Mr. Speaker

What a voice!

Bill de Blasio, the man likely to be the next mayor of New York City, has swiftly become known for all sorts of disparate personal and political qualities.  Among these are his strident denunciations of much of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s 12-year rule, his characterization of New York as a “tale of two cities,” his towering height and his multiracial family.

For me, at this relatively early stage of the campaign, as striking a feature as anything else has emanated directly from de Blasio’s larynx.  While I cannot explain the science behind it, I find an uncommon tonal clarity in de Blasio’s speaking voice whenever he appears on the TV screen.  His is a voice that commands one’s attention seemingly without much effort, which could prove useful should he prevail in November.

Christopher Hitchens, a gifted orator in his own right, used to teach writing to college students with the formulation, “If you can talk, you can write.”  Finding that his pupils would perk up at this ostensibly encouraging news, he hastily and devilishly inquired, “But how many of your classmates do you truly enjoy listening to?”  The answer would invariably come back:  Very few, indeed.

To be a great speaker requires two overriding skills.  The first, as implied by Hitchens, is lucidity—the capacity to form clear, compelling ideas and express them in an organized and engaging manner.

The other is an arresting voice with which to do the job.

To be sure, the former is largely dependent upon substance, while the latter is merely a function of style.  Accordingly, one can reasonably conclude the first to be of considerably greater importance than the second.

Nonetheless, the power of one’s voice must not be overlooked, for it can often be the determining factor as to whether, and to what degree, one’s message is received by its intended audience.  If the substance of one’s rhetoric is worth saying in the first place, then it might as well be truly and properly heard.

As much as we might gripe to the contrary, the United States is hardly bereft of new, useful and interesting ideas on all the great concerns of the day.  If you wish to explore any and all possibilities for how we might resolve the problems that confront us, you are no farther than a Google search away from the information you require.

Our real national deficit is of the sort of spellbinding spokespeople to push these ideas forward.

In 2013, public intellectualism is not among America’s leading industries.  Most public talkers tend to possess one of the aforementioned gifts or the other (or neither), but very rarely is someone blessed with both.

We have our great American thinkers, and most of them are spectacularly boring in their oral exhortations.  (I defy anyone to take in a lecture by Noam Chomsky without drifting off to sleep.)  And we have our great American rhetoricians, and most of what they say is banal twaddle.  (See Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master and substitute any real life counterpart you wish.)

But someone with a professor’s depth combined with a preacher’s gravitas?  Now you’re talking.

We recently celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who proved that such a phenomenon is not entirely beyond the reach of man.  The trick to Dr. King’s finest oratory—if “trick” is the word for it—is not just the moral clarity of his ideas, but also (and equally) the sheer aural pleasure in receiving them.

This is not to suggest that a speech requires thunderous, God-like intonations in order to be effective.  Assuming the content is solid, the delivery mechanism need only exude an even mixture of confidence, sincerity, and the authority that comes with knowing what the heck you’re talking about.

Ultimately, the test of whether a speaker’s voice passes muster is reductive:  Ask yourself, in the spirit of Christopher Hitchens to his students, “Do I enjoy hearing this person speak for its own sake?”

It is often said of our finest singers that they could “sing the phone book” and we would still applaud.  When movie critic Roger Ebert died in April, many admirers recounted how they so enjoyed his writing that they would happily read his reviews of movies they had no interest in seeing.

Such should be the aim of anyone who talks for a living:  To regard speaking itself as a form of art, rather than a mere instrument for conveying one’s thoughts to the wider world.

Nothing more assures that your audience will be receptive to a particular proposal than the knowledge that they are prepared to listen to anything you have to say.


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