Musing

Making Speeches

black microphone

We’ve been inundated with speeches this last week. First, we had President Trump’s State of the Union speech last Tuesday, February 4.  We also had his speech at the National Prayer breakfast two days later.  We’ve had numerous grandstands with the Iowa caucus bru-ha-ha and the New Hampshire caucus last night.  Plus, we’ve had another debate in preparation for the New Hampshire caucus. And, finally, we had a whole night of speeches at the Oscars.  All of those speeches I just talked about were very scripted in that the person delivering the speeches knew exactly what they were going to say when called on.

Of course, we all expect these things to be scripted but the thing that bothers me is the debate speeches.  No, I’m not some naive babe in the woods type. I know those candidates must have some canned answers but sometimes it feels like the whole thing is a canned statement. Almost like a press conference where the PR people have told the talking head, “Hey man just keep repeating this phrase over and over no matter what they ask.  If pushed, just reword our key phrase and just keep on trucking.” Back in the B.C. (before children), when I did work in public relations that was exactly the type of thing we’d tell our figurehead when at a press conference. We didn’t want the press asking too many pointed questions and having the talking head going off-script thus making more work for us in the damage control department.

It’s funny, maybe it’s always been like this but I’ve been noticing how everything seems so curated and staged these days. Family, friends, even casual acquaintances have social media posts that seem so staged and contrived.  Look at me at this fancy work thing, see me picking up trash at the beach (just doing my part for the environment), see how hard I hustle. It’s not just the selfies but also the words.  Personal interactions aren’t much better. The bragging about CrossFit and who has the most ridiculous after school schedule is just absurd. The other night a friend texted that they were at a band concert and the lady next to them was snapping pictures and uploading it to Facebook whilst doing the humble brag about their kid being in the honors band.  The school doesn’t even have an honor band program.  It’s keeping up with the Jones’s on steroids. The one-upmanship is out of control.

Despite many years in PR, I find that even though I can write this drivel for others, I cannot craft a speech or image for myself.  I am way too what you see is what you get and it cannot be helped. This blog and my big mouth are about as close to a speech as I get. And, if you know me in real life you know I just spew it out without a whole lot of thought.  I’d love to know the logic behind the social media crafters. Is it attention seeking? Is it poor self esteem and the need for validation? Is this the new currency – instead of flashy cars and vacation homes you show how well you’re doing online? I’m genuinely curious to know how these people tick. Too bad we can’t don a pith helmet and hide behind some bushes and film these folks in their natural habitat like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I fear it wouldn’t be too exciting. It would just be some random person looking down at a phone. Boring!

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One thought on “Making Speeches

  1. A member of my family, who was a university administrator before retiring a few years ago, used to say that whenever you are talking to the media, you should avoid elaborating on points unnecessarily. You should say exactly what you want them to print over and over and over again and nothing else, whether it fits into the context or not. If you do not do this, he said, you are going to say something that they could truncate or take out of context to spice up their story – which they have significant economic incentive to do, living as we do in the era of clickbait and pageview-driven advertising revenues – and there’s no way you can undo that on the Internet no matter how unfair what they printed was. I think that’s what you see with debates. These are low-viewership events, so savvy politicians understand that most people will only “know” what happened from what they see on social media or in the papers or on cable news in pithy little sound bites. They aren’t trying to impress high-information voters (which is a remarkably small group anyway); they are simply trying not to screw it up with low-information voters.

    There is a psychology to saying the same thing over and over too (what many exasperated observers call the “echo chamber”). If you repeat something ad nauseam, it eventually seems to have a bit of truthiness to an non-skeptical crowd. It also seems like more people support the claim than actually do. It’s like in high school, if twenty people repeat that the head cheerleader is easy, over time that becomes her reputation – even if she’s headed to a convent after she graduates. I got to where I could not stand listening to anyone from the Obama administration talk about anything because they relied so heavily on this technique to manage public opinion (in fact, many Obama alums still work an echo chamber). They’d have 10 people lined up to give interviews on every morning show about x topic, and they’d all just utter the same sentence like verbal Chinese water torture. Chris Christie is a schmuck, but calling Marco Rubio out on this sort of thing by nicknaming him Teddy Ruxpin during the last election cycle was the most brilliant take-down of an echo chamber candidate ever. I am not sure this approach is very effective beyond the media and the most partisan mouth-breathers, however. But in a primary, those are the only groups that matter when it comes to messaging. Trump developed broad appeal because he deviates from scripts all the time and cracks inappropriate jokes all the time. Even people who can’t stand the guy are hopelessly interested in (even obsessed with) every word he utters because they can’t predict what those words will be.

    As far as keeping up with the Joneses on social media, I think there’s quite a fantasy element to it. Like Freud’s claim that dreams are a form of wish fulfillment. On social media, people have the opportunity to create an avatar of themselves and that avatar gets to be whatever it is they ever wanted to be. (It doesn’t even have to have a static identity.) It’s like a dream that constantly intersects with the dreams of others in some twisted shadow society. With photoshop or cartoon apps, people get to be skinnier and younger with better hair and a tan. Moral superiority doesn’t require donations or volunteer hours or even being remotely civil to other human beings. Their kids are never throwing tantrums, but have their own perfectly staged avatars. Their kids and spouse have fantasy lives too. The compulsion to behave this way is absolutely fascinating. I knew a woman who was quite obese, but she’d photoshop every image of herself on Facebook and Instagram. She was followed by friends and co-workers who saw her in person literally every day and knew what she looked like in reality. But she did it anyway. She’d post group photos of herself hanging out with her similarly overweight friends, but she’d only photoshop herself and leave them looking like they really do. They stayed the same, but she had an avatar to maintain. It was bonkers.

    I’d take that a step further, too, and say this is what makes doxxing so thrilling to malevolent actors. To destroy someone’s carefully crafted – sometimes over the course of many years – avatar and reveal the human behind it, that offers the potential of seriously wounding someone who is deeply caught up in it all.

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