Did you ever get a vague sense of disappointment when you hear a comedian re-use the same jokes in a new venue? I know I do. And yet we’re not disappointed when we hear Mick Jagger sing Satisfaction for the 23,843rd time, nor do we feel that way during Hamlet. We actually kind of want that to sound the way we expect it to.
I think this is because plays and songs are perceived to be written, while comedy routines – and speeches – have (if they are done well) the sense of coming right out of the moment, spontaneous and impromptu. So speaking for myself, I have a weird sense of being cheated when I hear the same comedy routine for the second time.
Having been on the lonely side of the microphone for a while now, I worry about that effect. But the truth is, there are many ways to tell a joke, but only one best way, and there are many jokes you can add to a set but there is still a best set.
And likewise, there are many beats in a speech but only one best way through that beat; one best turn of phrase, or a joke, or a pause or an accent. So when you see the same elements in two different speeches; two of the same rhetorical questions, say, delivered in precisely the same way – well, that is not laziness. That is the opposite of laziness. That is the result of hard work and constant tinkering to make sure your audience gets the best version of the speech you can possibly give.
What you are seeing and hearing is the best possible delivery for that particular beat. And I’ve spoken hundreds of times now, and repeated nearly verbatim many beats but no two speeches have ever been the same since I use virtually no notes. The closest I ever came to consciously trying to give the same speech again and again was a few years ago, when I did a lot of very small venues selling my What We Believe DVD. Even then, I would add new elements that came to me, replacing older ones that weren’t as effective, and in that particular case honing the timing, the rhythm, and the argument. The final version of that speech had many elements I wish I had included in the DVD, having been added by many hours of trial and error and flash-in-the-pan inspiration.
Generally, I will sketch out a series of what I call “modules,” and I usually don’t do this until 15 minutes before I go on. It’s hard to explain, but it lets me get a feel for the audience, the venue, the time of day, etc. I write five or six one-line notes, and that gives me the modules in the sequence that I want to deliver them, in order to make a particular point that should be uniquely tailored to that specific audience.
Seven months after delivering this speech, given at a fundraiser for the Virtual Presidency in April of 2013, I watched it again and realized it may be the best version of the “2013 Tour” that I ever gave: those elements I found most important in the year following Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama in 2012. I went back for a second one in September, which I have also just re-watched, and it is a lot more modern. In fact, in September I came to realize that I had completely reversed myself on at least one of the tenets I had outlined in April.
With all that said, nevertheless a half a year later I am very pleased with how cogent the April case is, but somewhat surprised at how outdated the look, the clothing and the haircut seem. Of course, seven months from now I dearly hope that the September speech will look and feel outmoded.
That’s almost always a good sign. It’s an indication of evolution and adaptation. We have a lot to do in 2014, and as always we are being targeted and attacked by the Progressive Immune System formerly known as the Free Press. That means mutation is our friend. I think in 2014 we are going to mutate this message like crazy, to get it past the defenses of those who do such great damage and evil in the name of their own unearned moral superiority.