This past weekend was the Canadian thanksgiving holiday, which I spent happily cocooned in a triptophan-induced semi-coma. Thankfully, I had the American presidential debates to giggle over while recovering from the turkey binge.
Political debates are quite possibly the best fora to observe the spectrum of speaking and rhetorical competency. The unpredictability of the politicians’ performances makes debates endlessly entertaining. The most recent presidential debate was a wonderful demonstration of said unpredictability. Romney spewed non-facts littered with outright fallacies. Yet he managed to out-perform The Orator, Barak Obama.
Okay, I’m being polite. Romney thrashed Obama. He showed him up like the Cheerleader showed up the Chess Club Nerd during the homecoming queen competition. This makes me sad, because despite his superior performance, Romney was spewing drivel. I hate to award the “Best Delivery” prize to someone with wretched content, but in this case I am forced to do just that.
While I could go on about how Obama failed to rebut Romney’s statements or neglected to tear down the BS “facts”, President Obama’s biggest pitfall was his apparent detachment from the whole debate. If a speaker expects to engage their audience in their rhetoric, the speaker himself must demonstrate the level of engagement he wants from that audience. Obama didn’t appear engaged. He looked bored.
Or all three. Really, it doesn’t matter which one of the above adjectives describes his demeanour. What matters was that he failed to demonstrate the level of engagement and energy expected from someone in his position. He was physically present, but he wasn’t really there.
In the days of radio, Obama may have fared better. But we’re a visual species dealing with a visual medium. Speakers rarely have the luxury of relying on their voice to deliver the bulk of the message. When people are watching, the body must match the words and the message. The speaker must physically demonstrate that they are fully present in that moment. It doesn’t matter how tired or bored they may be. That’s the challenge to which he must rise.
I’m currently watching yesterday’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His guest was Bill Clinton, who recently delivered an extraordinary speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton is one of the most highly regarded contemporary public speakers and delivers hundreds of speeches every year.
When Jon Steward asked Clinton if he could tell that he was “crushin’ it as you were doin’ it?”, Clinton said the following:
“I worked so hard on that. For weeks and weeks. And then the White House designated Bruce Reed [. . .] to help me and then Jean Spurling, the national economic advisor [ . . . ] came in. And we worked for the last day and a half after doing all this other work. I was just determined to get the facts right and to simplify the argument without being simplistic.”
Like I said in yesterday’s post, great speechmaking takes hard, hard work. It takes planning and preparation and deep knowledge of your topic and argument. Bill Clinton spends weeks preparing his major speeches. He seeks help and advice and feedback and the input of experts. Even though his speech delivery may appear effortless, it is not without effort. The fact that he makes it look so easy is testimony to the sheer amount of work he puts into his speeches, and not just to an inherent ability to talk to large crowds of people.