Thursday, September 6, 2012

Politics and Preaching

Watching the national political conventions is a great opportunity to study the art of public speaking--the rhetoric and the oration.  There's a lot one can learn about effective public speaking, and thus preaching, by listening to these top-level politicians.  Four years ago, I remember thinking that Barack Obama, love him or hate him, was the greatest orator of our age, and, as I sit down and wait to listen to him tonight, it's a good time to reflect on some of what I've heard in the conventions so far, not from a political standpoint, but from the perspective of public speaking.  Now, I didn't watch much of the RNC.  I haven't actually watched that much of the DNC, either.  So I really only have a few to speak about, so I'll give you my thoughts on those, ranking them low, middle, and high.

The best I've heard...

Michelle Obama

I think Michelle Obama's come a long way as a public speaker in her four years as First Lady.  I remember not being terribly impressed by her four years ago--thinking she was good enough, and all that, but not blown away.  This time around, her words were so finely honed that I just got over one bout of tears when she would send me into another.  I found her words were finely crafted to make me feel compassion, and to make me feel connection with her--she spun her role as "mom-in-chief" and as wife to this man she was trying to humanize with great skill.  As to her speaking style itself, she had a verbal mannerism that did distract me: "It matters th-that you don't take short cuts..."  This little stutter-step was something she did repeatedly throughout the speech.  And I found it distracting, but charming.  Because of this, I did have to wonder if it was done deliberately--it humanized her, made you connect with her, made you see her as an ordinary person.  It gave her style a feeling not of polish, but of intimacy--she's talking to you as a friend, as another mom, about her worries and how she's now confident in her husband's role as president.

Bill Clinton

Holy cow.  His speech made me remember why this man was so successful.  It didn't tug at my heart-strings at all like Michelle's, but it was logical, organized, persuasive, and effective.  He was charming, friendly, and had a great way of drawing you in.  His style of saying, essentially, "Now listen, this part is important," worked effectively to grab attention focus the next point.  Overall, high marks for style & content.  After that speech, it was clear to me this was why we kept this man in office for eight years.  He might be a better speaker than Obama.  Certainly, his charisma is overwhelming.  Holy cow.

The mid-range...

Joe Biden

While I like what he had to say (and that he kept mentioning Michigan and the automobile industry), it didn't grab me.  There were no obvious flaws in style or content, but it didn't command my attention either emotionally or intellectually.  He was at his best talking about family members, and I liked those pieces.  The starting off with the address to his wife was funny and touching.  I believe he believes what he's said about Barack Obama, but the shouting pieces didn't fire me up they way they're intended to.  And much as I like that GM is alive, I'm getting tired of hearing, "Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."  We've heard that already, Joe.  I liked his phrasing of "the hinge of history."  That was a nice piece of rhetoric.

The Amateurs

I'd also have to put most of the "average Joes" that have been trotted out here--they're not professional public speakers, and that certainly shows, and many aren't ready for this stage.  But they're also not put out to make a great speech, but rather to make a great point, to be an example of something, be it the point that religious people or military people can love Democrats or minorities can love Republicans or "Romney killed my job" or the opposite or whatever.  A notable exception in this category would be Zach Wahls, who I heard a lot of praise for, but whose speech I haven't listened to yet, and thus can't comment on directly.

And now for the worst...

Clint Eastwood

Oh, I understand it was funny to people who hate Obama, and I understand why.  But, try to be objective here.  The device was the most literal example of the straw man fallacy I've ever had the misfortune to see.  The only way it could be more literal is if he filled the empty chair with a scarecrow made to look like Obama.  Seriously.  I can't support a speech built entirely around a logical fallacy.  The delivery was rambling and made you feel that this was off-the-cuff in the worst sort of way.  And the jokes weren't all that funny--it was mostly funny that he pretended the president was saying things that were a bit offensive and unrepeatable. 

I wish I could balance this out more by showing you poor oration in Democrats and good rhetoric in Republicans.  I just really didn't listen to much in the RNC--I'm sure they had some good speakers.  I just didn't hear any.

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