The Lost Art of Speaking Clearly

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But our politicians today don’t.  In China this week, Vice President Joe Biden made a fool of himself on precisely this issue (when he wasn’t too busy making a fool of himself for endorsing forced abortion and communism).  When an unfortunate student at Sichuan University asked Biden about the importance of public speaking, Biden responded thusly: “Let me order my thoughts here to make this as brief as I can.”  He then proceeded to speak for four full minutes, using over 800 words.  His longest sentence was almost 70 words and as inarticulate as humanly possible:

“And so language, the ability not only to master the ability to put your ideas into words succinctly on a platform to communicate ideas to your own people, it is even more impressive when you have the capacity to do that and communicate your ideas, especially as future business and political and moral leaders of the world in the language of the people to whom you are speaking.”

No one could accuse this advocate of succinct language of actually being succinct.

The question is: why?  Why is it that our greatest leaders have been able to encapsulate in as few words as possible some of the grandest thoughts man has ever considered?  Why is it that today’s leaders seem to hem and haw, slithering in serpentine fashion from subject to verb and back again without any sense of grammar or even consistency?  Why is it that so many of our politicians, as William McAdoo said of Warren G. Harding, leave “the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork”?

Perhaps it is because we are so idea poor.  Our best speakers have typically been those with real ideas to promulgate.  Lincoln was not merely a great speechwriter, he was a great thinker; so too was Jefferson; so too was Washington; so too was Martin Luther King, Jr.  Obama is not a great thinker.  He is a technocrat.  And technocrats believe, like your third grade teacher, that the longer an essay is, the better it is.  The more of a technocratic society we become, the worse the chance that we will ever again have truly great speakers in our midst.

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  • Alexander Gofen

    What a strange approach: to evaluate a pure eloquence of speeches without even mentioning what ideas are being promoted… Hey, Hitler was a great speaker, Trotsky – too.

    The degradation of the rhetoric skills so noticeable in the recent "leaders" has another root cause…

    It's because they are disingenuous liars, stupid.
    It's because their speeches is nothing but inconsistent demagoguery!
    It's because they are lying, maneuvering, in attempts to promote things which cannot withstand any honest scrutiny.

    Our modern demagogues illustrate the sketch (*) overplaying the Socrates motto "The truth emerges in discussions". As the sketch goes,

    "There are kinds of truth for which discussions are … harmful".

    Sure enough, such kinds of "truth" abounded among the Soviet doctrines, and therefore those issues were absolute taboo indeed. And now it is America which degenerated to that level in a process of "unaided" descent to the human baseness.

    (*) The famous satirist Zhvanetsky of the former USSR

  • theleastthreat

    My wife and I were just talking about this yesterday, when she was flipping through the channels and stopped on CSPAN where a Black Caucus panel was at Emory University in Atlanta. The moderator asked a question about how were unemployed black people going to find employment in a global economy. Maxine Waters jumped in with a lengthy reply that wasn't an answer. Even before she was finished, my wife and I were asking each other what any of Water's address had to do with answering the question. When Ms Water's had finished raining words out of her mouth, she was, of course, applauded.

  • Chezwick_mac

    When I hear Obama insist on the need to be fiscally responsible…after adding 5 $trillion in debt over 3 years, I realize that what the man says means absolutely nothing…that on any given day, his words may be COMPLETELY incongruous with his actions.

    It's utterly mystifying that anyone still takes him seriously.

  • Flipside

    Lost art? Did Favreau, Frankel and Rhodes all die in a plane crash?

  • Dispozadaburka


  • Dispozadaburka

    Obama's speeches are written with was is termed the
    It refers to the idea that everyone is on average- six steps away,
    by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of
    "a friend of a friend" " statements can be made on average, to connect any two people in six steps or fewer. It was orginally set out by Frigyes Kirinthy and popularized by a play written by John Guare. Look it up on Wikipedia

  • old white guy

    speech today is used to obscure not clarify.

  • sedoanman

    "The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." — George Orwell, 1946 Essay, “Politics and the English Language”

  • Resisitanceisfutile

    Not to rain on the MLK parade, I recall a whole deal about this by (?) Theodore Pappas (?) which laid out that King was a plagiarist. Great speaker with the 1960's version of a Teleprompter, but I have seen no real evidence of rhetorical genius. I leave myself open here to be corrected on this. On another note, I am reading Ben Shapiro's book which is not helping with my blood pressure! I never really watched most of the TV shows he examines, but I always believed that Archie Bunker was right in almost everything except his tortured grammar.

  • trickyblain

    Thanks for the 822 words that could have been summed up by just telling us you don't care for Obama.

  • StephenD

    I recall from long ago school days being taught that Lincoln once asked of it replied that he could write a 2 hour speech in 20 minutes and a 20 minute speech would take him at least 2 hours. It takes effort to be precise, clear and succinct. Long-windedness evidences carelessness. I give you…Obama.

  • FlyanSosser

    Yes, the education arm of Affirmative-Action has caused more than its fair share of damage to the English language over the years. This damage to the English language has in turn wreaked havoc with everything related to the English language. More people can speak and read and write rap than can speak and read and write English. I wonder if this is all by accident. Plus, I wonder why we have to press number 1 for English? How come the Founding Fathers didn't write in Spanish?

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