Monday, March 23, 2015

Sincere, Spontaneous Public Speaking (I'm Against It) [29 Nov. 2013)

         I'd like to talk a moment about sincere, spontaneous public speaking: for most people, most of the time — Don't!

            There are exceptions. For example, if you're a Baptist minister, brought up in the great oratorical tradition of the Black Church in America, then there's a pretty good chance you can be moved by the Spirit and deliver a perfectly decent sermon ad lib. Still, there's a much better chance that "I Have a Dream" it will not be, and if you want to do better than "decent" (or adequate), you'd better spend some time preparing.

            Most White folks, and just about all politicians: Yo! — write the speech; then stick to the script. If you need a moment of sincere spontaneity in your presentation, be sure it's carefully rehearsed. More exactly: write the speech, let it sit for a day or two, and then rewrite it for clarity and brevity. Then have someone edit it for you. If you can afford a speech writer, you probably aren't reading this, so let's say if in the future you become important enough to hire speech writers, first off, give them credit somewhere. There is the theory, "I paid for it; it's mine," but if we don't accept that line for essays submitted by college students, we shouldn't accept it for speeches delivered by politicians or CEO's or other people who can have others do their intellectual drudge work. More immediately relevant here: If you can afford a speech writer, work with the writer to get the speech you want, then make it shorter — and again, once you get it, stick to the bloody script.

            Further advice if you're a politician or someone else whose words should be taken seriously: Do have a question and answer period after your presentation. Have a website, though, with policy statements and hand out press kits ("media kits"?) with synopses of your positions in the simple sentences and small words suitable to American journalism in these our degenerate days. Assume just about any question you get from a reporter is a potential "Gotcha!" moment, and preface any potential sound bite or brief quotation with, "Well, ________ [REPORTER'S FIRST NAME, pronounced with heartfelt pseudo-friendly informality], there's a complete statement of my position on my website and in the press kit, but the short answer is 'Yes'" or "No," if it's a yes/no question, followed by a sound-bite/brief-quote-suitable short form of your carefully developed and nuanced position a few serious journalists will look over, but the general lot of media whores will ignore.

            This advice is free, and arguably worth every penny of the cost. In the background are, primarily, two, maybe 2.5 experiences: (1) during the 2004 US Presidential campaign my listening to Senator John Kerry make a sincere, authentic, off-the-cuff speech. In the tradition of most actually-existing Senatorial oratory, the talk was rambling and interminable; and (2) complaints that President Barack Obama depended on a teleprompter. My response to the complaint against Obama: Good for him! He got a script and followed it.

            It actually happened that in 1984 I found myself trapped in an Ohio hotel during a blizzard, in a bar, having a beer with Senator Joe Biden. The guy was a great talker: authentic, sincere, funny. I still supported Obama in 2008, the true pro with the teleprompter, who, of course, is also capable of flubbing when going ad lib.

            Now with politicians and other important, or self-important, people, the basic problem is the one classically identified in 1946 by George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language": "In our time" — politics and parts of the English language were really worse in 1946 —"political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." In our time, many speakers in positions of power can't say what they mean and remain in power; so their public pronouncements will frequently be pretty lame.

            But they can be lame and at least presented in complete sentences, and briefly.

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