Mario Cuomo, and the Challenge of Rhetorical Success – (Insight from James Fallows)


There’s a scene in Good Morning Vietnam where an officer is trying to explain to Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) why he, Cronauer, isn’t actually funny. The officer quotes from what he has “studied” about comedy, showing Cronauer what is funny. Of course, it wasn’t funny at all.

In other words, you don’t study yourself into being truly funny if you don’t have “funny” in your DNA to begin with…

For some reason, I thought of that scene as I read a magnificent paragraph on what makes for a truly effective speaker,

Mario Cuomo during his most famous speech, at the Democratic Convention in 1984
Mario Cuomo during his most famous speech, at the Democratic Convention in 1984

written by James Fallows in his tribute to Mario Cuomo. He captured why speaking well is so very hard. His article is titled: Mario Cuomo, a Thinker in Public. Here’s the paragraph:

Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skill in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.

Let’s look at these as a list. To achieve rhetorical success, you need:

  • to have a good voice
  • to have physical bearing
  • to have actor – or announcer – type skill in presentation
  • to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony
  • to understand the intellectual shape of speech
  • and to understand the emotional shape of speech

Not much to master, is it?

Here’s a reminder – there are a lot of bad-to-mediocre speakers out there. Rhetorical effectiveness is not easy!

You know those articles and books on what it takes to be a good writer? Well, many aspiring writers, including published authors, read those books, and never become good writers.

And many speakers never rise to true rhetorical effectiveness.

Mario Cuomo did.

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