Do famous people make bad speakers?

This summer, I have gotten to hear from a number of very well known people.  I have almost always found them disappointing as speakers when they give public addresses.  I generally feel this way when GA’s speak, too:  I eagerly await what they have to say, and then feel let down when their talks are rarely more insightful than average.  So, I have begun to think about why it is that I usually find less famous speakers more interesting.

A thread that runs throughout many of these ultra-important speakers is that I already know the general gist of their comments before they get up.  People who are famous in a field didn’t become famous by being different every time they spoke.  To the contrary, many of these people have come to represent an intellectual “brand.”  They stand for a certain philosophy, and they got that way by sharing it over and over again.  Once they brand themselves with an idea, their audiences ask questions that generally reinforce that idea.  Audiences challenge the idea, ask for the idea to be explained, extend the idea, but always focus on the idea.

These speakers therefore live in a kind of echo chamber when on the public stage; the ideas they send out to the world get reflected back on them again and again.  Of course they sometimes change their public ideas, but change comes with costs: They are labeled flip-floppers, risk alienating their followers, and defy the self-stereotypes that helped spread their fame in the first place.  But, on the whole, being a brand seems to be an effective way of self-marketing so long as the brand attracts a niche.

Do the extent that any of you share my disappointment with famous speakers, how do you explain it?


  1. I think it depends on the speaker. I think Barack Obama is a famous good speaker, though I haven’t gone in person to any of his speeches so I can’t say how they’ve been in person.

    What’s a good speaker, Natalie?

  2. My experience, at least with Church speakers (I heard Sis. Beck in person recently), I much prefer them this way. They’re less guarded, more genuine, more off-the-cuff. I’ve not been disappointed yet at an in-person, but that’s because I’m looking for signs of life, not new intellectual stimulation. I generally don’t look to Church personnel to do that ;)

  3. I admit to having been disappointed when I hear one GA tell the exact same sentimental story another GA has recently told. That has happened a couple of times. I miss Elder Maxwell’s wordsmithing–and about truly important topics, too; Elder Ashton’s compassionate lack of pretension; President Kimball’s boldness; President McKay’s twinkle. I could listen to Elder Uchtdorf at a Conference marathon lasting 26 hours. But it’s not so much what he says (though I do like the content of his talks) but… (careful, you probably think I’m going to comment on his looks now–but no…) HIS RADIANT COUNTENANCE. He is joyful, and the joy fills all space around him.

  4. My favorite modern Christian apologist/debater/speaker is William Lane Craig. He has gotten famous for exactly what you said: making the same argument repeatedly and doing everything he can to strengthen it.

    On the other hand, I am also a big fan of William James, and from what I read he seemed to be a very dynamic and erudite speaker. Maybe one of the best.

  5. I very recently got to meet a band, whose music I’ve loved for years, thanks to some backstage passes. These musicians were not super tall, super good looking, super anything. Was I disappointed? No. Why? Because I knew before I met them that they were just people. In fact, this band actually turned away from a Hollywood career in order to travel and just be themselves instead of trying to live upto unfair expectations of glitz and glamour that famous people drive themselves insane trying to achieve.
    I am saddened to think that General Authorities are being held up like other “famous” people. I would expect their motives and objectives to be completely different from any scientist or politician. Church leaders are trying to persuade but they shouldn’t be arguing anything. They testify with the Holy Ghost to confirm the truth of their words. Any other “famous” speaker is trying to convince you with logic or charisma, whether for their own success or to further their own causes. Can you really compare the two?
    I think the key to being disappointed by famous people and intrigued by lesser knowns is your own expectations and the condition of your heart as you listen. Gospel speakers will often be very skilled at giving talks, but it isn’t their words that carry the message, it is the Holy Ghost. If you aren’t getting anything out of it, maybe your not properly prepared to receive the message?

  6. I suspect most GAs would be horrified to think of themselves as famous.

  7. JustMe reminded me of this.

    Sheri Dew, in writing President Hinckley’s biography, had her “first exposure to a mini-sermon he would repeat at least a dozen times during succeeding months. “Adulation is poison,” he said, emphasizing each word. “Adulation has ruined many a good man and woman, and I don’t want this book to portray me as something I’m not.””

    How many GA’s feel that adulation is poison? I suspect most, but it’s hard not to enjoy being liked and looked up to.

  8. I’ve always enjoyed the GA speakers.

    The speakers I haven’t enjoyed have been certain political speakers- at a graduation several years ago for a family member, a well known politician spoke and the talk was focused on what he’d done in office,etc. Plus he directed the talk to those in certain fields in technology as they related to his political focus. He ignored the graduates in other “less prestigious” fields such as education/healthcare. I felt it was self-praising.

    That evening I was so grateful for our stake conf and to hear the speakers who spoke the gospel.

  9. I am often surprised how static some speakers are. I see this in general conference quite often. The words are magnificent, but the delivery is so dull. And as much as I appreciate anecdotes, you quickly realise that some speakers only have five good ones that they just rotate.

    Great speakers all have one thing in common: excitement. It is the enthusiasm and passion that makes me want to keep listening. Poor speakers, on the other hand, remind me of listening to NPR announcers. They sound like they are slipping into a coma and make me want to do the same.

