Maybe you love talking to groups; maybe you’d rather be in the audience. I say speaking is a skill we all need. Certainly, when somebody wants our vote, they should be able to tell us why they deserve it.
They don’t have to be gifted orators, but they shouldn’t be fumbling and stumbling through a speech either. At a minimum, they should speak clearly and concisely, with bonus points for some charisma.
In Chicago, two women are competing in a run-off election for mayor, both of them African-American. This is precedent-setting in a city known for racial polarization; a lot of us are excited about it.
Some of us are disappointed in the way these candidates communicate.
Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has criticized their speaking skills. In particular, he wrote about the way they dilute their messages with excess verbiage and filler words.
Lori Lightfoot’s favorite filler seems to be “frankly.” In the interest of balance, Zorn also pointed to Toni Preckwinkle’s overuse of “y’know.”
I am right there with him, but then you know where I stand when it comes to filler language.
Some people think it’s too picky to expect clear communication from a candidate. Zorn stirred up a hornet’s nest with a Facebook comment about a debate and the 29…or was it 32…times Lightfoot said “frankly.”
Lightfoot supporters pounced.
- “Give it a rest.”
- “Really? *This* is what you chose to post about?”
- “Frankly, I don’t give a damn. It’s her ideas and not her expression of them that counts.”
- “I view language policing as more of a tool of oppression than anything else.”
- “I note an elitist, critic pundit “tick” here: to attack a person’s style and not their substance.” (Am I an elitist critic to point out that it’s “tic,” not “tick?”)
Some people agreed that a mayoral candidate should be smoother.
- “The problem with “frankly” as a verbal tic is that it makes her appear less credible.”
- “The word is a “tell.” People who actually are being frank don’t feel the need to assert that they are.”
- “She’s a great candidate, and such tics make one look amateur.”
- “Verbal tics may not offer much insight as to intellect, but endless repetition of “like” or “frankly” is grounds for telling a person they are diluting their message.”
- “I watched the forum last night and, frankly, I noticed it, too. I see a drinking game in my future if she wins.”
And, this being Chicago, there was the racial angle.
“Don’t pretend there aren’t additional problems when you go after a black woman for how she speaks. Also, it’s petty…everyone (and yes, it seems to be all white people here) piling on this woman saying her “message is diluted” or she doesn’t sound “smart” when she over-uses a word. I think this pettiness and language policing is ugly. Especially considering the history of white people language-shaming black people.”
Whew! Can we take a step back?
We’re all judged by the way we communicate. All the time. And certainly, when it comes to our leaders, their speaking style is fair game.
How they express themselves is one way we evaluate their ideas, their ability to promote those ideas, and the chances they’ll persuade others to work with them on our behalf.
People set up this false dichotomy between style and substance, insisting that only “substance” matters. In fact, communication skills are absolutely germane when it comes to assessing a public official. They’re not separate from substance. They’re part of the person’s substance.
That goes for all of us.
I’m disappointed to see Lightfoot supporters default to “you’re picking on her because she’s black.”
Really? I say it’s patronizing to suggest that an African-American candidate, or a Latinx candidate, or a woman for that matter should get a pass when it comes to communication. Or any other aspect of campaigning.
Yes, we should avoid race- or gender-based bashing. It is offensive. Opponents said horrendous things about Barack Obama (and Michelle!). Some of them are still using slurs to describe the president who left office more than two years ago.
And of course, the current occupant of the office is famous for calling women “ugly,” “horse-faced,” and “Miss Piggy.” Never mind his remark “blood coming out of her wherever.”
That kind of criticism really is petty and ugly.
But when it comes to positions on issues, or political alliances, or to the ability to express oneself, it’s fair to hold every candidate to the same high standard. We judge a politician by all those criteria and more. It’s insulting to lower our expectations because of race, ethnicity, or gender.
Maybe you’re with the people who call it nit-picking to consider a candidate’s speaking ability. Or maybe you favor those who communicate well.
Share your thoughts in the comments.
Talking about how public officials express themselves, I can’t resist quoting the Mayors Daley, both known for tripping over their tongues.
Richard J. Daley famously defended the police in 1968: “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
And his son? Richard M. Daley’s malapropisms were regular fodder in the City Hall Press Room. One of my favorites—his response to media scrutiny.
