Style vs. Substance

Next week I’ll be part of an interview committee for a principal position in our division. Part of our process is the inclusion of multiple stakeholders who provide me with feedback on each potential candidate. Before we begin, I always provide the committee with a reminder to listen carefully to the answers and don’t get lost in the style of those being interviewed. “Did the candidate provide an answer to the question asked or did the candidate side step the question?” “Did the candidate provide concrete examples of actions taken or simply state what he/she would do if given the opportunity.” I’m looking for evidence not platitude, because often the best predictor of future performance is past performance. With that mentality, I’m hoping that committee members, including myself can see through the “style guy!” 

But what about when attending conferences and listening to keynote or other presentations? Does the same thinking apply? I would like to believe that intelligent conference attenders (we all believe we are) would be able to recognize the difference between rhetoric and research. However, after just returning from an international conference, I’m not sure we all get the style vs. substance paradigm simply based on the level of applause given or not!

Since our paths just crossed in the airport today, I’ll give you a personal example. The first time I listened to Canadian education guru, Michael Fullan, his presentation was dry. But his message was so powerful. He rocked me with the topic and in many ways he was instrumental the re-engagement of my own learning journey. Had I just focused on his style, I may have missed his critical messaging, the true substance of his talk. I’ve continued to follow Dr. Fullan throughout my career and have had the good fortune to hear him speak many times now. The “wow” factor doesn’t come from his style, which has improved steadily but rather in the content of his presentation.

I do understand the allure of the charismatic presenters. They typically say what we want to hear and use emotions with great ease. It is hard not to “fall in love” with the message because most often, they are tugging at our heart-strings. They make us laugh one moment and cry the next and most importantly they make us feel good about ourselves. They are simply affirming because they say exactly what we want to hear. But if we desire to be on an improvement journey, that keynote needs to push us beyond just feeling good about ourselves.

This is where substance has to come into play. This is where no matter how good we are feeling from the speaker’s talk, there needs to be that little push to go beyond what we’ve always done. I’m all for being affirmed at conferences on practices that are known to be tried and true. That affirmation tells me how far I, or my organization has come to this point. But that, is only one part of a true reflective evaluation. You must also be aware of how much farther you need to go along the journey and that will only occur if there are some challenges provided from the stylish and substance filled speaker.

It is not necessarily commonplace to find many high style and deep substance speakers at a conference because that ability is quite rare! But when you do, you should be walking out of the presentation feeling pretty good but also feeling challenged to take your practice up another notch. Default to substance if you have to choose because superficial talks will only promote false beliefs and when it comes to improvement, deep learning and serious reflection are required.


    • Gerry Varty on February 24, 2018 at 1:21 AM
    • Reply

    Ah… the allure of the “All hat, no cow” presentation.

    It’s great to listen to somebody who will go to great lengths to tell you what you want to hear…

    … but at the end of the day, you walk out the same way you walked in. If nothing changed, did you learn anything?

    An old boss of mine liked to say “My job isn’t to make you happy. My job is to make you Think.”

    Seek out cognitive dissonance. Look for presenters that tackle tough issues, that dare to push back on closely-held beliefs. It’s only by being pushed off thed square that we get forced to think, to reflect, to validate or adjust our worldview.

    Change comes from within. Incentive comes from without.

  1. I also think this applies to introverts, as well. Often, it’s the quiet and unassuming types that have a really hard time “selling themselves” that get overlooked for leadership positions.

    1. I would agree and that is why it is so important as a leader to look for substance over style. But I would also challenge introverts to ensure that they find ways to demonstrate their substance. While many would find this hard to believe, I am very much an introvert- I love my alone time and that is where I gather my strength. However, in my position, I’ve had to learn to be in the public, speaking to anyone and being very visible.

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