Lost Communication Arts
When we were sharing tips about a very cool new mobile messaging application, one of my favorite clients this week admitted, "I still write letters." It was good for a laugh, but I was genuine when I suggested that "that is important. Don't lose that."
It's so amazing how communications -- real human communications -- is shifting away from letters and longer missives toward quick quips via Twitter or clever Facebook posts or captions for cool shared Instagram photos or even videos that require no words at all. Communication is, in many respects, becoming less about the actual communication and more about the vehicle. Similar to how the MTV Music Video Awards last week were more about the spectacle and the shock factor (no, I am not going to discuss them) than they were about the music or even the videos.
Why am I waxing nostalgic about the lost communication arts of actually communicating with other humans via real, content rich conversations and letters? Blame it on Martin Luther King. The 50th anniversary of his famous "I have a dream" speech in Washington prompted the look back and the comparison to today.
At my dinner table earlier this week, my grown children were discussing how important it is to communicate clearly. Okay, it sounds like we're like the Kennedys with these deep political discussions around the dinner table -- only, in this case, it's about Mom's favorite subject, communications. No, it wasn't that at all. It was an older brother jabbing a younger brother for not being a clear communicator. It led to him discussing what makes a great speaker. He was thinking about the really great communicators who could mesmerize and hold a crowd with their content and their oratory.
My son referenced Adolf Hitler, an evil leader, but one gifted in his ability to speak to and galvanize his listeners and make them willing followers. My husband talked about how then Governor of New York Mario Cuomo captured and riveted the audience (live and via television) at the 1984 Democratic National Convention with his brilliant speech. And not realizing this week was its anniversary, I talked with them about Martin Luther King and his "I have a dream speech" which so captured his amazing gift for speech which he used not for stirring up hate, but for inspiring people to make change peacefully.
Nick Morgan wrote in Forbes last week that King's 50-year-old speech was the greatest of the 20th century. He pointed out something I learned just this week from listening to NPR on the way to work -- that the last six minutes was ad-libbed, reflecting remarks King had delivered at another occasion.
As Morgan detailed, "King felt that he was not reaching the audience the way he wanted to with his prepared text (and Mahalia Jackson, standing nearby, was urging him to “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”), so he called up the metaphor that he had been thinking about for some months, and uttered the unforgettable plea for racial justice, “I have a dream.”"
I was curious about how the three U.S. presidents would be able to comment on that speech, given that their own remarks were sure to pale in comparison. When you look at the coverage of their comments, they should not have worried. We're no longer in an era of people hungering for full course meals of brilliant oratory. Sadly, people now snack on appetizers of sound-bites and quips. USA Today detailed our U.S. leaders' comments, capturing as their headline for President Obama's speech the sound-bite "Because they marched, America became more free."
Other comments from the three presidents seemed more related to political issues at play right now, as the opposing party was quick to point out. These were captured as sound-bites, not as full speeches, in the coverage.
President Obama, who, in my humble opinion as a communications specialist, is not a sound-bite guy, had some good sections of his speech, including this one offered in the USA Today coverage, which went beyond a sound-bite to capture a mood -- something that is the hallmark of true oratory:
"Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain," said Obama, listing some of the giants of the civil rights era. "Their victory was great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own."
Doing my own research to fact check the Forbes' writer's contention that King's speech was the greatest of the 20th century, I found a link to the American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches, which includes links to audio and transcripts where these are available. It includes, of course, "I have a dream," along with the Cuomo speech my husband and I remember, along with speeches from many diverse people that include presidents, retiring athletes, military leaders and even some regular individuals discussing a particular situation or cause at a moment in time. I'm not sure what the criteria is for making the list, but there are no speeches from Hitler included.
It was good to see a great speech honored this week, as we don't want to lose our ability to produce memorable and ground-breaking communications. Storytelling is all the rage now for a reason. People want to be engaged and entertained and moved. There is no better way to capture a person's imagination than through a compelling oratory. May the dreams continue to be communicated by inspirational leaders.