Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wright is Wrong

Like drivers who have to slow down to see a wreck that has nothing to do with them, I have spent too much time watching and reading about Reverend Wright's rants and Barack Obama's "throwing him under the bus" (what a metaphor for scapegoating or sacrificing!) This has nothing to do with me, for one thing. I don't support Obama in the first place, I'm not African American, I don't go to the Reverend Wright's church (and in this context, when I call it his church I mean his church because God doesn't seem to be part of the equation), and I can't even say I have a scholarly interest in the kind of "rhetoric" he's using. Yet I keep watching these conservative pundits and rabble-rousers try to make this the only issue in a campaign. I keep reading about Obama's justification for distancing himself from his pastor. I keep getting involved where I don't ideologically belong.

My first feeling was to truly empathize with Obama. I still kind of do. Here his pastor has publicly turned on him, trying to draw attention to himself. But the questions remain: how much can you listen to these kinds of sermons and not become a believer? how can you think this isn't going to come up in a national election? What was he thinking? Was he just trying to be part of the black community that he really wasn't in his upbringing? (Again, one can empathize, truly Obama, abandoned by a father and stepfather, physically separate from the white world he was raised in, must have been looking for community; who wouldn't?

But the greatest marvelling is reserved for Reverend Wright. I have just taught a class on great speeches of the 20th century, and we of course spent a lot of time on Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I've Been to the Mountaintop, and I Have a Dream. What masterpieces, what logic, what eloquence, what depth, what heights, what personal revelation, what audience-awareness. His peroration the night before he was killed brings me to tears. And what do we get from Wright? Silly little rhymes. Chris Rock style put downs of white people. Profane ramblings. Assertions about politics with not a shred of evidence, and just plain nonsense.

Dr. King never disrespected anyone. He had prophetic things to say about white people, who deserved it all, but he also realized the movement would go nowhere without white support, white sympathy. He knew disrespect would get him nowhere. Barack has done a great job of building on, or convincing a lot of people that he is building on, Dr. King's legacy.

And that's where I end up with Obama. He's still an unknown entity, and logic should tell people he has miles to go before he is qualified to sleep in the White House. But people want to believe, and he looks like fertile ground for belief.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

In Transition

One thing my students get out of my class knowing: the importance of transitions. I harp on that subject. The speaker doesn't benefit from them; only the audience does. The speaker doesn't need transitions; the audience does. Transitions separate the prepared and practiced from the "I just want to get this over with" crowd because the ability to do transitions well shows that the speaker truly is about communicating, not about performing; that the speaker is about the outcome, not just the act, of public speaking.

First, the transitions of writing and the transitions of public speaking are very different. For one, public speaking transitions are one or two sentences, whereas written transitions are a couple of words. For two, public speaking transitions are obvious; written transitions are conspicuous in their cleverness. For three, public speaking transitions are of necessity more cumulative; by the time you get to the third point, you might be including the first and second point in the transitions. For four, public speaking transitions should do more than announce that a new topic is coming up; they should explain the logic behind the connections (something hard to get students to understand).

Second, public speaking transitions must be practiced. The speaker must hear them to know if they work. This may mean several tries and revision.

Third, public speaking transitions should not be repetitive. The audience shouldn't hear "Next ... next... " They should be varied in wording, again, focusing on the cumulative nature of the material and the logical connections.

Fourth, public speaking transitions should not be used just between the main points. Any list of more than two items needs transitions, even if they are sub-sub-points.

If I had given these points orally, I would have done it in a totally different manner. Such is the nature of transitions.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


It is harder to end a speech than to start it. Well, let me restate that: it is harder to end a speech well than to start it well. It is of course not hard to end a speech. Just stop talking. But that will hardly serve one's purpose. Let's start with the common faults:
1. Abruptness, that is, just stopping, perhaps from fear or from the thought one has gone overtime.
2. Multiple conclusions. A speaker should avoid saying "in closing" or "in conclusion;" he or she should never do it more than once.
3. Not summarizing. The conclusion must look back to what has been said.
4. Indefiniteness. I call this the Forrest Gump conclusion, and everyone knows immediately what I mean. "That's all I have to say about that." It's funny; of course no one does that, right? Actually, they do, in so many words. "Well, I'm finished," or "That's about it," or "That just about wraps it up" are some variations.
5. Rambling, or simply not being able to finish, so one just keeps talking. This is the worst because it is what the audience remembers. It would be like spending the day at DisneyWorld and going back to your car only to find you're locked out. It makes something that could have been memorable seem very, very long.
These five "no-no"s can be replaced with some practice and knowledge.
  • First, whatever you did in the introduction is relevant to the conclusion. Paul Harvey, the great radio host, had a segment called "The Rest of the Story." The conclusion can tell "the rest of the story." Whether a story, historical incident, personal anecdote, or quotation was used in the beginning, it can be finished, referred to, or re-emphasized in the conclusion.
  • There is never a situation where summarizing is inappropriate. (Don't you love hidden double negatives. They just obscure meaning. Translation: always summarize, somehow.)
  • Save the best to last. End big. Climax. Leave 'em laughing, leave 'em crying, leave 'em wanting more. End a tad earlier than expected.
  • Try not to signal with your body language that you are done, such as closing notes. You can do that after the last word; you should pause before leaving the lectern anyway.
  • I am ambivalent about saying "thank you." There are times it's appropriate, but it's overdone. We say "thank you" and "I'm sorry" so much that there meaningless to it.
  • Definitely do not apologize, in word or spirit. Nothing should indicate a sense of insecurity or uncertainty with what you have said. An apology only says "I've just wasted x amount of your precious life time" or "I'm a fool and don't know what I'm talking about."

