There is a small group of people whose speeches I go out of my way to watch, whether or not I plan to cover them in this blog. In fact they all tend to have been here often enough for me to feel guilty about the self-indulgence of taking time watching them at all. Trey Gowdy is one such. When he was a US Congressman I saw many stunning speeches, and critiqued three of them – here, here and here. Then he retired from Congress and I occasionally saw him interviewed, but what speeches he may have made seemed not to appear on line.
Then I saw this one, new and not a political speech. Not expecting to cover it here, I went and watched. I have now watched it several times and will watch it more. He is seen delivering a talk at the Second Baptist Church, Houston at the end of June 2020.
The church is led by Dr Ed Young who delivers the introduction. He describes Gowdy as a ‘gifted communicator’ and even if I’d never heard of Gowdy I’d be interested because when it comes to speaking Dr Young is himself no slouch. Shooting from the hip, which immediately labels him a proper speaker, he speaks with respect, warmth and humour. Also there are technical details like his measured rhythm, his timing, and the way he speaks through a smattering of applause.
At 4:45 Gowdy goes to the lectern and places upon it a few sheets of paper whose function seems to be only to keep the lectern warm, because I don’t think he looks at them till he folds them forty minutes later at the end.
He spends about seven minutes, opening with a humorous story. It’s a great joke, which I first heard with two of the personalities being Edward Heath and Harold Wilson – yep nearly fifty years ago. It is strong enough to withstand the passing of the years, but not perhaps to cross The Atlantic in this form. In the telling you need to include personalities and circumstances to which your audience can so easily relate that it has to be essentially parochial, an augmented in-joke. His audience loves it.
Seamlessly, at 11:50 he swings into his main theme with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” This unmistakeable sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and Independence Day being only a few days away his theme is independence, personal independence. He addresses it from the standpoint of three factors, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Without doubt any trainee of mine will instantly recognise the value of that structure, how it makes speaking without notes for forty minutes really simple and how he can take the audience with him all the way.
But great communication is more than a neat structure. Gowdy injects a magical alchemy of personal reminiscence, literary allusion, masterful imagery, and thorough horse-sense wisdom, delivered with a superb instinct for measured pace. The occasional giant pause enables important points to sink in but is never so long as to lose his audience. He deploys humour with a formula of little-and-often and it is always delivered dead-pan and thrown away.
Elbert Hubbard is credited as having observed that –
The Highest Applause is Silence
Throughout this speech you could hear an ant licking its lips. The audience is spellbound, as am I. This forty minutes is a life lesson for anyone.
At 43:25 Dr Young reclaims the stage to summarise and conclude.