Friday, October 9, 2015

Greatest American speeches & why mine's better

My darling little 9th grader flattered me by asking me to name which great American speech she should analyze for a class assignment.
I was very pleased.
I register near zero on the provider scale, but she knows she can count on me for intellectual heft. She always sees me reading thick history books, hears me at dinner weighing in on current events and understands the importance of when I talk to her about pivotal moments from our nation’s past.
I revel in the past because I know it enriches the present and presages the future.
She said everyone in class is leaning towards either Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the equally monumental MLK “I Have a Dream.”
Both worthy choices, I said, but both are the kind that would cause a fatigued teacher to begin wishing he could master the art of sleeping with his eyes open.
Been there, done that.
What you want, I said, is something that hasn’t been done to death. Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural — “With malice toward none” — is great for analysis. He delivered it as the Civil War was concluding and chose gracious benevolence over vindictiveness. Plus, in the audience were John Wilkes Booth and five other men who were conspiring to kill him in just five weeks.
MLK’s Selma speech still resonates as a clarion call for dignity and fairness.
Off the top of my head, I mentioned Ronald Reagan’s healing speech that followed the Space Shuttle disaster, FDR’s stirring “Infamy” speech, and George W. Bush’s inspired summons from atop the Twin Towers rubble.
In the end, she opted for President Obama’s great “Amazing Grace” speech following the Charleston church massacre (my contemporary take linked below).
For analytic purposes, it’s fertile ground. 
It’s our first black president giving a healing speech about racial violence in the cradle of the Confederacy. It involves the risky use of song.
But for me, the most interesting aspect of the speech is the silence.
The speech includes nearly 30 seconds where the speaker is speechless. In those seconds, he says “Amazing Grace,” twice, quietly, his eyes downcast. Then he is still and silent for an interminable 14 seconds before haltingly breaking into the world’s most famous and most sung song.
It’s utterly euphoric.
Of course, humility prevented me from advising my daughter about analyzing what to me is now the greatest speech ever delivered.
It was her daddy at State College.
I appreciate how many of you, my friends, are truly rooting for me to succeed.
At something.
Especially my darling wife, who right now is hoping I’ll succeed at things like raking leaves.
Wednesday I was the keynote concluding speaker for the Pennsylvania Librarians Association. It was a 4-day affair at the Penn Stater Hotel & Conference Center in State College. There were 250 people there who were mostly tired of talkers and hoping for a lively lift.
Understand, this was just a month after a crucial failure to deliver before Virginia meeting planners in Richmond. I now know that was an aberration I can blame on logistics.
See, I’m still fairly new at this yapping gig. I still have what I call a set list of podium notes I rely on to key my talk, which I’m told comes across as so smooth its seems extemporaneous.
But it threw me in Richmond because there was no mic stand. Given the circumstances, I thought I should try and be Mick Jagger and just forego notes and prowl the stage.
It was a mistake. I foundered.
With this important engagement looming, I dwelt on the failure all month, even as I had two success, one of which included the same situation — no mic stand — that threw me in Richmond.
Maybe, I figured, I needed to really bomb once to understand the stakes, to keep me humble.
Although, if anyone who's read my blog will attest, I’m the most self-deprecating fool on the whole planet.
I really honed my speech in advance, and as I was warmly introduced by a man who is now a buddy and had loved the book, I had some butterflies, sure, but was feeling a confidence just shy of cocky.
I can’t tell you how well it went.
I think it’s because the focus is on the two attributes people everywhere are craving.
Humor and humanity.
I asked the organizer if there was anything I could change to make it better.
“Nothing. Don’t change a word. It’s the perfect keynote address and it’s something everyone should hear.”
She had tears in her eyes as she told me this.
I could sense it was going really well, but I had no idea how well I’d connected until the end.
The whooping ovation lasted more than 30 seconds.
I remember feeling a little startled and thinking, man, this must be what it feels like when you think launching a cult might be feasible.
I should be able to prove it, too. I hope. The camcorder was misplaced and is being mailed, and there’s no guarantee my friend managed to operate it properly. There never is.
It doesn’t matter.
I already have a bunch of great YouTubes and now have a host of prestigious and enthusiastic recommendations. I have two more high profile talks in the next month.
Best of all, I’m now supremely confident in my message and my ability to deliver it with compelling flair.
I now know I can find true success in a lucrative field full of exciting opportunities.
And I’m gonna seize every one of them.
I have a dream.

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