The last weeks of Jon Stewart’s reign on The Daily Show loom large and it’s been fun to see the parade of long-time, favorite guests in the chair. Enter Sarah Vowell – journalist, author and social commentator. Her response to Stewart’s welcome? “I’m glad I could be here at your deathbed, too.”
There’s an inherent tension for me between the principles of effective public speaking and the inescapable reality that many of these rules evaporate in the face of an intelligent and magnetic character. Sarah Vowell is a great example. Here are some of the “principles” that she upends and why, despite this, she is utterly captivating.
Physicality. Vowell plays her body small and understated. She ambles to the guest seat and while she doesn’t exactly “schlump,” her posture is rounded enough that I wonder if it’s the cause of her shallow breathing. Her voice is flat and high pitched, with very little resonance. And except for a cursory wave to the audience, she makes eye contact only with Jon Stewart.
By playing small, Vowell is surprising and unexpected. Her smile is sly. Her face is open but quiet. As for her voice, well, it turns out that she was the voice of the shy, nervous teenager, Violet, in The Incredibles – one of the all-time best animated films. Her awkward physicality amplifies her intelligence, and lets her wry, quirky wit take center stage.
Language. Vowell’s style is conversational and casual. There are plenty of “ums” and “likes” and while she so clearly knows her American history, her discourse is peppered with sentences like, “I thought I was going to write this nice book about this nice French boy.” Or as it relates to her subject, the Marquis de Lafayette, “I’m still cool with him.” Or talking about the American Continental Congress, “They were always a bunch of bickerers!”
Her low-key style is disarming. She so effectively humanizes history with relevance and humor. She calls one of President McKinley’s staff members, “The Karl Rove of the 19th century.” And her reenactment of the dialogue about “fasting” between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, is so funny that I recommend you see it for yourself.
Thankfully, for every rule, there is an exception. Vowell plays her own communication game and she is smart, smart-alecky, refreshing, fun, improvisational, unexpected, and a great storyteller. Enjoy this fabulous five-minute segment of Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show.
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