This time around, Matt sits down with Rob Goodman to talk about political eloquence. Goodman is the author of a new book on this topic called Words on Fire, which you can pick up a copy of wherever you like to get books. As for this interview, you can click here to download episode 141 of Elucidations.
Can you think of the last time you saw someone give a rousing speech? They step up to the podium with throngs of onlookers staring at them. Somehow, rather than nervously scampering offstage or melting into a puddle, they speak off the cuff in a way that transfixes everyone listening. Their words feel fresh, sincere, and yet somehow also perfect, like a movie star nailing their big scene on the first take. You’d think that someone speaking from the heart would falter or stumble the way the rest of us do, but against all odds, this feels both maximally authentic and maximally polished.
What is it that makes a speaker compelling to listen to? Rob Goodman thinks that in order to understand what eloquence is, we need to look not just at the person up on stage and how they’re talking, but how the people in the audience are responding, and how the speaker is responding to their responses, and how they’re responding to the responses to their responses, and so on, ad infinitum. What makes eloquence happen isn’t really individual speakers talking in vacuum, so much as it is groups of people conversing together. Or at least that’s his idea. Eloquence isn’t just one person speaking skillfully; it’s several people conversing skillfully.
In this episode, our distinguished guest also argues that when a public speech goes well, it goes well because both the person speaking and the people listening are taking some risks. The person speaking is sort of on the spot, risking embarrassment, and the people listening might have to rethink their prior beliefs, which takes a lot of work, at least assuming they make an effort to live by their beliefs. When a speech does what it’s supposed to, these risks are shared between all parties, rather than farmed off onto just one. But when the speaker tries to give the appearance of taking risks without actually doing so, you end up with the audience shouldering 100% of the burden, and the exchange ends up somewhat dysfunctional. This, argues our guest, is what happens when politicians go to great lengths to control or sanitize the environment in which they speak, so that no matter what, they don’t embarrass themselves. Sort of like riding a roller coaster with a safety bar.
Tune in to hear more about what makes for a great speech!
Here’s a link to Rob Goodman’s book, once again:
Words on Fire, Rob Goodman
If you want to take a look at Cicero, the great Roman philosopher whose ideas form the basis of this book, you can get the public domain English translation of his De Oratore here:
Finally, for more on how to apply rhetoric to contemporary politics, our guest has also written an article on that:
“Preaching to the Choir? Rhetoric and Identity in a Polarized Age”, Rob Goodman and Samuel Bagg