“Scrutiny? What else do you want? Do you want to take my shorts? Give me a break. How much scrutiny do you want to have? You go scrutinize yourself! I get scrootened every day, don’t worry, from each and every one of you. It doesn’t bother me.”
This is one of your best yet Catherine, and you are known for great conversation starters. I’m with you and those who say everyone should be held to the same standard when it comes to communicating. Frankly–????–it’s annoying to have to parse the fillers to get to the value. And if there’s a clock running on these candidates, or anyone else, it would be wise to learn to ditch the fillers so they can get more message in.
Your quotes from the Mayors Daley made me laugh out loud! I’m not sure which one was funnier.
Thanks, Greg – I’m delighted that you dug it. Especially because you’re not from Chicago. I tried to write this in a way that would interest people who never heard of Lori Lightfoot and don’t care who becomes the mayor of Chicago; your comment suggests I achieved the goal. Yes, filler language IS annoying. And it interferes with getting our message across because people start to pay more attention to our filler than our message.
And since you got a kick out of our mayors, here are a couple more from Richard M. Daley. “Our plan is financially conservative, reasonable and feasonable.” And …”We have an agreement to cyst and decease.” I was still in radio for part of his long tenure as mayor. He created a lot of fun in the City Hall Press Room.
Love this Catherine! Well said. People DO judge us when we take the stage. I know that for me I joined Toastmasters to become a better speaker. I started out saying around 26 “um’s” (they actually count them). Because they made me aware of it, I began to notice it and each speech had fewer and fewer. Perhaps a Toastmasters group for politicians? They will be “scrootened” well!
Thanks for this candid article. There is no doubt that “unpolished” speaking detracts from delivering the real message – the overused filler word becomes all that people can hear and listeners just shut down and dismiss the person as unprofessional. It’s a miracle the Daleys were given such generosity with their words. I used to say “um” when I spoke, until a former boss said she would throw a paper clip onto the desk during a conference call every time I said “um”. At the end of the call, there was a big pile of paper clips on the desk. It was a great tool, and made me think about how awful it must have been to be on the other side of that call.
You’re so right about fillers becoming all that people can hear, Jeanette. They start to grab our attention and block out everything else. An attention-getting tool like the paperclips can drive home our awareness of our own habits. Often we have no idea how we sound without that kind of cue.
I so agree that the repetition “low value” words detracts from the speaker’s command of their material. My pet peeve is “right.”
But I remember clearly an IT (information systems) conference I attended years ago where the presenter used the word “instantiation.” My colleague and I were impressed. But eight or nine “instantiations” later, it just sounded like a bad habit and annoying to boot.
Instantiation is annoying because it sounds pretentious, Fred — I had to look it up and I still barely know what it means. I worked with a business coach who said “right” after about every third or fourth sentence. And so did her coaching colleagues. And so did the people in her office. And so did a lot of her clients, for that matter. These vocal habits are contagious.
So my verbal tic is “so”. See what I did there? Is there a good technique for changing this? Its to a point where it annoys me when I am doing public speaking but I don’t know how to stop
That’s a challenging one, Patrick…I’ve noticed I do some so-ing of my own. One way to stop it is to hear it. We’re often unconscious of this verbal clutter, and when we listen to ourselves we become more aware. I recorded a talk I did a couple weeks ago, and noticed a few things that I didn’t know I was doing. Sometimes the awareness itself sets change in motion.
An exercise to play with: not when you’re speaking to a group, but in casual conversation with a friend, practice finishing a sentence, putting your lips together, and leaving them like that until you start the next sentence–with something other than “So.” It’s an intentional pause, and because you’re doing it consciously, it’s possible to override the non-conscious fill-that-silence impulse. We practice this sort of thing in ordinary conversations, so it can become a new habit that doesn’t require attention when we’re speaking in front of a group. Sound like something worth trying?
I believe both words and substance matter. This is especially true for public officials. No one deserves a pass nor should they be discriminated against for race, religion, age, sex, and or gender preference. Thanks for always making us think!
And thanks for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us, Gale!
I say Norm Crosby for mayor!
Ah yes, Barrington. “Mr. Malaprop” would fit right in with our pantheon of public officials. Chicagoans would probably give him one of those standing ovulations.