By Nick DAngelo
Fifteen percent of Americans rank public speaking as their greatest fear, far outpacing those who most fear death, disease, snakes or the dark. And while glossophobia (from the Greek for “tongue”) has not claimed any lives — yet — it shows no signs of dropping in the echelons of trepidation. This is bad news for Union seniors.
Last week, applications were released for the 24th Annual Charles P. Steinmetz Symposium, a full day of academic presentations by students and the culmination of many senior theses. In fact, the majority of departments require presentation at Steinmetz as a qualifier for honors. While spring term will be filled with great anticipation for graduation and hurried completions of Union’s seven traditions, it will also be filled with plenty of public speaking.
I have always been a great admirer of those who could capture an audience. As a student of oratory in high school, I spent my senior year trouping around the country as a member of the debate team. I spent one of my final weekends of high school at the University of Kentucky competing in a championship tournament. Perhaps ironically, four years later, I will end another senior year on the campus of the same university for the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.
As we must all be students of oratory, we can take away some small lessons from those who have gone before us. For every great speaker, there have been a few bad ones, and let me tell you, no glossophobe could be as awful as these presenters. They have been presidential nominees and Oscar-winning actors, risking far more than we will and falling far shorter than we ever could.
Topping the charts for the worst presentation ever given must be Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, who boldly argued during his acceptance speech: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” Is it surprising that Mondale carried only one state that year? And he wasn’t the only presidential nominee to receive an ‘F’ for an acceptance speech. Twenty years later, John Kerry pulled a ‘Mondale’ when he awkwardly saluted the audience, declaring, “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty” — after his infamous “I voted for it before I voted against it” gaffe.
Even Kerry and Mondale can take some comfort in the worst Oscar speeches ever given, though. In 1999, Hilary Swank won Best Actress for Boys Don’t Cry. Pulling out a piece of paper as she took the stage, Swank said, “On the off chance that I got up here, I brought this piece of paper because I knew I couldn’t forget everyone.” After the arrogant declaration, she casually forgot to thank her husband. And 1999 got worse for cringe-worthy speeches. Angelina Jolie, who won her first Oscar that year for Girl Interrupted, began her speech by awkwardly admitting, “I’m so in love with my brother” and ended it just as strangely with a sibling mouth-to-mouth kiss.
Just last week, Politico declared Congresswoman Donna Edwards’s speech at the Washington Press Club Forum annual dinner “the most painful speech ever.” Guests literally rose from their seats and waited in the lobby because it was so awkward. Mike Memoli of the Los Angeles Times tweeted: “I survived the Donna Edwards #wpcfdinner speech of 2014.” A combination of Republican hate-speech and strange sexual comments, the speech will be best remembered for the argument that bipartisanship still exists in Washington.
“There are times when we still find time to work together,” Edwards said, “And when I say together, I mean in a Cialis commercial kind of way.” I’ll be the first to say sexual scenarios between members of Congress are not funny.
Public speaking is scary, no doubt about it. But every time one presents publicly, one becomes a stronger communicator. It is an important skill and one that we should attempt to cultivate now before we end up stuttering on the Oscar stage, awkwardly saluting, or pulling a ‘Mondale.’