Bronwyn Oatley: a star speaker in the making

A reader of this blog referred me to the 2013 student commencement speech at Middlebury College, Vermont.

In the first minute I was struck by the quality of the speaking which is good enough for me to get really picky; but I could not at first discern what made this so particularly outstanding. I soon learnt.

The speaker is Bronwyn Oatley. She delivered this speech two years ago, so I am critiquing a time-capsule. I wonder how good she is now.

She has learnt her first few sentences. Memorized words sound slightly different from true shooting from the hip, but I am not complaining. It is a good plan as a hump-buster, though her hump lasts a little longer than the bit she has memorized. Again, this is not criticism: very few would spot the nervous symptoms, but I’m paid to do so.

She needs to learn to not pop the microphone. Almost every ‘p’ she utters causes the mic to pop, and it’s a distraction. Never point the mic at your mouth, or your mouth at the mic. Speak across it, not at it.

Her formal opening concerns a quote from G.B.Shaw. A smile forms on my face because many years ago I helped someone prepare a speech based on this very quote. It’s a beauty and I commend her choice.

This is good, clear, confident speaking, and beautifully tailored to her audience. There’s an early section full of in-jokes and reference to college events. These obviously mean nothing to me, and allow me to concentrate on the effect she is having on her audience. The staff members behind her, particularly the man on her left, are enjoying every nuance. The audience in front of her responds exactly as it should. Ultimately this, and not the pontification of someone like me, is the only test that matters.

At 4:27 she begins a good, long anaphora series – “I’m talking about the unreasonable…” This is well-constructed stuff, though she is not quite confident enough of her structure to dispose of her notes. The only fully justified time to look at paper has so far been when she overtly read a quote from the campus newspaper.  Other glances down at the lectern are essentially comfort stuff. In one hour I could have her throwing away paper for ever.

At 5:17 she does something brave. She gets personal and talks about herself. This is difficult to do at the best of times, but she makes it not the best of times by addressing the matter of her own sexuality. She recounts her journey of self-discovery and her coming out to her mother. Though she is talking about herself she arranges that Middlebury College be the hero of the story. The stability and support of the community is what saw her through the crisis.

If a pin dropped it would be deafening. Even when she momentarily tries to lighten the mood with a little personal humour the audience is so moved that silence prevails. The balance line between paying a sincere tribute and lapsing into mawkishness is very narrow, but she finds it. This section is quite remarkable.

She breaks the spell at 7:18. The man on her left smiles, and within seconds the hall is full of laughter and applause. She plays this audience like a violin.

At 9:30 she signals her closing by returning to that G.B.Shaw quotation. Every one of my trainees will testify how much I like it when speakers pair their openings and closings – the matter comes up at every course. It is elegant and professional. It closes the circle and cues the applause. Bronwyn closes beautifully… apart from the microphone popping.

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