Al Gore – a highly polished speech-mask.

From the Auracle Newsletter, April 2012

At the beginning of a seminar I conducted recently I told those attending that I would pause for a short while, inviting them to use the silence to dip into their memories to choose a speech that had deeply impressed them. When I resumed I invited a few of them to tell us about their choice (some of you will remember seeing me do this at seminars). On that occasion one of those choices was a speech by Al Gore. A few days later, therefore, I went looking for an Al Gore performance; and I found one here.  Gore delivered it on 17 July 2008.

I watched in awe at the way Gore has polished Speech Mode to such a high degree. I used the word ‘performance’ two sentences ago; and that is the best word I can find to describe this. Here is the reciting of a script that has been crafted and refined, syllable by syllable. We can tell he is not reading it from the lectern. Is he therefore prompted by auto-cue screens at the back of the hall? Possibly: there is a moment at 19:35 when he says “made”, a nanosecond later realises he means “made-up”, and the word “up” squeezes itself in as an afterthought. This sort of thing is a common symptom of misreading as distinct from miss-reciting. Nevertheless from other indicators I actually think he’s learnt this script and rehearsed it to within an inch of its life.  For instance at 11:20 he steamrollers over an unexpected laugh: a strong sign of pre-decreed Rhythm That Must Not Be Broken. And though there are other indicators I’ll spare you.

He opens with nearly 2 minutes of saponaceous thanks and tributes (he is a politician), including some schmaltzy references to his family (I told you he was a politician). The names spill out in profusion because he is far too experienced to overlook an elementary detail like that (The Face & Tripod chapter on Proper Nouns). It’s all as silky smooth as could be. Then at 1:55 something fascinating happens. Into this hyper-lubricated routine he needs to drop a new unrehearsed module because some people in his audience have been bereaved and are in mourning. His eyes drop to the lectern, and for 15 seconds he gives some details of the decease. This comes with a few ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and that particular halting delivery that characterises spontaneity even from an Olympic-standard performer. That is the only piece of spontaneity in the entire speech. At 2:20 he changes gear completely with the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Thereafter he wears a speech-mask.

Personally I detest speech masks, though I admit that this is a very good one. If you want to try to develop one as good as his then bear in mind what he tells us at 11:10 that you are watching someone who entered Congress 32 years earlier. The trouble is, for all the 32 years of burnishing the mask, we know he is not speaking spontaneously because we saw for 15 seconds what that looked like.

When I began teaching public speaking many audiences still wanted this kind of highly-polished oratory. It signalled authority. Today people are cynical enough to prefer clear signs of sincerity, and that requires a more conversational, spontaneous style of speaking.

Even as a piece of polished oratory this is not a good example.  Not only is it riddled with weasel words and assertions that he doesn’t bother to substantiate, it has metaphorically the oiled hair, the over-fastidious clothes and patent-leather shoes of the gigolo. And that doesn’t signal sincerity very well. Rightly or wrongly, to me it signals phoney.

I could not leave it quickly enough. It gave me the creeps.

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