (22.52)

It's an excellent question, and I think it gets into definitions. And how do you define success? I've lived for a long time in the DC area, as you know, and I've worked around all sorts of people that are extremely successful in one dimension. I think that for me, I divide my life into four buckets, and I call them health, love, work, and play, and then I subdivide them. So I have 10 subcategories. So I subdivide health into mind and body, and I subdivide love into partner, tribe and community and so on down the line. And I think that in order for someone to be successful, I think that it's important to think about all four of these dimensions and ideally all however you would choose to subdivide them. And so if you say, I am successful because I have a law degree from Harvard, that is correct.

You're successful in one dimension in your professional life, but how is your health? How is your love and how is your play? How successful are you as a well-rounded person? How fulfilled do you honestly feel inside? How happy are you? There's this idea that smart people don't want to be happy. And it's silly. The philosopher of all Rubicon says, if you're so smart, then why aren't you happy? Why haven't you figured it out? And I think that it's important to define success correctly, and everyone at the end of the day has to define it on their own terms, which is why I started in the beginning with this idea that there's a lot of pressure to be on the rat race and to continue running on that treadmill just in this one direction of this particularly defined career success at the expense of everything else. And I hope that your generation and folks to come will feel less obligated to just continue running on one treadmill and one direction, and instead get off and look at the big picture and say, how can I live a truly fulfilling, meaningful life while contributing to my wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around me? And that is a different way to look at success.

Juliette Sellgren (24.52)

How did you come to this definition of success? And maybe further, how did you come to the work that you do now, maybe given that definition?

Bob Ewing 

When I was eight years old, I was obsessed with the greatest rock and roll band in history, Poison. Have you ever heard of him?

Juliette Sellgren 


Bob Ewing (25.16)

Let's dude, you got to go check 'em out. So when I was eight years old, I had a poison hat. I had a poison shirt, I'd had every song by Poison memorized or I was totally obsessed with them, and they were coming to Cleveland, and that's where I grew up. And I convinced myself that I was going to the Poison concert just totally. And so the day the Poison Concert comes, I'm this little 8-year-old kid and it's like the middle of winter in Cleveland, so it's super dark and snowy and cold, and I run inside, I'm like, ma, it's time for the Poison Concert. My mom's like, what are you talking about? And I told her that the Poison Concert was tonight and that we were going, and she's like, we're not going. And so she tells the story about how I didn't freak out or anything.

I just was totally devastated. And I just sat there and my mom ends up, we didn't have a ton of money. We was family in Cleveland and she was working to help pay the bills, but both my parents were working and she had worked for a jewelry store and she had just made a sale. She had just gotten this check, and she sat down with me and she realized, she's like, oh my God, this is actually super important to this kid to go to this silly concert. And so she ends up through a conversation with me, she ends up getting up, going and cashing in this check and buying five tickets to this poison concert and taking me and my siblings, and there were these nice little Catholic kids that were all dressed in pastel clothes for this concert.

And I think back on that moment, I think that it's this good point that one, I probably wasn't very clear in my communication, but two, she was able to see that this wasn't just something, this was really important to me. She's able to list beyond this situation and say, this is actually a big deal, and then make a sacrifice to make it happen. And so I carry that basic idea with me that it's really important to be present with people and to understand where they're coming from and to help them on their path. And that's something that has always appealed to me. And so I had a background in sales, and then I worked at the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that won a bunch of communications awards and I worked on their comms team and for eight years. And I went from the absolute bottom of the barrel up to the comms director and got good at helping wonks and helping academics to explain ideas in a clear and compelling way.

And then I went to the Mercatus Center and learned to do it with economists. And then I started my own company. And now we work with people all across the country and beyond, and everything from students to really people that are having really important presentations. I've worked with two people in the last several months that have argued cases before the Supreme Court successfully and worked with a client who did a multi-billion dollar pitch to the head of a foreign country. And I've worked with a lot of folks, and it ties in with these basic principles of saying, how do we understand the other person and how do we help them to bring their ideas to life so they can connect with the people around them in a clear and compelling way.

