“He who warned, uh, the British”: The Importance of Learning Impromptu Speaking

When I taught Public Speaking regularly (I seldom do lately, but get assigned it from time to time) I was always frustrated by the impromptu speaking units I put together. Part of my frustration is that as someone who did forensics at the college level level, impromptu was easily one of my favorite events. As an educator I often struggled to help my students craft quality speeches off the cuff. Speaking with little preparation and essentially no notes is one of the most valuable skills public speaking courses can provide, but they are a vexing beast. Impromptu speaking requires a kind of charm and charisma that make one sound polished even though you may only be working a sentence or two ahead of what is coming out of your mouth. Some politicians flail at this skill while others excel.

Cue Sarah Palin’s painful version of Paul Revere’s midnight ride recently given to the press:

He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms uh by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.

Painful. This cannot be chalked as another “gotcha question” from the “lamestream media” either. Regardless, of if Sarah Palin knows the actual story of Paul Revere this moment ought to be enshrined in the annals of public speaking failures because it so clearly fails to utilize the available means of persuasion and butchers a basic story of revolutionary history and national myth making.

Impromptu speaking, as a skill, asks speakers to take a prompt with little preparation and draw from their wealth of knowledge to put together an articulate response that often ties ready made examples to an unfamiliar topic (in a way this speech genre mimics the basic linguistic operation of the metaphor). From a more cynical view, this mode of speaking teaches the speaker to take any prompt or opportunity to show their knowledge and utilize it to advance their agenda. Here, Palin did neither. Her short statement fell apart for two reasons:

1) She got the basic story wrong. We can forgive the pauses and uhs and excuse the horrible delivery. However, bells and shots are evidence of bare historical inaccuracy (“…by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells…”). Rule 1 in impromptu ought to be: don’t use examples you are not comfortable with.

2) After producing a version of Revere’s ride that is at best incoherent she then closes by tying his ride to her basic talking points (good strategy, poor execution). Palin quips that Revere’s ride was a warning that “we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.” We can see her take the opportunity to connect with her bread and butter topoi–Liberty, Security, and the Right to bear Arms. However, those concepts were not at the heart of Revere’s ride. Palin’s patriotic exegesis of Revere’s ride becomes more of an exorcism, seeking to draw out the ghost of Paul Revere and put him to work in Palin’s political agenda.

In essence, impromptu speaking is a vexing beast. It is a difficult skill to teach and a difficult skill to perform. The art of rhetoric has been described as some combination of nature, training, and practice. Palin has no one to blame here except for herself. She decided to take an example from American history and use it to advance her agenda, in that process she flopped. The result is thirty-seconds of painful video and perhaps a good lesson to bring to the classroom on the dangers of speaking off the cuff.

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