As you know, I try hard not to offer anything practical at Writing Boots, on account of I don’t like being taken advantage of by you freeloaders.
But a couple of recent in-person oratorical adventures taught me a couple things that I reckon you ought to know about, as we start getting back to that, in a half-masked way.
Thing One: As a speaker, it’s unsettling to address a masked audience, whether you yourself masked or not.
At the outset of any speech, as a speaker you’re trying to say things that will cause the audience to confirm to your lizard brain that the microphone is on, that the audience understands English, and that at least a thin majority of the crowd bears you no ill will.
When your audience is masked, you receive not a trace of the encouragement you’re looking for. Just eyes, peering over masks. (Lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes.) So speaking to a masked audience is actually more unnerving than a Zoom call, when at least Bobby, Cindy, Jan, Marcia, Peter and Greg are all smiling at you, even if Alice seems to have a bug up her ass for some reason.
And unless you are a standup comic, a friendly smiles is mainly how an audience tells you they’re with you. And when they’re masked you can’t see those smiles—or even hear their muffled chuckles. So a speaker must know this going in, and must remember to assume that everyone is smiling and chuckling behind those masks.
Because they are—desperately! How do I know?
Thing Two: For any masked audience member with a measure of humanity, it is truly agonizing—especially if you’re sitting anywhere near the front—to not be able to show the speaker your reassuring smile.
You feel like one of those bastard social psychologists who used to experiment on monkeys by not hugging them for a year, and seeing how depraved they became.
To sit there grinning behind your mask, all the while knowing that to the poor speaker, you look like Hannibal Lecter—this is terrible, no matter how self-assured you think the speaker is.
I think young people do the whole mask thing much more gracefully than the groans in general, and I saw a University of Virginia classroom full of students leaning forward and nodding and forcibly laughing, to get their eagerness across to their instructors. If you’re in the audience, err on the side of those kids.
Bonus Thing: There might also be a teeny weeny advantage to speaking and listening in a mask.
I have a neighbor who closes her eyes when she talks to you. A friend of mine says he likes that, because, “You can talk to Orysia, and have your privacy at the same time!”
Especially sitting toward the back of a large college classroom, I kind of enjoyed the clinical detachment I felt, sitting there taking notes, not having to laugh at the appropriate times, not letting the person next to me know what I was thinking, not having to participate in the social psychodrama that is a speech. To a guy who has Encouraging-Smiling Resting Face, that was kind of a relief.
And as a guest-lecturer at a speechwriting class, I heard myself drift into a full-on, minute-long LBJ impression, reciting part of his 1965 Voting Rights Act speech. In hindsight, it’s possible that the limited anonymity of my mask acted as the equivalent of a two-beer buzz and told me: Go for it, Lyndon.
I was traveling last week, so I missed Greta Thunberg’s latest viral oratoral salvo—her speech last week at the Youth4Climate conference:
As a feller who has been reading corporate speeches since the mid-1990s, I must agree heartily with Greta’s thesis that most corporate climate talk is “blah, blah, blah.” Indeed, the most common type of corporate speech for all those three decades has been by an oil company CEO speaking earnestly about the need for to sensibly, gradually, responsibly, affordably integrate “alternative sources of energy.” All those years later, oil companies still produce mostly oil, and the most concrete change I can see is that they’ve convinced us to call them “energy companies,” instead.
But you read Writing Boots not for insights on climate policy, of which I have none.
So, communication: In 2019 I analyzed this viral Thunberg speech, at the UN Climate Action Summit.
Then, Greta appealed mostly as a tearful, angry girl, shouting environmental jargon and statistics. It was a polarizing performance, drawing great admiration from people who long for a charismatic environmental leader, of whatever age—and harsh criticism, some of it unspeakably so, from people on the other side of the issue.
Now, Greta is almost three years older and she’s adapting her rhetorical style—from a child seemingly overcome with emotion and outrage, to a supremely confident, apparently relentless world actor.
Her ability to change her style with her age so subtly and appropriately—and I’ll bet, consciously—should scare people who oppose her.
I’m reminded of a passage in my book, An Effort to Understand:
I once had a conversation with a middle-aged seventh-grade English teacher who told me he was in the process of taking on his third entirely separate persona at the school.
When he was in his twenties and early thirties, the students regarded him as a big brother, with whom they cooperated out of admiration.
Then one day in his mid-30s, he yelled at a class and saw to his surprise that they were terrified. “I realized they related to me as their father now,” he said.
And he had to modify his approach accordingly. And through his forties and early fifties he behaved as a father.
Then one day—and this had happened not long before he and I had this conversation—the teacher yelled at a class in his thunderous Dad voice, and detected pity on their faces. “Uh oh,” was how he read their look. “Gramps is losing it.” And so he knew he had to establish a wholly new basis of influence—an elder’s role.
Having shown her ability to modulate her rhetoric based on the changing nature of her ethos, it seems Greta Thunberg is going to be around for a very, very long time—and it to me seems we’re just beginning to see the extent of her powers.
As for CEOs and the people who write speeches for them on energy and climate and sustainability, they’d better up their game—(as I sense they’re beginning to do by making public government partnerships for realistic new climate policy).
Or as my colleague in the teaching of oratory Tim Pollard likes to say: “Buckle up, Buttercup.”