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April 08, 2014

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Hi David,
I agree with Ariel that public speaking is a valuable skill, and I really like your approach to it.

If they do what you suggest, they're not writing a (yawn) speech, they're telling a terrific, personal story. This lesson might stick with them when or if any of them ever become speech writers or speech deliverers (or both).

Meanwhile, they're also getting valuable experience telling these stories in public, to a large but presumably sympathetic audience. What an amazing introduction to a potentially terrifying activity.

My friend Bill Sweetland is scarred from two graduations he has attended: one, at an elite Chicago public high school and the other at an esteemed private liberal arts college. Bill writes:

***

Your letter is full of light-hearted good advice. In fact, you pull your sword out of its scabbard just far enough to show Ariel the gleaming steel of your forged and hammered speechwriting wisdom. Dropping this too-involved metaphor, may I say that your letter took me back instantly to O—'s high school graduation at Walter Payton High School in Chicago six or seven years ago.

The commencement speakers, graduating seniors, lied like troopers to please Walter Payton H. S. administrators, who were the real inspirers, editors, and authors of the hypocritical garbage and nonsense about world peace, hands across borders, life’s ultimate goals, experiences that changed my life, and other topics that these amateur flatterers, these children, had neither the experience nor the common sense nor the skill to make interesting or valuable. IT WAS DISHONEST, MEDIOCRE, SELF-SERVING, AND DISGUSTING FROM START TO FINISH. Sickening. Revolting. Enraging. Stupid. Worthless. Contemptible. The epitome of a completely anti-intellectual “education,” and a discredit to everyone who attended and listened uncomplainingly to these falsetto raptures about life and love and ultimate meanings—pure shit.

Four years later, I went to O—’s graduation from Carleton College in Minnesota. Same thing. Amateurish lying by people who by now should have been old enough to know better, simply to please the dullards on the faculty and in administration who had made 50-75% of them “honors” graduates, thereby de-valuing the Carleton honors degree to ZERO. Again, I was sickened and depressed by every single speech given by these priggish, smug, complacent, pseudo-worldly, would-be Tartuffes, who imagined they were (a) imparting new truths and wisdom to their frantically bored auditors, and (2) successfully pulling the wool over the eyes of their dim-witted idealist (idealist in the worst possible sense of that word) professors who had taught them NOTHING about writing, public speaking, being honest with oneself and others, being intellectually aware, and avoiding platitudes and clichés, especially that most nauseating kind of cliché, the Graduation Speech Thought-Cliché. God!

Excellent words from David and Bill. I do think anybody who wants to inflict the task of speechmaking on students should, at the very least, make sure the kids understand that the point of a speech is to entertain the audience, whether through humour or storytelling. People in grade eight don't have profound ideas, so this isn't going to be a TEDDY talk. Just as any writer should think about who's going to be reading his or her words and why that person should give a damn about what he's writing, speechwriters need to think about who's listening. Our culture is so solipsistic with its stupid gadgets, social media, selfies and constant broadcasting of our news and views that people have forgotten the importance of "the other." The other is crucial. If you don't have an engaged audience, buddy, you're just doing a sad little monologue.

What's amazing, Kate, is that people are still polite enough to sit through bad speeches, which still occur at least as frequently as they ever did. Is it politeness, or is it just human empathy?

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