Monday, July 31, 2006

why The Messengers wouldn't get good grades in my class

Last night I watched the second episode of TLC’s The Messengers after reading about it in the NY Times.  I was intrigued, it’s like American Idol or Last Comic Standing, except it’s public speaking.  I teach that!

I told my students this morning that they do better than these contestants.  Or at least, by my standards; and this is why: the show focuses almost entirely on delivery.  We watched the contestants spend a long day working in fields and talking to immigrants about hard work.  They then each delivered impassioned, vacuous, generic two-minute speeches on the assigned topic of “struggles.”  I suppose they are trying to be “inspirational speakers” and that is what they tend to do – say a lot of stuff that sounds good, and makes people feel good, but doesn’t do much else.  But I was dying for someone to say something profound, or political, or at least something that wasn’t cliché.  Most of them didn’t even draw in the experience from the earlier portion of the show.  Many of them drew on their own struggles in a way that seemed self-righteous and lame.  

My other complaint is that the panelists on the show delivered warm-fuzzy feedback for the most part (they really need a Simon Cowell.  I’m sure there are a few seasoned rhetoric professors who could do the trick) and focused almost exclusively on delivery or figurative language.  As a teacher, I know these things are important, but saying nothing really well is still saying nothing.

Will this show improve the interest in the art of oratory?  Maybe, but it also will continue the misconception that good oratory is good delivery and charisma.  Although that’s part of it, it is certainly not all.


David A. Zimmerman said...

I feel compelled to comment, even though I have never seen this show, studied public speaking, met you or given much thought to your topic. Such, I suppose, is blog culture. But I am interested in the idea that "talking about nothing really well is still talking about nothing." I've certainly endured my share of empty messages, but I've tended to sit through them nonetheless, because, I suppose, I've been culturally conditioned. The pew needs the pulpit as much as the pulpit needs the pew. So, how does a "messenger" get the message that they've wasted the listener's time? And how do you champion content in an era when there's market demand for style without substance?

David A. Zimmerman said...

Oops. I meant to add, great post.

bethany said...

Great questions, David. I obviously am a champion of education toward critical thinking. I also think that the world needs more thoughtful question-askers: people who are willing to gently point out when there is no point, or who are willing to reveal shallowness where it is, or even provoke depth where there wasn't before. We need them in our churches and our media and our politics. Fewer sound bites, more questions.

djchuang said...

Unfortunately I don't have cable, but I'm very interested in this reality tv show. I think the show is looking to spotlight the most inspirational speaker, of which public speaking skills is a component, but not the whole deal. And, unfortunately, some of those who are deemed very inspirational has lightweight superficial content -- when it comes to the masses, few seem to track with speakers that have meaty substantive content.

Morgan said...

Well, I'm catching up on your blog, as I haven't visited in a while, and I just wanted to say, have you seen the episode of the BBC Office where David Brent gives a "motivational speech?" It's amazingly funny and totally makes fun of the empty inspirational speech.