You could tell by the way he smiled. It was that slightly awkward, toothy smile that lasted too long for comfort. It was almost conspiratorial, as if we were sharing a secret. I recognised it because it was the same smile that the two gentlemen wear who come knocking on my door once a year. They want to talk about God. I don’t. Every year they seem genuinely distressed about this and every year I wonder why they keep coming back. I also wonder why they are wearing these terrible suits. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate their resolve. And in all fairness, if I had absolute proof that there is a God, I would probably stop caring about the way I dress, and go door to door too, but without that hideous smile.
Anyway, back to my toothy student., whose name was not John. The group was getting ready for their presentation class: arranging the tables, uploading their presentations on the classroom’s computer and so on. And there he came, smiling as if we had won a hundred pounds in an illegal dogfight.
– Can I ask you something, Bob, he said.
– Of course, John! How can I help you?
– Well you see, I have a very important message that I want to share with the rest of the group.
– (I knew it!) I see. What message is that?
– Well, it is a very important message about our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
– Ah. You’re a Jehovah’s Witness?
– Yes. My next presentation is scheduled for next week. Do you think I could deliver my message during that presentation?
– Eh, let me think about that one… Tell you what: I am professionally interested in the talk you want to give, but this is a course in presentations about technology. Also, I guess there will be some students in the group who will not appreciate a talk about religion. So, what we’ll do is this: next week you will first give a presentation about technology, as scheduled. Then I will ask the students if they want to hear your talk about religion, which will be after the last presentation of the day, in the lunchbreak, so the students who don’t want to hear your talk can leave a without missing part of the lesson. I am particularly interested in the differences and similarities between both talks. You should be asking yourself the same questions for both presentations: who is listening and why? You can talk for five minutes. Okay?
– Excellent! Thank you very much.
And so, one week later, John did both his talks. I explained to the students what was going to happen and that they were free to leave if they didn’t want to hear John’s message. Most of them stayed. Like me, they were curious to see what was going to happen.
I had seen John give presentations before during the course, and I knew he was pretty good. He was an electrical engineer who could explain the magic that was practised in his faculty to non-experts, without making them feel like idiots. So it was no surprise that the first, “technical” presentation he gave, was well structured, well argued and well executed. He was ready to answer questions and he was friendly and professional.
And then came his important message for the rest of the group. And it was a total and complete shambles. Within 30 seconds he was threatening the audience with hell and damnation, fire and brimstone. There was no structure, no argumentation. He howled and wailed, he shook his fists while quoting obscure bits of the Bible that he seemed to assume we had read. It was the worst attempt at conversion I had ever seen. Also, he lost all sense of time, so he was completely taken by surprise when I stopped him minutes after he should have stopped himself. His smile had vanished, he was sweating, a he was out of breath and out of clues about what had just happened. The other students were also bewildered: this had been more spectacular than they had anticipated. Clearly, there was somehow something wrong somewhere, but what?
Perhaps it was because he was genuinely convinced that we would go to hell and burn forever if he didn’t save us. The horror of failing to save 10 people at once was simply too much for him. At least, that’s what he said when he had regained some of his composure.
– John, I said, Aristotle described three modes of persuasion: authority, reason and emotion. I think you have just demonstrated what happens when you try to build a case on emotional arguments alone.
John left, a sadder but wiser man. I wonder how he’s doing and if he now starts his talks something like: “In the next five minutes I shall point out to you three reasons why you should become a Jehovah’s Witness. These three reasons can be best described as … First let me elaborate on …”
That would definitely put a smile on my face.