Why you shouldn’t read important speeches

June 1, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More

Liz Coleman, the President of  Bennington College, has some terrific ideas about reforming liberal arts education.  She presented them at TED in February 2009.

Many people will never appreciate Coleman’s ideas, however, because she presented them in a long paper filled with redundant and sesquipedalian (!*) terms.  To top it off, she chose to read her speech in monotone rather than speaking from her heart.   Coleman’s decision to read her speech rather than presenting it with spontaneous enthusiasm undercuts the very message of her paper.   She violated a basic rule of speech-making: Don’t bore your audience with good content deficiently presented.

Why can’t the highly educated C0leman see this conspicuous problem with her own delivery?  Why can’t she understand that many people (even the smart sorts of people who attend TED lectures, have lots of trouble paying attention to liberal arts college presidents who read pedantic speeches?  For starters, she needs to keep in mind that the Internet audience is not a captive audience motivated by the pursuit of grades.

Yes, ordinary Americans need to become more disciplined at being attentive audiences.   They need to learn to persevere when difficult ideas are presented, even when those ideas aren’t sugar-coated.   On the other hand, academics (Coleman is one example of many) really need to get out of their ivory towers and learn to talk to real people without sounding condescending.

One suggestion:  Coleman should study Barack Obama, who often knows his material well enough to talk off-the-cuff.  He has also learned to present pre-written presentations in a fresh, spontaneous-sounding way.   I’m not suggesting that everyone can deliver ideas like Obama, but all us can take the time study the various techniques he often uses.

Before getting to work studying her new technique, Coleman should carefully watch her TED presentation and ask herself whether her delivery would even keep her own interest.  She should ask what so many academics should ask:  was her speech designed primarily to move her audience or was it (perhaps subconsciously) designed to show off her own vocabulary and intellectual superiority, amply laced with uppity intonation?   If there is even an unintentional hint of these, she’s lost her audience.

*sesquipedalian
1.     given to using long words.
2.     (of a word) containing many syllables.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Education, Language, Media, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I don't know if Obama is the best example. Or maybe he is, because he can read a speech convincingly- in such case, Coleman just needs a teleprompter.

    The unfairness of teleprompterpresident.com and the like aside, it does seem clear that Obama is a pretty big fan of the teleprompter, perhaps more than other recent presidents. If that is the case, maybe he isn't the ideal example of someone who can talk "off the cuff". I suppose your main point, though, is that he can deliver pre-written content with such current life. That is a valuable skill in its own right, sure. But I think the ability to speak on the fly is pretty paramount, for it reflects the command of facts to think on the fly. We shouldn't expect that of every presidential appearance, of course, but I think we could expect that of a TED speaker.

    Then again, some people can turn a wonderful phrase yet ultimately demonstrate a lack of internal depth. As much as I like to believe speaking and writing=thinking, some great orators and writers are pretty numbskulled in one way or another. Oprah was in speech and debate in high school, she has always had a solid command of language and has been totally engaging, yet she believes in idiocy like anti-vaccine myths and Doctor Phil.

    Maybe Coleman just needed a strong but totally vapid speaker to convey her message, and leave the thinking part to her?

  2. Jan Baker says:

    Some people refuse to be actors. Applause! This post is silly. "Internal depth"–please! Don't you ever get tired of getting hurt?

  3. Mindy Carney says:

    Jan, I'm curious why this seems to have struck a chord with you?

    I happen to agree with the post – being able to communicate a point effectively is often the difference between information reaching the audience or not. Not acting, but communicating well. Using the tools we all have – voice, physical presence and eyes – to engage the audience and maintain their interest and attention so that the pertinent facts can be absorbed. I'm not talking about the techniques employed by those public speakers whose over-the-top enthusiasm mimics the infomercial hawkers of late-night TV. I'm talking about sincerity and confidence and conveying those to listeners.

  4. Leonard Bernstein recorded a series of lectures given at Harvard that have become legendary. He used a teleprompter. He was castigated by colleagues for being too "showy." I guess the idea being stodgy intellectuals should sound like stodgy intellectuals and someone who would use "devices" to perk up their lectures is somehow cheating. We have come a long way since then, so that now we see the reverse happening.

    Frankly, I think we, the audience, have gotten spoiled. I've sat through many a reading by fiction writers who from the standpoint of delivery had no business reading in public, but the audience was patient, accepting, and still bought the books.

