The Importance of Delivery

Editorial  /  by Michael Zhao '17  /  December 09, 2016

A couple weeks ago, on the train back from NYC with a teacher and a few other students, an interesting question was raised: Among all the speakers Lawrenceville has hosted over the years, which has been your favorite?

One student went with Admiral James Stavridis, who spoke last year on topics like collaboration and leadership, emphasizing the need to have strong beliefs but to “hold them loosely.” Immediately this idea was met with disbelief. The teacher felt strongly that not only could the crux of his message have been condensed into just a few lines of text, but that the admiral also failed to deliver any actual insights. He argued that so many students praised the talk only because of Stavridis’s status as the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, which the student conceded did play a role in his sense of awe.

The teacher, on the other hand, pointed to David Orr—who compared the moral failings of the Civil War to our current failure to recognize tackling climate change as a moral imperative—as someone whose message was truly powerful. Interestingly, this was the same speech that had quite literally put me—and many others—to sleep. It was hard to imagine a speech that so bored an audience could be considered great.

Yet I began to question this belief. Does our fascination with a speech’s delivery distract from the value of the message itself? Perhaps to devalue a speech for its dry delivery or lack of attention-grabbing gimmicks is a sign of immaturity. After all, for us as the audience, it is our responsibility to overcome our childish need for constant stimulation and charm if there is substance hidden behind the apparent tedium.

Still, though, the simple fact that delivery matters cannot be discounted. A speech is not the platform for detached, logical argument; written work serves this purpose far better. A speech’s value lies in its ability to engage at an emotional level, to inspire and move and evoke feeling in a way that allows even the most basic lessons to resonate deeply. Even if you are consciously trying to absorb a speaker’s message, the degree to which it penetrates your subconscious, its emotional appeal, will determine how much it actually influences your thinking and behavior.

On the one hand, then, is the importance of audience responsibility. Encouraging active listening and open mindedness can help ensure that insightful messages are not lost in dull speeches. On the other hand, the School should continue to not only enlist speakers who can connect with students in a meaningful way, but also cultivate the art of delivery in students through Harkness and the public speaking contest. Only then can we truly have effective, reciprocal communication.