Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Public Speaking 101

Some have it, some don’t, and some fake it; public speaking ability, that is. First a disclaimer: I do not believe that the ability to speak well should be the sole criterion for the office of president of the United States. I also do not believe that the failure to correctly know the name and the obscure pronunciation of the leader of “Whatever-stan” is a condemnation of any candidate. Those of us who write have the support and comfort of readily available reference material to enhance our image. Extemporaneous speakers have no such crutch. They must rely upon actual knowledge.

As I listened to the massacre at Saddleback I was haunted by the voices of two prominent figures from the past: Frances Bodie and Mrs. Bielski. The former was my high school speech teacher and the latter refined the instruction at George Washington University. The message from both was identical; don’t take the podium unless you are familiar with the subject. To become more at ease sharing with an audience, both encouraged practice speeches with subjects that the speaker had intimate knowledge—dogs, food, jobs, etc.. As I listened to my fellow students address the group on deep subjects such as the sleeping habits of their kitty or the importance of peanuts from Georgia their wisdom was revealed. Once comfortable with an audience, they then were able to refine their skills and speak to less personal subjects. The thorough knowledge of the subject content was still required.

Both instructors were very impatient with unnecessary interruptions in delivery by words or sounds which detracted from the presentation. One of them dropped pennies in a coffee can each time “er”, “uh” or other infractions were observed. A 20-cent speech was worth a sure F. Both interpreted these delays as lack of knowledge and preparation.

Absent a paid and polished clergy, the Restored Church enjoys the ministry of a wide variety of men of great faith and understanding of the scriptures. Over the decades I have been privileged to enjoy presentations by men who had little formal education, on a subject, Jesus Christ, which is near and dear to their hearts and upon which they were prepared to expound endlessly. Although the grammar could often be faulted, they carried the message and were well understood by the congregations. Their position was abundantly clear: they love Him. They did not stutter or struggle for words to express themselves. Although clean, well groomed and presentable, it was obvious that the important thing was the message with little or no emphasis on the speaker.

The typical meeting for Alcoholic Anonymous lasts exactly one hour. Frequently, groups will bring in a speaker to occupy 55 minutes of that period. With a life now filled with benefits of sobriety, none have any difficulty using that time to tell their story and share the benefits that have received through the program. They have no problem avoiding the pitfalls of the extemporaneous speaker because they have “been there” and the subject is the keystone of their new lives without alcohol. Again, the grammar may be faulty but the testimony is clear and believable because it is true. They have come to the truth and it has freed them to share with others and they succinctly and anxiously do so.

When I hear a speaker struggle to formulate his thoughts I strongly suspect his motives, his veracity and his experience with the subject. Verbal delaying tactics only exacerbate that conclusion.. It is especially painful when the person making the address has come pre-advertised as being a remarkable speaker. Any fool can read a canned pitch. To watch a man stumble through responses to questions about matters upon which he professes expertise is embarrassing and prompts examination of his qualifications. The contrast in the two principals in the Rick Warren forum came as a complete surprise. It was not so much McCain's even, capable and controlled demeanor—one would expect no less from a man of his background—as his counterpart's nervousness and general aura of not being comfortable and at ease. He presented an entirely new face.

I would not have been surprised to see the stage flooded with secret service men demanding to know “What have you done with Obama?” This was not the man we have seen so capably reading from a teleprompter. This was not the self-assured polished individual in the campaign ads. I strongly suspect the man we saw was, for the first time, exposed as the unsure, inexperienced amateur that he actually is.

A commenter on Little Green Footballs nailed it:

“Obama has spent a lifetime immersed in political theory; McCain has spent a lifetime immersed in political reality.”

In His abiding love,

Cecil Moon

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