Why Talking is One of the Greatest Art Forms

I love hearing people talk.

Everyone has their own little jibber jabber, way of speaking — the slang, rhythm, intonation they use. In a way, they’re like musicians, bending words and sentences to shape what it is they’re trying to say.

Talking is probably the greatest form of expression, the one most utilized in day to day life. Next to body language, of course. But coming from people who are well-spoken, and even those who are not, talking can be an art form unto itself.

Sometimes I like to sit in a restaurant, maybe on a park bench or a subway, by myself. And I just listen to people talking to each other. The way they stop and start, get animated about certain things, make jokes and so on. It’s such an interesting thing, eavesdropping like that. It’s like they’re performing, even though they don’t know it.

When we think of art, we often think of common things — music, movies, theater, visual arts, writing, poetry and such. Rare is it, however, that we’d put something like speaking in that list.

But speaking, talking, conversation, these things are probably among the most creative, dynamic — and most importantly, popular — art forms in existence right now.

Witness the rise of TED Talks and the resulting intellectual conference business.

At colleges, great lecturers are the professors whose classes are most in demand.

In politics, the more well-spoken candidate is often the more popular candidate — check out Donald Trump for proof of that.

In radio, the format with the second-largest group of listeners isn’t Top 40 or hip-hop — it’s talk.

Podcasts, most of them are just people talking to each other.

And in comedy, where stand-up is experiencing a renaissance, what is powering that, if not merely someone talking into a microphone?

Of course, the content of what people are saying is what makes all of these things so interesting. If the topics aren’t interesting, if the way they’re speaking isn’t engaging, doesn’t keep you entertained, you might not want to listen. And hell on earth is having to listening to someone else’s dumbass conversation.

But even those things — the dumbass conversations — there’s something to be gained from them. One of the things I like to do when I’m in a place I’ve never been before is turn on the talk radio station, hear what kind of crazy things are on the airwaves. Less crazier, listening to local sports radio, hearing the types of people who call up, what they have to say.

Sometimes on Sundays, if I’m in the car, I’ll try to tune in to one of those big evangelical broadcasts. The ones that are airing from some giant megachurch in the Bible Belt. I never know who is giving the sermon, and I’m quite possibly the furthest thing one could be from religious. But just hearing the preacher talk, the way he delivers the message — God’s message! — it’s so exciting. Church is like the greatest show on earth.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. I just think people are less conscious of how deeply in the throws of talking-as-art-form they really are. They don’t really think of talking in that way, because talking is something almost all of us — barring disability, of course — can do.

In fact, I think most people hear others talk and think — “Oh, anyone can do that.” I get it, yeah, anyone can get on the radio and just… talk. That’s so easy. But frankly, it’s not. You hear someone like Howard Stern on the radio, this guy is a pro. There are so many things that go into what he’s doing that you’re not really paying attention. He’s so good at this stuff, you don’t notice.

Things like pacing, rhythm, intonation, sequence of questions (in the case of when he’s interviewing someone), the language he’s using, is he passive, is he aggressive, is he making jokes, is he serious, is there dead air, how much dead air is there, how long do you wait to say something if there is dead air. Without even considering what exactly he’s talking about, that’s a lot of stuff he needs to be conscious of.

A lot of times I think what separates people in other art forms from that proverbial next level — that level where they can sort of cross over into the larger pop culture conversation — is how well-spoken they are, how communicative they can be. The less communicative, less able they are to get a point across, the less ability they have.

Consider, for example, the case of Mike Tyson. Mike is Mike and who he was in his time of boxing dominance, that can never be taken away from him. But what separated him then, and what has continued to separate him as time has gone on, has been his ability to speak. The guy is a lively conversation, always ready with a quote. To wit, there is this:

I’m the best ever. I’m the most brutal and vicious, and most ruthless champion there’s ever been. There’s no one can stop me. Lennox is a conqueror? No, I’m Alexander. He’s no Alexander. I’m the best ever. There’s never been anybody as ruthless. I’m Sonny Liston. I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one like me. I’m from their cloth. There’s no one that can match me. My style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children. Praise be to Allah.

You may not like what Tyson has to say — heck, even Tyson himself doesn’t always like what he has to say — but it’s his ability to say it that at least makes you perk up and take notice. Similarly, Muhammad Ali, Roy Jones, Floyd Mayweather — all these guys could talk like nobody’s business. Beyond wins and losses, it’s why we remember who they are.

In music, some might say talking — not music itself — is the differentiator. That artists who can express themselves outside of the three-minute pop song, they’re the ones who are built to last.

Witness Kanye West. True, he is an engaging, thought-provoking individual regardless of medium, and it doesn’t hurt that his songs are great, too. The songs must come first, of course. But if Kanye were reduced to songs, he wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable as he actually is. He would just be a guy with good songs. Yet, he is so much more.

One can see how important talking is to someone like Kanye — and just how much of an artist he is at it — by observing how he’s perceived of late, when the physical voice in which he might ordinarily convey a thought, is no longer in use. Here he is using his Twitter account.

Sure, these are nominally important statements. But reduced to a Twitter account, where his stream-of-consciousness rants lack his typical verbal bluster, his messages don’t register. Stripped of voice, of being spoken out loud, the tweets are just that — tweets. Words on a screen, here and then quickly forgotten.

Had Kanye said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” via Twitter and not television, had he typed it instead of said it, it would lack the same zing. In fact, it would have meant nothing at all.

One of Kanye’s best, most memorable songs, is called “Last Call.” Half of it is just him talking, telling his story. On his debut album, The College Dropout, it was the finale, the last thing people heard before the CD ended. Not only a song, but more importantly a monologue. Not read, but spoken. Think about that.

There are obviously many other great speakers, and I’m merely scratching the surface here. My point was merely to show how important, how interesting — how artful! — speaking can be. How something so obvious, so easily done, can be turned into an instrument of expression.

Hopefully, you come away from this listening more carefully to the words being said around you, and maybe even begin choosing your own a little better.

Not everyone is good at it — and surely, not everyone is able to do it publicly — but talking, it’s the one art form we’re practically born with the skill to do.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.