Juliette Sellgren (28.26)

You are such a compelling storyteller.

Bob Ewing 

Thank you.

Juliette Sellgren 

I totally lost track of our whole conversation. I was so compelled by this story that was so touching.

Juliette Sellgren 

Thank you. I now remember the conversation we were having. Okay. Do you think that you've achieved your goals in not only helping people to effectively communicate, but in fact also changing their lives and the way that they can work in personal relationships or with themselves, even through the work that they've done with you?

Bob Ewing (29.06)

There's a saying that you can have a job or a career or a calling, and I've had all three. And now I feel like with our company that it's a calling. It very rarely feels like work, and it almost never feels like a slog. And it just feels like awesome, and I feel like it's fun and I get to hang out with buddies and we get to help each other out, and I love it and regularly get good feedback and cool stories. For example, one of the women that successfully argued a case before the Supreme Court, I had all these one-on-ones with her. And of course she also is doing all sorts of mock, they call them moot courts, and going to Georgetown has a whole replica of the Supreme Court where you go and people do all sorts of prep outside of just working with a public speaking coach when you're doing something like that.

So we're also doing one-on-ones, and we're doing a lot and we're working on all of this stuff. And I ended up getting feedback after the case. She ends up winning the case nine zero. And I end up hearing afterwards that some folks that worked with her pinged me and said that after the argument that the woman who argued the case, her mom got to see it, which is awesome. And she went into the restroom afterwards, as a lot of people did. And there were other women in the restroom talking about the argument. And they were people through conversation that they learned that the woman's mom learned work at the court and hear a lot of arguments. And they were talking about this, how they've seen so many arguments, and they said that they had never seen someone argue as well as that woman did today. And so you can imagine how cool that felt for her mom and how cool it felt for her and for her organization. And I felt honored that I was able to play a very small role in helping her to feel like when game day came, she could absolutely, with a hundred percent confidence present in a clear and compelling way.

Juliette Sellgren (31.01)

Do you have any recommendations for people my age, but also adults, anyone at any point in life for actually making your work, your calling and having them all be equivalent? Because I know so many people who are, especially from dc, very successful on one dimension, as you were saying earlier. So how do we tie this all together and what advice do you have for us?

Bob Ewing (31.27)

Yeah, I think that it's really important to do two things well, one is to listen to yourself, and two is to listen to others. And I think that we're not always good at making space for that. And so I encourage people to regularly carve out time every day to do some sort of introspection. Maybe it's talking to an app for five minutes, like Otter, where it transcribes everything you say in real time, or maybe it's sit and just kind of think through stuff. Or maybe it's journal for a few minutes or whatever it may be. But to actually listen to yourself is not something that we normally do. And the second is to listen to others. And I would encourage it, authentic conversations. It's really hard to see ourselves accurately. Evolution built us to survive and reproduce not to seek truth, and it's really important to honestly see ourselves accurately.

And so it's important to get honest feedback from other people. The philosopher, Naval Akan has this great quote where he says, excellence doesn't come from 10,000 hours. It comes from 10,000 iterations. And so everything all progress in life, or most progress, the vast majority of progress in our universe comes from lots of iterations. So this is how markets create wealth. It's how natural selection creates biological diversity. It's how engineers build amazing tools, and it's how all skill gets developed is through continuing to iterate based on feedback. And so if I say, what's my calling? Well, it's hard to just sit in a vacuum and figure it out, but you go into the world and you start doing stuff, and then you start listening to yourself and to others, and you regularly iterate. I've had, I don't know, probably over 30 jobs before I started my own company, and it's through tons of iteration, tons of self-exploration and tons of conversations with people that I love and trust and respect and listen to.