Conclusions take time, 5-10% of the whole speech, and they are often ad-libbed, with the speaker figuring "I'll think of something when I get up there." Don't bet on it. Primarily, do not bring up new arguments, topics, or ways of looking at the topic; that will only confuse the listener. The conclusion is for looking backward and provding unity and completeness, and new ideas will only make the speech look incomplete.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Why I Like Old Movies

The only channel I watch is TCM, Turner Classic Movies. Well, there are exceptions, but it's my default channel. Why do I watch old movies?
1. My generation and younger ones don't get the coolness of black and white. It leaves so much to the imagination, it allows the director to use light and shadow so much more, and it makes the movie about the story as much or more than the scenery. This is not to say the old color movies aren't great, but most of them are black and white.
2. The actors spoke their lines, rather than mumbling. It is a treat to understand everything that is said.
3. Some of the acting is "theater-acting" as I call it, for large audiences rather than cameras. Of course, some of it is incredibly campy. Greta Garbo is the standout example here.
4. Speaking of campy, how could anyone resist Bette Davis? One of my favorite old movies is "All About Eve." Davis is magnificent, and MM is a crack-up.
5. They could tell a story of evil without the "f" word, could portray lust without nudity, could draw a despicable character without blasphemy.
6. The clothes--oh, the clothes! No one knows how to dress anymore. Rita Hayworth, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, and Claudette Colbert, among others--they knew how to wear the clothes, how to walk in the clothes. The government let the studios have enough fabric to make costumes for the movies so that audiences would have something to entertain them. Imagine, Hollywood being patriotic.
7. Yes, patriotic--all those old actors who went to war, who stopped making money and movies to fight for their country. Those were human beings.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Those who would do public speaking must understand the importance, the crucial importance, of the introduction, the first ten percent of their speeches.

1. Vocally one must establish one's the dominance of one's voice. All attention must be drawn to the speaker. No little voices, no hemmng and hawing, no slinking to the front. If one wants the right to speak, one must take that right with a voice everyone can hear, that everyone can get used to listening to in the first 20-30 seconds, that everyone can find listenable and authoritative. This may sound old-fashioned, but if so, it's only because we have become such a bunch of mumblers not taking care to use the English language in an effective way.

2. Any textbook can tell you the six or seven ways to introduce speeches:
  • anecdote, funny or otherwise
  • startling statistic or fact
  • quotation, identified or not identified
  • reference to a recent incident
  • immediate reference to title
  • personal reference
  • reference to the importance of the topic/issue'
  • using a visual aid

However, these methods only do so much, and I'll address them one-by-one on a later blog entry. An introduction has to have a structure of four parts:

a. the attention getter

b. the bridge showing the relationship of the attention getter to the topic

c. the thesis, which is discussed below

d. the preview/map/overview/plan of content

An attention getter without a bridge to the topic confuses listeners, and that is the fault most speakers commit--not seeing or hearing their speeches from the perspective of an audience, not being self-aware enough to realize that how it sounds within one's head is not how it sounds to others sitting ten to fifty feet away.

3. In college composition and speech classes instructors spend a lot of time on thesis or central idea statements, but most of that information is impractical for real audience situations. A thesis should be either of the following:

a. a succinctly stated, aphoristic "BIG IDEA" that can be restated, developed, and easily remembered by the audience. Jesse Jackson used to have a sermon where he wanted the audience to remember "I am somebody!" Anyone who heard it never forgot it. I am not suggesting that level of conciseness, but I am suggesting that the speaker should be able to capsulize the real message of the speech in a relatively short sentence (at least less than fifteen words). These long, convoluted thesis sentences preached in textbooks are too wordy for oral communication, which demands, for most audiences, short sentences with a certain amount of repetition. This method takes a good deal of panache and practice, but all who have to speak should move toward it as a goal. I recently taught a Bible lesson centered on the phrase "Jesus includes the excluded." It worked in that context (a lesson on Matthew).

b. If the BIG IDEA method is too much, it's all right to just say, "Today I want to address the issue of ..... and do so by breaking it down into X number of subtopics." Or even better, "In the next few minutes I will explain why ..... To do this, I'll first explain ...., then ...., then ...." This second example works for a persuasive speech, and I would suggest "explain" instead of "prove" or "persuade you that." Audiences do not want to be told they will be persuaded; they reserve the right to persuade themselves. This approach has the value of being clear. No one will miss the point, and to be honest, being sure your main topic and preview is not missed trumps clever. Clever is good; clear is better.

This is not to say the textbooks are wrong. The authors want the students to understand argument and support; so much of what is taught in college is about critical thinking and proving intellectual skills, not about what will work particularly well in the "real world" (a phrase I really despise but have to defer to).

4. However, an introduction can look great on paper and still be a disaster in reality. A speech is what comes out of one's mouth at a specific place and time; that is the key difference between oral and written communication. Therefore, a speaker must practice and get feedback to be sure that the attention getter is vocally attention-getting: Slow and distinct (making the mouth work), energetic, full eye contact (never read introductions, conclusions, or jokes to an audience), appropriate facial expression (no goofy grin if a serious subject, no scowl if a motivational speech), and loud enough to make everyone know you are the one in control for the next so many minutes.

Good, Holy, Blessed Friday 2017

When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my riches gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. F...