In Defense of Prepared Remarks

A couple years ago, I served as best man at the wedding of one of my best friends, Mike, who I’ve known since we were 13 years old. He is someone who commands my loyalty, respect, and admiration, so it may not surprise you that I labored mightily over the remarks I made at his wedding reception. I sought words that did the occasion justice, communicating something special about the bride and groom that grandparents, peers, and little cousins could all appreciate. I’d never given a more important speech, so intense forethought and preparation struck me as the obvious approach, one that signified my respect for the occasion.

Does anyone think my preparation signifies that the speech was a fraud? That I didn’t mean any of it sincerely? Or that if I really cared for my friend, and his betrothed, I would’ve remarked on the meaning of their union off the top of my head?

Does Rush Limbaugh think that? It sounds like a strange question, but look at this bit from his speech at CPAC:

… for those of you in the Drive-By Media watching, I have not needed a teleprompter for anything I’ve said. [Applause] And nor do any of us need a teleprompter, because our beliefs are not the result of calculations and contrivances. Our beliefs are not the result of a deranged psychology. Our beliefs are our core. Our beliefs are our hearts. We don’t have to make notes about what we believe. We don’t have to write down, ‘oh do I believe it, do I believe that.’ We can tell people what we believe off the top of our heads, and we can do it with passion and we can do it with clarity, and we can do it persuasively.

Strange, isn’t it? These are speeches delivered to a national television audience, and that reflect upon the conservative movement. And a man known in the movement as one of its foremost communicators is asserting that to carefully weigh one’s words in that kind of setting, laying them down beforehand so that they are just right, amounts to “contrivance” and “deranged psychology.”

I don’t know what to make of this. As I’ve noted before, Rush Limbaugh is a singular broadcasting talent. Perhaps that is leading him astray here? As David Foster Wallace once wrote:

Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don’t have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you’re speaking.)

Perhaps Rush Limbaugh speaks as ably off the top of his head as most men do given days to prepare, but that certainly isn’t true of most people. Advising conservative speechmakers that they ought to fire off whatever it is that comes to mind as they stand on the podium — more than that, affirmatively stigmatizing prepared remarks — is indefensible on substance, and remarkably bad advice.

It also flies in the face of recent experience. On many matters, George W. Bush tried and failed to articulate his genuinely held positions in interviews, and his failure as a communicator hurt conservatives. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin did much better as a communicator delivering speeches from a teleprompter than she ever did articulating her beliefs off the top of her head.

Can anyone make any sense out of this portion of Rush’s speech? Or is it another example of the kind of miscues that inevitably result when you speak extemporaneously?