Published: October 9, 2012
Tags: Elections, Law Schools
CHARLOTTESVILLE – If only President Obama had had Molly Bishop Shadel on speed-dial last week, the debate might have gone differently.
During one of those podium pauses when Obama was looking down, Shadel could have texted back suggestions that might have fired him up to deliver his final remarks with a bang, not a whimper.
Shadel, a University of Virginia law professor who teaches rhetoric, finds political figures’ remarks a fertile source for illustrating her talks on how to persuade an audience. Her Oct. 5 presentation to the Virginia Association of Law Libraries started with an analysis of a turgid talk by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whose body language openly tracked a teleprompter as he tried to explain the federal bailout.
Had Geithner been keeping his eye on his audience, he might have noticed their eyes glaze over as his remarks bogged down in jargon and acronyms. Speak in plain sentences, in a straight line, Shadel said.
“Simplify your language. Choose the word that’s easy to say, the word we know,” rather than a technical term whose ultimate precision may be lost on your audience.
When preparing to persuade, start with a written script, but practice enough so you can rely only on a few notes as prompts, once you’re in front of your audience. When drafting your script, don’t start at the beginning, but in the middle because it’s the heart of your speech, Shadel suggested. Brainstorm, outline and refine, until the main message is solid. Then you can craft an introduction that catches people’s attention and draws them into your argument. You can polish your final draft by focusing on anecdotes and metaphors, and other “sensory language” that develops strong imagery to capture audience members’ imaginations.
Trial lawyers know that if they develop a “theme” during trial, they can drive it home to a jury with a powerful refrain. One of the more potent examples is Johnnie Cochran’s use of “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” at the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.
Shadel drew on her theatrical training to highlight pacing. “Actors call it ‘finding the beats,’” she said.
Pausing before hitting that refrain is the simplest way to make it register with your audience. Moments of silence are not necessarily deadly, they can help your audience re-engage and refocus on what you’re saying. Pauses are more comfortable when a speaker is grounded in a physical stance that projects power: looking straight out at the audience, feet slightly apart and hands at rest but poised for bold gestures.
Shadel, who blogs at “Tongue-Tied America,” had praise for both presidential candidates’ debating styles after the first debate, posting that the debate provided “substantive exchanges” as well as “some terrific moments of rhetoric.”
Friends and foes alike panned President Obama’s Oct. 3 performance, and Shadel predicted on her blog that Romney’s performance “is likely to inspire President Obama to bring his ‘A’ game” to make the next match-up “well worth watching.”
Tucker Griffin Barnes
Charlottesville, VA (434-973-7474)