What a difference a day makes

On Monday in Helsinki the present president of the United States stumbled and fumbled through a speech variously described as humiliating, embarrassing and verging on treasonous. It was full of ego, pride and anger.

On Tuesday his predecessor delivered a speech in South Africa that was articulate, funny, self-deprecating and profound. Barack Obama was delivering the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late South African leader (also known as Madiba).

People with an interest in presentation skills and public speaking would find little to learn from or admire in the Helsinki comments.

Never mind. There was plenty to admire and learn from in Tuesday’s speech: the vision, the writing, the structure, the delivery. 

If you really want to learn how to use pauses and pacing and inflection to lift words off the page and into the minds of your audience, play that video clip while reading the transcript:

A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts. Look around. 

Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. 

Here’s a little more of the transcript – by way of an antidote to the Helsinki nonsense.

In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China’s model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good? 

The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media – once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity – has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.

So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads – a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. 

Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?