, ,

Is Twitter killing the art of oration?

I love speeches. I love speech-writing, and I love trying to sway an audience. There may be many better orators around,
but I’d say I’m above average. It’s an art in which you have tools, including: fallacies, buzzwords, calls to action, anecdotes, etc. But now there’s a new tool being used, not by people giving speeches, but by those in attendance.

That tool is Twitter. Recently on GovLoop, there was a post about how to make a presentation more tweetable. The post gives great advice and surefire ways to get your audience’s thumbs burning. It does make me wonder, however, if we are sacrificing what would traditionally make a great speech in order to achieve more tweets. Should I be more concerned about the takeaway that my audience’s Twitter followers get, or the audience itself?

On the other hand, isn’t a great orator one who adapts to his audience? Isn’t that the whole point of the aforementioned post, to adapt to the audience which is utilizing new tools to spread the message? If using the techniques outlined in the post is the best way to reach the maximum number of people, isn’t it also the best way to deliver the speech?

It’s a hard question for me to answer, so I’m asking for your help. By trying to make speeches more tweetable, are we killing the art of oration, or are we adding an exciting new element to it?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Jon Lee

Great points, and thanks for the link. My approach in the post was not to say “dumb down your presentation to a 3rd grade level”, which I should have mentioned. I was thinking more along the lines of the federal gov’s push for writing in plain language. Gov needs to stop writing like it’s an academic white paper and get straight to the point. I think the same applies for presenters.

Also, there is a difference between speeches and presentations. I’m in the world of IT, where we love to use buzzwords and flowery descriptors to overcomplicate what are essentially pretty simple concepts. I’ve heard speakers about cloud computing scare folks back to their cubicles, and I’ve also heard some that an 8th grader can understand.

William Lim

I think the art of oration has been dying ever since TV networks decided that soundbites and name checks were more important than the actual message. Great speeches have always had pithy quotable passages, but soundbites and tweets that are devoid of the full context rob speeches of their power rather than making them more distributable. I suppose you could avoid that problem by live tweeting the entirety of a speech like people often do with the State of the Union (one of the rare full length speeches that are still televised), but if you’re going to do that over 1, 2, even 3 hours, you might as well jot down notes and write a long-form blog about it – I see little value added by tweeting, and I don’t think clarity should be sacrificed for the immediacy of Twitter.

Corey McCarren

So maybe if people make their presentations or speeches more Twitter friendly, it can actually help them step away from over-complicating things and therefore able to relate to their audiences understanding level better?

William Lim

Corey, if I’m reading Jon’s comment correctly, I’d say that making a speech more tweetable is merely a side benefit of plain, old-fashioned, good writing.

Corey McCarren

All of Jon’s tips were sound advice for presentations and speeches in general, I agree. I wasn’t really trying to reference his specific points, but rather apply the general concept to speech writing. As he said, there’s definitely a difference between the State of the Union address and an informational presentation.

Einstein once said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” By trying to fit points into phrases that can be Tweeted in 140 characters, are we running a huge risk of making points simpler?

Faye Newsham

Walter Ong specifically studied how the shift from orality to literacy might impact our culture and education. His book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), covers a lot of what you are talking about (despite its age). There are a lot of writers and researchers who ponder this stuff quite a lot. Katherine Hayles studies electronic literature and what it is doing to our society (How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, 1999 and Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, 2008) in particular. Ihde, Don. Bodies in Technology. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002 is another great resource (and a little less cautionary than I find Hayles). Lastly, Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011 specifically touches on Twitter as a communication form.

These are all great for exploring how others have discussed these topics and to see where and what you find yourself thinking after reading them.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I’m not sure Twitter is ruining great oratory, but the need for sound bites is definitely making public figures thinking differently about what they say and how they say it. Also, shorter attention spans are making audiences seek shorter speeches.

In terms of the how to, it’s a mix – the best speakers combine great oratory and all the factors that make a speech great…but have sum up moments that are tweetable. Also, they punctuate the presentation with short, punchy lines that are memorable (but I’d argue that great speeches have always had this as a hallmark).

Corey McCarren

Thanks for the recommendations, Faye, some of those look very interesting. Alone Together looks especially up my alley. I’m extraordinarily interested in how technology is affecting the way people relate to each other.

Andrew, I bet it also has a lot to do with skill level of the speech-writer. For example, speeches given by Obama will do a great job of giving those tweetable soundbites, and I’m sure it’s a consideration. However, maybe someone less talented than Obama’s team would have more trouble with this and if they worry too much about it the speech will be watered down.

Doug Mashkuri

While I think twitter is not necessarily killing the art of oration I do think it is killing the art of debate and discussion. I have witnessed too many “twitter wars” on important subjects than I care to count. The next step in this evolution is to know how/when to move a twitter debate to a more effective platform for this type of discussion.

Frank Stipe

Twitter is not the speakers platform so much as it is the content feed for the followers. Sure we can try to use it to shape the debate, drive the conversation, or broadcast the message. But its power is that the followers use Twitter to build their personalized content feed of 140 character tid-bits that are easy to read on a smart phone while one is packed shoulder to shoulder in a metro car at rush hour. If your contribution to their private info-service is lacking….unfollow is sooooooooo easy.

Justin Longo

Along the lines of the Gettysburg Powerpoint presentation which lampooned the descent of oratory in the presentation era, John Stewart took a stab at the Gettysburg Address as a tweet: “@Honest_Abe: 4 score & 7 yrs ago: nu nation, all men =! Now civil war :(. But! Not die in vain. Gr8 task b4 us: Gvt of-by4-ppl not perish frm earth!” Or the Washington Post: “87 years ago, our dads made us free. Yay! Still want free, but hard! Fighting, dying, burying! Need more fight tho, so dead be happy.” As they both imply, there’s really not much lost in the translation.

There’s also the possibility of tweeting the entire Gettysburg Address in ten parts. But that would be cheating.

Corey McCarren

I’m a huge fan of those Tweets, Justin.

Doug, there’s definitely a problem with the Internet encouraging conversation which tends to devolve into petty bickering without any tangible action. The key is to make these platforms work for us, not to spend all of our time on them then not accomplishing any real goals.