Yesterday I was looking forward to attending an event for class. It was optional, as most of our events are, but I was willing to take time off from working on Clinton’s campaign to attend this lecture. The event took place at St. Anselm’s Institute of Politics with guest speaker Alexander Heffner, host of PBS Open Minds. Heffner’s speech was supposed to be about millennials, media, and the future of civic discourse. As a millennial myself, I found this topic to be fascinating and was excited for the lecture to begin. When the clock struck 4pm, I became apprehensive. The group of St. Olaf students I came with were the only students in attendance besides the St. Anselm students who had organized the event. Why wasn’t there anyone else in attendance? Did St. Anselm students know something about Heffner that I didn’t? I was right to be apprehensive.
Heffner is the youngest public TV show host at 26 years old and a graduate of Harvard University. Obviously he is extremely intelligent, he would have to be to have accomplished all he has. His intelligence, unfortunately, did not come across in his speech. Within the first five minutes of his lecture I was lost. He was extremely confident when he spoke, but his speech was practically incomprehensible. In many ways it reminded me of Trump’s event that I wrote about previously, except that Heffner had none of Trump’s charisma. While Donald Trump made no sense, he was at least entertaining to listen to; Heffner on the other hand literally put people to sleep.
I honestly did try to pay attention; at one point he made an interesting remark about millennials’ protest of microagressions, and how he would like to see the protests on a more national level. While not sure I agreed with what he was saying, I was at least momentarily interested in his speech, unfortunately he soon drifted off onto a tangential topic and I once again lost interest. More importantly, I lost the ability to follow his train of thought. The way he talked reminded me of someone leaving an answering machine, jumping from one topic to another with no discernable train of thought.
At the end of his speech he offered to take questions – the room was awkwardly quiet. No one had been able to follow his speech, even the students who had organized the event, so no one knew what to ask about. Finally, one of my classmates asked an interesting question about what effect the transition from having bipartisan groups or schools host political debates to having news outlets host has on civic discourse. Heffner claimed that it was a great question, and then pretty much failed to answer it, beyond saying that yes, it does have an effect. Heffner then continued to talk for over five minutes, giving me the impression that he just really likes to hear himself talk.
Heffner was asked two or three more questions, all of which he answered in similar fashion. He made a number of obscure references to papers and articles that almost no one in the audience understood and then continued talking for far longer than the question warranted. One of my classmates literally left the room and waited in the bathroom for over ten minutes, only to come back and find that he was still talking about the same question. One thing that was astounding to me was his apparent inability or refusal to see how bored his audience was. One of the most important aspects of being a public speaker is your ability to read your audience. Heffner failed spectacularly in that regard.
Although I did not learn anything about millennials, media, and the future of civic discourse I did learn a few important lessons. Firstly, being smart and well informed does not necessarily translate into being a good public speaker. Secondly, confidence is not always key, sometimes you can be one hundred percent sure of yourself, and still fall flat. Thirdly, if his TV show is anything like his speech, I have no desire to watch it.