Thursday, January 31, 2008

when holding back breeds eloquence

Those who dread speaking often use "eloquent" to describe those for whom words come easily, even too easily. Perhaps it's my work coaching speakers and subjects of media interviews, or my original work as a journalist, or just too many years of working in Washington, which I lovingly call "a small town with a lot of hot air," but I've come to pay more attention to the held-back voice, the speaker who's more often silent. Holding back comment, then speaking with care, can hold great persuasive power, as we've seen this month with Caroline Kennedy's New York Times op-ed piece endorsing Barack Obama for president. Someone who hadn't read the piece summarized it as "my father was a great president, and Obama's like him, so he'll be a great president." In fact, quite the opposite: Kennedy takes care to limit her comments so that they reflect what others have told her about her famous father. The last lines of the piece say:
I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.
Kennedy's avoidance of the limelight makes her words -- and endorsement -- all the more eloquent. You can have similar power as a speaker or commentator if you withhold comment until what you see as the critical moment. A famous writer or speaker like Kennedy need not underscore her silence by mentioning it, but you may need to alert your audience if you've stayed out of a certain debate for a reason. Better, and yet more powerful: Weighing in with an audience that knows you've held back.