This week, I traveled to the United States, where I have now been for several days. As is often my practice in an election year, I have watched some of the political coverage, perhaps even with a bit more interest than usual, due to the controversial nature of the unfolding electoral process.
I should make clear that I enjoy watching politicians speak, not so much from an inherent interest in politics but rather as part of my ongoing study of what makes someone an effective speaker in a public arena. In particular, I like to evaluate how effective an orator appears to be at connecting with the audience. In this vein, I have found trends in modern speechmaking rather disappointing, and I would like to explain why.
My last post centered on Barack Obama’s keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, one he made prior to becoming famous on the national and world stage.
To my mind, Obama’s speech was quite effective at moving his audience, for a number of reasons. First, he used his own story, a dynamic I encourage with my clients, since it creates a personal relationship with the listeners. Personal stories of identity lend immediacy and credibility to one’s discourse.
Second, while the stories are personal, the speaker connects us to a broader context. In Obama’s case, he speaks of his eclectic origins and then of his parents’ dream of a generous and tolerant America, values that his own story demonstrates.
Third, and as the most successful people of influence do, he speaks from the heart about something he truly cares about. As such, we hear his words and also feel his passion.
So, if these are three key elements that make a public speech or presentation impactful, where does my disappointment with today’s speakers come from? Quite simply, I do not hear many presenters these days who achieve my third point, that of speaking from the heart and showing true passion.
In fact, the more I see politicians—whether Obama, other public figures, or the current group of candidates running for office—the more I find that we have lost our spontaneity and our passion.
Two salient reasons why spontaneity and passion are gone from the discourse of political figures are: (1) the seemingly increasing need to stay “on script” at all times, and (2) the prevalence of the teleprompter. Of course, these two phenomena are somewhat connected. Reading from a discretely positioned teleprompter prevents the presenter from straying from the scripted message.
For those unaware, the teleprompter is a display device that shows the person speaking an electronic visual text of a speech. Because the speaker reads from a transparent screen at eye level, scanning the audience while never looking down to consult written notes, someone who has mastered this tool can appear to be speaking spontaneously.
The teleprompter has been around since the 1960s, but I only began to realize its impact about a decade ago. On a flight from Amsterdam to London, I sat next to a man who works in sports television for a large British enterprise, and I told him that I was fascinated by the presenters on CNN International’s World Sport. These people seem to have a more than superficial knowledge of all the sports of the world, everything from olympic figure skating to Australian Rules Football. As such, I asked him how anyone can possibly stay up-to-date on such a wide variety of sporting endeavors and their prominent personalities.
His answer left me feeling a bit naive about the technology these professionals use in various types of presentations. “They may indeed be quite knowledgeable,” he said, “but many of them are just very good readers with a lot of experience doing it.”
Unfortunately, in politics as well, the technology of the teleprompter has turned speechmakers into readers. Rarely do they speak from the heart about the things that truly matter to them.
Next time, I will expand on this theme, as we look at some of the differences between today’s speakers and some great ones from the past.
Image: Flickr-user Håkan Dahlström