The problem with oratory skills

July 9, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

Noam Chomsky doesn’t put any value in polished oratory skills, a point he made clear in an interview he gave Nigel Farndale at Telegraph.co.uk:

I am no Barack Obama,’ he says to me now. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’

What does Chomsky think of Obama?

I take it he didn’t buy into Obama’s message of hope and change. ‘Elections in the United States are expensive extravaganzas run by the public relations industry. The PR people looked at the polls and picked slogans accordingly. ‘Did you know Obama won the best campaign of the advertising industry in 2008? It was politicians being marketed as a product, like toothpaste. What does that have to do with democracy? If you read his statement you find yourself asking what was the hope? What was the change? These were empty words.’

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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 (4)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I am inclined to disagree with Noam on this one. I'll concede that speeches can become too refined, too processed for easy consumption, until they become corn syrupy products readily dispensed into consumers, no thought needed, no digestion needed. However, the point of language IS to communicate, and a message that an audience struggles to decipher has failed at its job. You want your audience to puzzle over the nutrients at the heart of your message- the nuanced, complex ideas- but you want the message that dispenses these ideas to be neat and effective and unmuddled.

    I think Obama is generally very adept at packaging complicated ideas in a manner amenable both to understanding and thought. I was recently rewatching a segment of his speech on the separation of church and state ( see here), and was struck by how dense it was with ideas, compared to typical political speeches. A good speech can be more intellectual nutritious than Chomsky seems to think. And there are graduate faculty capable of being wittily coherent as well.

  2. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erika,

    In some cases, a politician who excels at the oratory, can actively engage his audience without actually indicating where he stands on the issues.

    Many years ago, I attended a rally for Bob Clement Jr (mainly because I had never seen a political rally before, and partly because there was not much else going on in the small college town where I was at the time), and I was amazed.

    Bob stood on a hay wagon at the town square, spoke on and on, answering questions from the crowd without hesitation, and generally held the full attention of the crowd.

    Thinking about the event the next day, I realized that nothing he said during the rally gave any indication of where he stood on the issues of the day.

    In retrospect, it was mind-boggling.

    Obama, seems to have these skill when giving prepared speeches, but during impromptu Q and A sessions he tends to interject a lot of "'uhs" and "umms", A sign that he is actually thinking about the question instead of parroting some babble triggered by keywords in the question (a la Chancey Gardener in "Being There").

    This is what impressed me about Obama. He thinks on his feet, rather that simple reciting the dogmatic BS espoused by the conservatives. I get the impression that Obama wants to improve government and return control of the government to the common people, but that he underestimated the degree damage that the former administration inflicted on the federal government by making it subordinate to the interests of multinational corporations.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I've thought a bit more about Chomsky's point. It seems to conflict with Damasio's research. Damasio determined that without emotion there cannot be rationality. Chomsky tends to lay things out in a dry structured sort of way. That doesn't mean that he is lacking in emotions or that he is irrational. In my view, his way of thinking cuts though a lot of mist and allows him to identify major social ills that other might miss because they are too caught up in group dynamics. But then comes the next step of communicating society's needs in such a way that the masses take that message and run with it. It seems to me that (as much as this frustrates me) the message needs to be mixed with emotions in order to be effective for most people. Dry facts and dry advice rarely seem to motivate people. Emotion allows us to have an inner landscape of peaks and valleys of goals and avoidances. Emotional speech seems to tap into those inner landscapes (for many people much of the time) better than dry speeches.

      I can relate to Chomsky's frustration. I relate well to Niklaus' points too. So often emotionalk speeches seem exciting until you go back and read the transcript, at which point you see that there was very little of substance. There was lots of heat but little light.

      It seems like emotional speeches simply "work" better on crowds, even though carefully articulated factual statement provide better understanding of problems. Perhaps we need both–we need the dry facts to intellectually equip us with a thorough understanding, but also emotion to convince us to get on out feet and actually do something about an issue.

  3. Plato distrusted the verbally adept. He wanted to ban poets, after all, because he believed unsophisticated people were too easily persuaded by deft wordplay.

    The antidote to that is more wordplay. And education.

    Chomsky believes truth can be laid out on a grid. All you get from that, though, are facts, not meaning. I sympathize with his frustration that oftentimes cutting through the persuasion of wonderfully-packaged nonsense requires far too much time and effort to make a real-world difference. However, I've seen what can be done to b.s. by someone equally adept at language—like when Carl Sagan tore Jerry Falwell to shreds once on a televised encounter.

    All that can be advised is for people to pay more attention.

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