  10. I will always have a special place in my heart (and on my iPod) for Elder Holland. I was his groupie BEFORE it was cool.

    But considering he just gave a talk on pornography in General Conference, I may be the only groupie left.

  11. I think its funny that people consider Obama to be a good speaker. If his teleprompter goes off he can’t even string one sentence together. “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh…..”

  12. SLO Sapo says:

    Do you think it’s funny that people consider general conference speakers to be good speakers even though they have to use a teleprompter? I don’t get your comment. Unless your comment with politics than speaking skills. I’ll bet you never commented about George W. Bush’s wonderful public speaking skills.

    Oh, and incidentally, did you watch the 2008 presidential election debates between Obama and McCain? No teleprompters there. And yet Obama managed to articulately kick McCain’s booty in all three debates. How do you explain that?

  13. SLO Sapo says:

    That is to say, “Unless your comment was more about politics . . .”

  14. SLO Sapo says:

    Sorry. Didn’t have my teleprompter at hand.

  15. Great post Natalie,

    It’s so funny how often my expectations are turned on their head. A few years ago I was really excited to hear one of my heros, Jared Diamond. His talk was truly a mess. Disorganized. Rambling. Just awful. Then at NC State, they had Harry Winkler give the commencement address. Many were just outraged that ‘The Fonz’ was giving such an important speech. We were all making a bit of fun of it. But his talk was stunning. Insightful. Funny. Inspiring. He got a standing ovation. Still ranks as one of the best talks I’ve ever heard. But I suppose sometimes things go as expected. Recently astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke at BYU and I had very high expectations which were not disappointed.

  16. Natalie B. says:

    Including GAs in this post was more of a way to make it have something to do with Mormonism so that it can belong on this site. While I do tend to think they are bad speakers, assume that this post has mostly to do with public figures in general. Sorry for causing agony!

  17. Natalie B. says:

    That said, I don’t think GAs are excluded from branding. It might be that we members look for themes in their messages, but they become known for things like “read the book of mormon” or “attend the temple.”

  18. SLO Sapo – Honestly, I think that most politicians are horrible public speakers, regardless of political party. They stumble over their words, the say “uh” and “um” way too often, and, when they are speaking to others, they frequently interrupt. Many of them also have poor body language. Ask a politician a question, and most of the time he (or she) will give an answer totally unrelated. When it comes to Pres. Obama, people have said so much about him being a wonderful orator that I have been even more disappointed in his poor speaking skills than usual.

  19. Latter-day Guy says:

    Do you think it’s funny that people consider general conference speakers to be good speakers even though they have to use a teleprompter?

    A good speaker using a teleprompter is different than requiring a teleprompter in order to be a good speaker. Some people are good at delivering remarks in certain situations and not so good in others. And no, I don’t think anyone ever lauded Bush the Younger for his speaking skills, but given our current President’s reputation for being especially articulate, it might be reasonable to point out an occasion (or occasions) on which he was conspicuously not so.

  20. I wonder if part of this is that with current internet and media..we hear almost every word spoken by famous people. No matter what a person became famous for the HAVE to also be able to speak, or they loose a little something in the press. The more we hear the more likely they are going to blow it some time. There are also different kinds of “good” speakers. Speaking well with a a teleprompter is a skill…one that I completely lack. I’m not a dynamic reader.

    Some famous people work better in small groups, or one on one.

    It would also depend on what your expectations are from a particular speaker…the GA’s are supposed to have a great testimony of Christ and share that-does that have to be verbal?…do we expect other things from them as well?

  21. britt,

    It would also depend on what your expectations are from a particular speaker…

    exactly, which is why I was curious as to what natalie considered are the qualifications for a great speaker. As evidenced by the comments, many don’t think Obama to be a great speaker because their expectations are what they are.

  22. To be a good speaker, one must effectively communicate a new and interesting idea. The difficulty for our church leaders is that we hear from them so often that it’s hard to say something new.

    Among the worst speakers are judges, who feel constrained by ethics canons and the spectre of future confirmation hearings to say nothing interesting about the controversies of the day.

    A notable exception is Judge Kozinski, as those who have heard his speech about his jaywalking ticket and the movies Total Recall and Mad Max:Beyond Thunderdome can attest.

  23. gst, are there links to those Kozinski speeches?

  24. Marta, you can see the text here. Read it aloud in a thickish Romanian accent.

  25. Allison in Atlanta says:

    It really depends on their background in public speaking and how much practice they get. Bush was terrible without a teleprompter. (Obama is very polished, but I won’t digress further.) Even Sarah Palin had some experience, but got better as she was coached and practiced. Al Gore was too dry but used a sermon-like style that was at least palatable.

    Some celebrities have had acting or speaking training while others have not. Some GA’s have been in more visible positions while of course, others have not. Most get better with a little inspiration (as do some high councillors that visit our ward monthly) and with repeated practice.

    Finally, remember how Pres. Hinckley begged our pardon in one of his last conference addresses for repeating a talk he had given some 20 or so years before but it was what he felt was needed. Then he added that it’s not fair to expect him to be extemporaneous every single time! :)