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by Darryl Spencer

January 6,2007

I avoided a recent NPR show broadcast live from Charlotte. I like the show’s content, but not the host’s communication “style.” With a script, she stammers and stutters, suggesting uncertainty, unpreparedness, and inability to think while talking. Is she a good public speaker? No. But she sounds like most Americans, like “one of us.” Is that what we want from “talking heads”?

A CNN regular is eloquent during newscasts and live reports from disasters. Yet in interviews, whether interviewer or -ee, he is as “speech-interference”-inflicted as a preteen. Ad-lipped utterances of young Hollywood actors make them sound socially retarded or doped up.

“Rhetoric” to Aristotle – who codified it – meant “effective speech.” We’ve had presidents with speech problems, from Nixon’s grammatical fragments to Bush 41’s sentences defying syntactical analysis to a more recent office-holder’s embarrassingly simplistic vocabulary.

We’ve had eloquent presidents during my lifetime: FDR heartened a nation with “fireside chats”; Truman had directness; Ike was prescient about “the military-industrial complex.” We accepted Kennedy’s accent because of his intelligence in debates. I heard him speak magnificently on the White House lawn in 1963 without teleprompter or notes. LBJ had an accent, but an avuncular style that could persuade and move us – hear his 1965 Civil Rights speech (which I witnessed from the House gallery). Great Communicator Reagan deployed actor’s skills to convince an opposition-led Congress; Clinton extemporized his way into the White House.

Eloquence was once expected of reporters: see George Clooney’s Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. The professionalism of Cronkite, Brokaw, Rather, and the crew of 60 Minutes contrasts with today’s “aw, shucks” media “personalities.”

A character in Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus says of “remembered lines,” ”If you learned the stuff young you never lost it.” My octogenarian father still recited “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” after 70 years. As a community leader, he spoke comfortably to townspeople, state politicians, or Congressional committees. Observing him, I understood that communication skill was part of an educated, responsible citizen.

My father’s mother had flawless grammar; her father published Killgore’s New Educational Speaker (1877), speeches for public occasions. Her husband (1868-1938) was a Baptist preacher still remembered for his oratory.

And yet, in my maternal grandmother’s The American Star Speaker and Model Elocutionist, author Charles Walter Brown opens with: “As an apostle of…a lost art, [I] may be pardoned for advancing the claims of cultivated speech to a more general recognition among our people…[who are] in general…deficient in their powers of vocal expression…an unpleasant comment upon our system of education….”

How new is this deficiency? Brown “attribute[s] the vocal deficiency” to “meager vocal drill in our…schools” but is unable to “account for the delinquency of…literary people whose vocal accomplishments are barely sufficient to render them intelligently entertaining upon such…topics as…current events.” Brown wrote in 1902 that “words [should] issue from their lips with that easy flowing and delightful continuity which implies not only...thought, but…vigor of expression which rouses the listless ear and leads the sluggish and…unwilling…through the realms of mental wonderland.”

Prof. Higgins muses in My Fair Lady, “If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do, why, you might be out selling flowers too!”

Is this sloppiness in speech part of our insistence on informality? Have we confused democratic egalitarianism with a least common denominator? We no longer think it normal or useful for families to sit down together for a meal, and even for guests some hosts will throw flatware on the table and encourage guests to “help yourselves.”  We had professors who while students had memorized whole poems – but didn’t require us to. I learned to teach composition by stressing content over form, assuming that if a writer believed in the value and purpose of an essay, and knew the audience, form would follow. For students with solid academic backgrounds, it might.

Enough with slovenly communication skills! Let’s encourage rhetorical talent through instruction in elocution: memorization; study of past speakers; vocalization (not the “breathlessness” of ingénue-sounding actresses or punk-sounding actors). Teach elocution (using the word) to children. For adult speech training, Toastmasters International effectively teaches how to write and deliver speeches. Accomplished speaking is essential to professional advancement – except, perhaps, for selling flowers.

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