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The meta of meta
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I always look forward to the chance to hear public speeches, for I love seeing how well people are able to express themselves in a performance setting. I'm fascinated by the spoken word and I seek out any event that demands a lone speaker to articulate before a crowd. Speaking in public is still the greatest fear of all humans, greater than the fear of death, and I love to watch and cheer on the intrepid souls who dare to give it a go.
Attending my daughter's college graduation in New York this past Spring gave me the opportunity to witness a number of public speakers, for the week was chock-full of speechifying — NYU's graduation ceremony took up two full days of the week, with the individual schools having ceremonies on Wednesday, and then the full college graduation (at Yankee Stadium) on the next day. It was a little exhausting, to be sure, but I got to see a number of different styles and it was edifying to see the relative successes and failures of each speaker.
What I wasn't prepared for, though, was a surprising theme that ran through most of the speeches. It began with the first speaker on Wednesday, a professor from the school of Arts and Sciences, who started with a pretty traditional overview of the students' journey — the gawky freshmen in the big city, making friends, learning to deal with the demanding curriculum, etc — but then her speech took a bizarre, self-referential turn. She started to comment on her own speech: "So, as your speaker, I've mentioned your journey here at NYU, I implored you to give a contribution to the Foundation when you're able, thus appeasing the President and the Board Members gathered here, (polite laughter) and then I challenged you to go out and make something of yourselves in this world, armed with your education. So I feel my job is done."
When she finished I could not get the quizzical look off my face; summing up her duties as a speaker was not only unnecessary, it seemed like a jokey violation of the form: "here I am, making this silly speech." It was that thing, that dreaded thing, that damned "meta" thing, that thing that has insidiously wrapped itself around virtually every form of modern communication, where the speaker feels compelled to insert himself/herself into every conversation, no matter how inappropriate it might be. I didn't want to hear someone talking about "making a speech," I just wanted her to make the speech. I didn't want to see her remove herself from the event, like she was not connected to it, like she was some objective observer of her own performance. Just make the speech and get off the stage, and leave the commenting to the audience members.
But this was just a preamble for what was to come, for virtually every speaker who followed continued the same pattern: some thoughtful comments on getting an education and living in New York City, but then a whole bunch of unenlightening personal reveries that added nothing but self-indulgence to the proceedings. The worst offender, to me, was a dignified professor who chose to use NYU's graduation ceremony as an opportunity to mention that she was a passenger on the Amtrak train that had recently derailed in the Northeast. A devastating experience, I'm certain, because of the casualties and the destruction, but there was absolutely no reason to mention it in that setting. The way she presented it had no resonance with the day's events; she didn't try to make it relevant. She just wanted a chance to say, Wow, look what I went through. And I know I sound callous, but she could have (should have) cancelled her appearance if it was still so painful to her. For her to speak about it, then, in that milieu, cheapened what she went through and only provided shock value to the assembled guests.
And look, I know the value of personal anecdotes in public speaking; I recognize that occasionally it's necessary to inject some true-life experience and observations into the course of a speech. But what I saw in NYC was something else entirely; it was like being trapped at a party with a stone-bore who feels compelled to tell you absolutely everything you don't want to know about their life. Some of the speeches over the two days were positively squirm-inducing, lacking any sense of perspective or appropriateness. One undergrad felt it was necessary to share a brief history of his relationship with his fiance; thanks for sharing, but shouldn't we get to the part about, you know, bravely tackling the future and living your dreams?
The week ended with me getting a chance to witness another example of public speaking, this one at a wedding of a college friend of my wife's, and what do you know — the pastor did the exact same, damned, "meta" thing. When he got to the part before the wedding vows, the young pastor started talking about being asked by the couple to do the ceremony: he had never done one before, and he was nervous. He then proceeded to tell the assembled guests, who didn't know him and didn't care, how difficult it was for him and how angst-ridden he was about doing the service right. This went on for a good 4-5 minutes as he described the daunting task and hand-wringing he was faced with. You could just sense from the family members and the guests the same thought: Jesus, Dude, shut up. It's not about you. Get to the ring, for God's sake, get to the part about the Golden Circle that represents Eternal Love, or whatever. Get to the, "Do you, (bride), take . . ." You know — do your job. And please, leave the annoying self-referencing at home, where it belongs. If it belongs anywhere.