Mike Brown was talking about our former senator and current ambassador to China, Max Baucus, and how he’ll be giving the UM commencement address this year.
“I would suggest to the graduates that they drink plenty of caffeine before the commencement address,” Brown said, “because Baucus is not a very good speaker.”
Hmm, Baucus can’t give a good speech, huh? Gosh, I find that kind of hard to believe…considering he’s been around so long. I mean, don’t you pick that stuff up after awhile? But, considering that “Mike knows his politics and has blogged six days a week for a decade,” as James Conner pointed out yesterday, this is probably accurate.
As many of you know, I went to the Mansfield/Metcalf Dinner two months ago. They had quite a few speakers that night, and I said that Steve Bullock was the best one. Angela McLean was the second best, and I wrote about this in my monthly letter to the Missoulian two months ago.
Anyways, when I hear Brown say something like that, I have to wonder…who are the best speakers in Montana? I’ve written extensively about the history of the state and people buy my work. I know that some of the best orators Montana has ever had include:
Those are just some before 1900. What about in the 20th-century, however? Who were Montana’s good speakers and orators then?
I have no idea. But then you have to realize, most Montanans don’t know much about their recent past at all. It’s not taught in schools – at least it wasn’t when I went – and even if it is, you never make it past WWII…if even up to it! No, you can’t blame Montanans for not knowing their history, you have to blame the Montana historians.
It’s not so much anymore, and most people would cut off an arm before speaking in public. You get butterflies in your stomach, your face turns red, your voice cracks, and some folks might even piss themselves…though you might not notice because they're wearing Depends.
There’s no point in crying over spilled milk, however, and when it comes to public speaking, that’s what people need to realize. You can get better, and if you practice, you do.
I had to speak in front of people everyday for five years when I was a teacher, so I got better at that. Writing a lot is something that can also help you, because you get better with words.
The idea is to have a free-ranging, free-flow of thought…but in a way that sounds good. I remember reading an interview where Matt Damon mentioned hearing both Gordon Brown and Christopher Hitchens speak. It’s worth quoting at length:
Damon was talking about going to watch a TED Talk in the company of Paul Farmer, the great physician to the poor and one of Damon's heroes. They went to see Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister and, as Farmer told Damon, one of the handful of people "who know how the world works." Damon went and was amazed that every single one of Brown's sentences was complete and every single one of his thoughts conformed to the shape of a paragraph — and that he didn't use a teleprompter.
"Christopher Hitchens was like that," I said. "I saw him speak once, drunk, and if someone had written the whole thing down, he could have handed it in as an essay."
Sadly, few are learning how to become good speakers and orators anymore, and that’s because we don’t teach rhetoric. Now we teach marketing instead, and I’m not sure that’s as convincing. Products don’t always sell as well as ideas, though we’re driven by consumerism now, so ideas don’t much sell at all.
Montana political candidates need to sell themselves. I’m not sure how well you can do if you can’t sell yourself and your ideas. That all comes down to speaking, and I sure hope more people can figure out how to do that.
You know what, though? I don’t think they will. Most people don’t think about these things, not on a Saturday in May when the sun’s shining. But then they don’t think about them in winter when it’s cold, either. So we have problems.
Maybe we should talk about them, huh? Or better yet, orate on them.
Want more? Check out this fun post called 35 Greatest Speeches in History.