Speeches and accountability: when a human has to say the absurd

Back in December, NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre finally broke the gun lobby’s silence after the Newtown massacre. And David Murray made this crucial point on his blog at Vital Speeches of the Day:

NRA chief reveals another valuable social purpose of speeches: They force leaders to say their position with a straight face. And we get to see what they look like when they say it. And that’s worth a hell of a lot.

That’s a critical point to remember about the power of public speaking. A news release, Facebook update or tweet can say the most absurd things in the world, and the text will look as straightforward and po-faced as if it was an announcement that toast is made out of bread.

But no matter how much time a communications team spends editing and fine-tuning a speech, a human being ultimately has to say these things in real time. (Such as “This is the beginning of a serious conversation. We won’t be taking questions today.”) At that point, we associate those things with a person and a face… and the speaker knows that’s exactly what we’re doing.

And that doesn’t just apply while we’re listening. In the era of online video, there’s a good chance that same human being will be held accountable at some point in the future if what they say turns out to be inaccurate, misleading or – in the cold light of day – absolutely awful.

There are speakers out there who are so delusional or unethical that this makes no difference to their delivery. But I’ve seen a number of speeches, news conferences and interviews where it quickly became obvious that the speaker had no confidence in what they were saying. Instead of just spinning, they were spinning out of control.

Thanks to YouTube and low- or no-cost video editing software, one incident like that can happen over and over again. With Autotune. And a backing track.

With any luck, that may provide a little added incentive for the otherwise-ethical when the temptation arises to defend the indefensible.

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