Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inaugurally speaking: "to us" vs. "at us"

Waiting for the Inaugural Parade
There's nothing like being in the Nation's Capital during Inauguration Weekend! Though the excitement was not as palpable as it was four years ago, there was enough of a buzz in the air to put us in a holiday mood. I attended the Virginia Inaugural Ball on Sunday, and celebrated Inauguration Day at the Canadian Embassy's "tailgate" and parade-viewing party. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. However, as your faithful blogger on all things communications-related, I could not let my professional hat slip off for too long. And so, here are some observations from this weekend:

Practice really does make perfect. Or nearly so. You know the Inauguration Ceremony itself was scripted down to the minutest detail. There was a run-through a week before with stand-ins for all the principals. In 2009 my children & I watched the sound and light check two days before The Big Day. We heard Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman play, making the recording they later used during the frigid Inauguration. And this year, I would bet the singers and other participants "worked in the space" prior to yesterday's celebration, even if they did most of their rehearsal elsewhere. The singers came with knowledge of how to best use their microphones, but the speakers were also coached. The President, who has spoken here before, did a masterful job with his delivery. He hit just the right tones. His speech exhorted, encouraged, celebrated. He was speaking "to us" but he was also "of us." Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered a stirring Invocation that was a fantastic example of delivering a text that is more delicate, at once more personal and universal. Watch her. She is strong in her prayerfulness. She includes us in her circle of communication, and that is hard to do with such a huge live audience. Her focus draws us all in. We are communing with her. Even at the Embassy, there was a collectively breathed "amen" when she finished.

By contrast, most of the featured speakers at Sunday's Ball pushed the audience away with their aggressive energy. They were speaking "at us."  I felt I was at a late-stage outdoor campaign rally with people who didn't know/didn't trust how microphones work. I know it is hard to resist the temptation to shout over the crowd when you feel they should be listening to you. But the ones who wanted to listen listened while others partied. Shouting into a microphone does not make you louder; it does not command attention. It actually makes your tone more strident, harder to listen to, and thus, turns people off. Your sound engineer will try to compensate to help you. Really, if you had trusted that expert to do her/his job, you would have sounded better and found a more receptive audience. Practicing in the space would have helped. But I know these speakers have been in spaces like this before and they still don't seem to get that no one likes to be shouted at. Even your fans don't like it! (did you learn nothing from Howard Dean?)

The exception was my friend Charniele Herring, who was gracious and classy and most certainly was heard.  The guys need to take a page from her playbook. Maybe they will, now that she is Chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia!

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