The caged word doesn’t sing

When we deify the people we quote, their quotations lose their truth, like the now-hackneyed Maya Angelou line about people never forgetting how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou is dead, but her death makes little difference in the way we speak of her, because she'd been deified long ago. Deified, and thus dulled, her words made into blunt tools that any amateur can use for any smarmy, anti-intellectual purpose.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

That's the Angelou line we hear most often at communication conferences in general and speechwriting conferences specifically. On its face, it's undeniably true.

Yes: People are more likely to remember how they felt when they were with you than what precisely you told them, or how you were dressed.

But only the shallowest professional public relations person or the greenest amateur believes that the purpose of life on planet Earth is inextricably tied to the fuzzy feelings of the people who happen to be sitting before you. So somebody remembers that you looked at your shoes when he said something sexist? Good. And we need more speakers, not fewer, who have the courage to stand in front of an audience and express disagreeable ideas that make them feel bad.

People used to say, "It's not what you say that matters, but how you say it." Now they pass off this Angelou line as a less clich├ęd way to say the same thing.

But the thought is partly true, and it's almost perfectly banal.

Maya Angelou is dead. Let this weak-minded sentiment of hers—or at least the way that Americans interpret it, as a cockeyed commandment to charm and emotionally mollycoddle everyone we meet–die with her.

And speechwriters must do their best to treat all the people they quote as the living thinkers they were rather than the infallible Founding Fathers or the Great Authors or Civil Rights Martyrs who would not want to bully and bore modern audiences with their bromides. —DM

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