And in tons of feedback from the real world that you come to realize for starting my own company, actually, I was working at Mercatus and Dan Rothschild, the executive director, he took me out to lunch and he was like, dude, he's like, you're running the media team, but you don't even paying attention to the media. You love coaching people on speaking. Why don't you start a training program at Mercatus that just focuses on teaching people speaking? I was like, dude, I would love to do that. And so it took Dan, I'm very grateful for Dan, and it took him helping me to see that, right? And then so many, and then Mary Rose doing regular walks with Mary Rose, the CEO of our company and my wife, and then girlfriend saying, you talk about these ideas and you talk about entrepreneurship, and you talk about when you do all this stuff, why don't you go do it? Right? And so being surrounded by people that you listen to is super important for helping you along your path

Juliette Sellgren (34.13)

That you listen to and who listen to you as well is what it sounds like.

Bob Ewing

Yeah. Yes, yes, absolutely. And that see you, right? And so I would say that there's a lot of different ways you can break down listening, but I would say at the very least, you should be able to have three core aspects to it. And I would say that's support, understand, and see support. I would say a challenge for that would be try being liked Israeli. That would be a challenge to listeners today. Say, I'm going to overcome my Gladstone default setting and be liked Israeli in conversation. Understanding is saying, and you were getting to this when you were talking about listening, but to understand is to say, I'm actually honestly trying to figure out what you're feeling and what you're thinking. There's an awesome book called I Hear You, where he just focuses on the first part of that or just focuses on the feeling part where it's like, how do I actually connect with people on their level?

What is the emotion? I don't have to agree with it, but I want to validate it, and I want to say, I understand that you must feel frustrated here, that idea of understanding their feeling and what they're thinking. And so you can restate their emotions and their thoughts in your own words until you understand them so well that they say yes, that's it, right? So it's support. Shine the spotlight on them, understand both what they're thinking and what they're feeling. And then this kind of highest level is having them feel seen where you feel felt, you feel understood, you feel important. And I like to say that the gold standard for really seeing someone is to be able to steal man their position so well that you would pass the ideological Turing test within their tribe. And so does that make sense? That's intense.

Juliette Sellgren 

Yeah. Maybe elaborate a little bit because I know what you mean.

Bob Ewing (36.05)

So in logic, there's a classic fallacy called the straw man, and that's where we create a poor representation of what someone actually thinks. So let's say you believe that the minimum wage should be a hundred dollars an hour, and I think that there should be no minimum wage. And I could say, well, of course you want to have an expensive minimum wage because you are just some crazy socialist that wants to destroy the economy. And then you would say, oh, well, of course you want no minimum wage because you just hate poor people and want them all to starve. Those are not accurate representations of either position, and those are what we call straw man positions. A steelman position is the opposite. What's the best possible argument that I can make for your case? It's easy to make an argument for my case. It's hard to make an argument that you disagree with, right?

When I worked at the Institute for Justice, it stood out to me that attorneys would spend months finding potential cases, and then they would present potential cases to the entire these litigation meetings, and they would have these 10 pagers or something like that. These documents we would all get to flip through, and they would walk you through it in the document. They would have to make the best possible case for the organization, for the law firm to take the case, and they would have to make the best possible argument for the organization not to take the case. They would have to steal, man, why we should take it and why we should not take it, right? And so that's what it means to steal, man. It's hard to steal man positions you disagree with, and it's absolutely core to connecting with people, to playing non-zero some games, and to making progress in the world.

Right now we have ChatGPT. I encourage people almost every day I do this or I'll say, okay, ChatGPT, create a quiz for me where I have to steal man five different positions on a particular policy issue. And I'll say, okay, universal basic income, do the social Democrat case, do the libertarian case and so on. And then you have to do it. And then chat gives you feedback on how well you did or didn't do. So that's steel manning. And so every day, if someone could say, I'm going to try to steal man, one position I disagree with that would instantly elevate the world passing the ideological Turing test is this idea that Alan Turing was a famous, one of the most brilliant people, the 20th century, and he created this idea of a Turing test is this idea that you're having a conversation like you and I are where we can't actually see them.