    Maybe if people read more instead of relying on predigested "presentations"…

    I'm a bit with Jan on this one—it's kind of a non issue. The folks tuning in to TED aren't likely going to turn it off because the delivery is dry.

  5. I hadn't watched the video till after my previous comment. Sorry, I don't see (or hear) anything wrong with it. She spoke well, presented her ideas cogently, and if referring to a script bothers you, well, it's better than stuttering and stumbling all over herself. I for one was mesmerized by the ideas she presented. I did not find it dry or incomprehensible or lifeless.

    Perhaps we are too afflicted with the false expectations of "expert" presenters.

  6. Mindy Carney says:

    OK, I admit to doing the same thing, Mark – I didn't watch the video before popping off a response to Jan. She doesn't have a terribly dynamic speaking presence, but the only problem I had with it is that because she needed to refer often to her notes, she should have had her notes in front of her, not off to the side, because it was the constant head-turning that was distracting. But her delivery was passionate and sincere, and that is what counts most.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    I work as a trial lawyer. I've never seen a successful lawyer win an argument by reading it. There is an in–the-moment magic that turbocharges your message to speak from the heart–to know the material so well that you are speaking it–not memorizing it and not reading it.

    Like I said in the post, Coleman's message was right on. As a presentation, though, I'd give it a 5 out of 10. I'm absolutely convinced that it could have been a 9 out of 10 if she had not read it (she started off without referring to her notes–apparently, she had memorized the opening–but a few minutes into the speech she was glued to her written speech).

    I have trouble memorizing my own presentations. I'm not a "natural" speaker, so I am highly tuned to this issue. I am writing as someone who has to work hard to give a presentation. Here's a potential solution that I use: Instead of writing your entire speech and reading it, just write down a list of ten or so words on a sheet of paper (if you want to read a quote somewhere in your speech, you can write that out verbatim). As a general rule, you need to know your material well enough that those individual words will trigger your thorough discussion of your topics. If you don't know your topic well enough that a limited number of keywords can guide you through your presentation, you don't belong up there.

    I would love to see an A-B comparison where Coleman goes up with minimal notes and talks to the audience rather than reads to them. She is clearly a control person who wants to get it all "right." I understand that, because I have been there and done that. But I'd much rather see a mistake-ridden speech where she's talking to me rather than reading to me. This is what I've been taught in several trial law seminars I've attended and this is what I know to be true based upon seeing real-life results from arguing hundreds of motions before judges. When you look your audience in the eye and speak from what you know, you are double the communicator that you would otherwise be.

  8. Mindy Carney says:

    I don't disagree, Erich, except for the 'mistake-ridden' part – that would be problematic given her position and the venue of her speech. Yes, the reading is distracting. She doesn't have the passion of an excellent orator. A speech is different than court, though – in court, the passion plays an important role. The facts of a case should be paramount, obviously, but I don't think anyone will disagree that a passionate argument can sway a jury. Add to that, of course, the fact that when an attorney knows her case files so intimately that she can speak without notes, her perceived expertise increases and she is therefore more likely to be believed.

    I did, though, sense the sincerity in Coleman's speech, and am willing to write off her reliance on her notes as the nerves of a control freak. 🙂

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Maybe I should have said "stumble" rather than "mistake." There is an authenticity brought to bear by one who sometimes stops and starts and stumbles and eventually lays it down. Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I've known some lawyers who insist on making every single sentence end with a period and it often makes for tedious listening. I've read transcripts of lawyers who present their case in "imprecise" English and it usually seems far more genuine than the perfectionists.

      This topic reminds me of one aspect of digital music composing. A couple decades ago, drum machines became cheap and plentiful. A lot of recording musicians programmed their drum music and it was utterly perfect in terms of placement of beats. This placement was helped along with "quantizing" functions, which adjusted those percussion noises perfectly into slots of quarter notes, eighth notes or even more fine-grained times. There was a problem with that, however. The drums sounded too mechanical, certainly to the ear of any serious musician. Those drum machines sounded too perfect to be enjoyable. The solution? Some people continued with live drummers, who bring nuances to their playing to keep things moving in an alive fashion. One other solution was to process the quantized drum sounds through a "humanize" function that randomizes the timing a bit, just to make it sound more alive and human. More control and more perfection is not necessarily better, in music and in speeches.

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