Antonin Scalia chats with authority

When, a handful of weeks ago, I covered a four-year-old speech by a university law professor who has since become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court – The Honourable Amy Coney Barrett – I learnt that she had clerked for another Supreme Court Justice, the late Antonin Scalia.

That suggests to me that he might have been something of a mentor to her. In my experience, good mentors teach you to think properly. They should not feed you their opinions, but help you to refine the faculty to form your own.

I wouldn’t claim to be able to discern that quality from a speech, but I was interested to find out how good a public speaker he was (outside the Court), so I found this from June 1997. He was speaking at the 7th anniversary dinner of the Acton Institute.

Richard L. Antonini delivers the introduction, and does it well. He starts with a good joke. Inevitably this is followed by a potted CV of the guest speaker who begins at 7:15.

First impressions are important, so I always like to give mine. The audience greets him with a standing ovation and the first we hear from him coming faintly through the applause are his protestations, “no, sit down, sit down”. I like that. I also like, once the audience lets him speak, how he begins with an amusing anecdote about the pronunciation of his name. This is homey, fireside chat stuff: excellent for relaxing an audience (in passing, relaxing your audience is a wonderfully effective way of relaxing yourself).

He speaks about the US Constitution. He tells us that he has a prepared text, but doesn’t want to use it so he barely looks down at all. He shoots this from the hip, and does it brilliantly well. It’s a riveting, fascinating talk.

In the early nineties, when I began coaching this skill, formal oratory (speaking at your audience) was still very much alive and I fought against it. Today to my satisfaction a style of ‘conversational sincerity’ is in fashion. I mention this because this speech was delivered back in June 1997, and Scalia’s speaking style was right up to today’s. He was decades ahead of his time.

(Sadly, the same can’t be said of his microphone. Relatively primitive, it “pops” like crazy! He should have spoken across it, not into it.)

True, after-dinner speeches were already less formal than those from platforms in halls, but Scalia has another wonderful quality. I mentioned “fireside chat” further back, and that style even seeps into this Constitutional seminar. He is speaking with his audience. That is the key to excellent communication, and one that I try to instil into my trainees.

His status helps. When you are recognised to be a huge authority on the matter in hand, you feel less need to get all stiff about it. But, as I tell my trainees, you are also a recognised authority on the matter in hand.

Why the hell do you think they wanted you to speak about it?

I almost envy Amy Coney Barrett having him as a mentor. Almost, because I was equally blessed.

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