And you say, is the individual that I'm speaking with, is it a human or is it a computer? And if you can't tell the difference and a computer, that computer has passed the Turing test, we can no longer tell whether it's one of us or one of them. Brian Kaplan, the Economist, coined the term, the ideological Turing test, where you do the same thing for ideology. So think back to the conversation you had with Arnold Kling, and everyone should listen to that. It's fantastic. If I'm say a conservative and I'm talking to say a progressive, can I walk into that conversation and steelman their arguments so well that they say, gosh, you're not one of them. You're one of us. And if you can do that, then you've passed the ideological turning test. And so a gold standard for really listening is not only to support, and not only to understand, but to see people so well that you can steal man their case to the extent that you can pass an ideological Turing test. That's gold standard.

Juliette Sellgren (39.27)

We're running low on time, but you mentioned ChatGPT. Are you worried, excited? And I think I know the answer to this about AI and technology and what that can do for speaking and learning and human connection and all of the above. And is there something we should look forward to or look forward to? Not so optimistically,

Bob Ewing 

Social skills will only rise in importance with the rise of all of this tech and innovation that's happening around us. ChatGPT, artificial intelligence, all of the different new amazing technologies that are coming out, they're going to have a disruptive effect on the economy. I'm confident that the economy is going to continue to get better and better and better. But regardless of whether you're on the FOR side or whether you're a total optimist or anywhere in between, just put all of that to the side. And I think we can all acknowledge that regardless of what happens, that social skills will only rise in importance. Tyler Cowen, he is super famous for his writing, for all of his bestselling books, for his Marginal revolution, which is probably the most popular, influential blog in the world. And he says in his Bloomberg column, he says that out of, in spite of all of his success as a writer, he thinks that he himself has more of a future as a public speaker. Because of the rise of artificial intelligence and all of these technologies, social skills, the ability to effectively communicate with people face-to-face, the ability to effectively speak and effectively listen will only rise in importance. So if you want to distinguish yourself and the world today, it's more important than ever to build social skills. And I will say that artificial intelligence and AI can help with all aspects of building both public speaking and listening skills,

Juliette Sellgren (41.22)

And you'll be there to help people out when they need it. Thank you so much, Bob, for all of your wisdom. And listeners, go check out what was the of it again? Remind me of the name of Substack.

Bob Ewing 

Oh, talking big ideas.

Juliette Sellgren 

Talking big ideas. How could I forget? Go check that out to learn more. I have one last question for you, Bob.

Bob Ewing 


Juliette Sellgren 

What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Bob Ewing (41.53)

I'd say that most days I've changed my mind about something. At the end of every year, I publish a list of things I've changed my mind on. I wrote an essay called The Beauty of Being Wrong. And I think that changing our minds is super awesome because it's how we iterate towards the truth. The more we change our minds, provided it's based on sound evidence, the more we learn and grow, right? And so there's a whole bunch of things that have changed my mind on, I'll pick one thing for purposes of this conversation, and that's that I've changed my mind on empathy. I run a coaching business on public speaking and what we call empathic listening and empathy is something that we teach. And we all know that empathy is this cardinal virtue, and it's always good, and I was totally convinced of this. And then I read Paul Bloom's book called Against Empathy.

And everything Bloom writes is absolutely worth reading, but he makes this totally convincing case that empathy can be bad, right? Because it's this very powerful, it's this very powerful set of skills and emotional skills that force us to think and act through these emotions. And so it can close us off in certain contexts to logic and rationality, and can open us up to being tribalistic, to supporting people in our group at the expense of people outside of our group. It can force us into these situations where we become biased and immoral and even hostile to other people. And so it doesn't mean it's always bad, it's an absolutely profound way to deeply connect with people, and it's a vital tool in our toolkit, and we should use it, but we should use it with intention and caution, right? And Bloom talks about how we should favor what he calls rational compassion. And I think that he's absolutely correct that we should treat everyone with rational compassion and in many select cases apply empathy as well.

Juliette Sellgren (43.39)

Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote Podcast. It means a lot. The great antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at Great Thank you.

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