Posted tagged ‘oratory’

Can you speak without being prompted?

January 7, 2014

Apparently not everyone can, and that includes some who have made speaking their particular speciality. The somewhat annoying film director and producer Michael Bay recently agreed to provide a public endorsement of a new Samsung television. However, at the launch event the teleprompter failed, and so did Mr Bay, walking off the stage. Watch it here.

Genuine public speaking is becoming rare, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate it.

The importance of good (political) communication

January 25, 2011

Political careers have been made (and unmade) through good (or bad) communication. People who would struggle to name any of John F. Kennedy’s political achievements will nevertheless quote him saying ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, or ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ Barack Obama’s road to the US presidency undoubtedly began with his extraordinary speech to the Democratic Party convention in 2004. By the same token, Gordon Brown in part failed as British Prime Minister because, coming after Tony Blair, he simply could not match his predecessor’s ability to persuade with his oratory. And now in Ireland, Brian Cowen’s career ended after it became clear he could not or would not address the people to tell them what he was doing, and why, and how it would ultimately benefit them. It is too early to judge whether his policies really were failures (though right now that’s the consensus judgement), but we can certainly say that he failed dismally as a communicator.

Politics is only partly about finding the right policies for the time; it is in equal measure about persuading colleagues, supporters and the people that the policies are right. It is about setting a vision before the public and asking them to share it, and by that device to create a bond of common purpose. People generally will accept hardships and sacrifices if they know what the ultimate prize will be, and this requires skilled communication. If this is not a skill demonstrated by the outgoing Taoiseach, I would have to say that, as yet, I am not persuaded that the other party leaders have it in abundance either. The election campaign may tell us more.

At this time we need what has been called ‘rhetorical leadership’, and it has been identified as perhaps the key ingredient in securing popular support during times of crisis [see for example Ryan Lee Teten, ‘We the People”: The “Modern” Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period’, Political Research Quarterly 2007 60: 669-682]. During this terrible period of upheaval and failure, people need to be inspired and enthused. Let us hope at least some of our leaders are equal to the task.

Oratory with notes (or not)

October 9, 2009

Yesterday I attended a major event at which one of the key speakers discovered, as she reached the podium, that someone had removed her notes and that, therefore, she had no prepared address in front of her. I have to say she never missed a beat, and proceeded to deliver an excellent, well structured, witty and detailed address, for which she received an enthusiastic ovation. It was a great example of expert communication skills, by someone with the confidence to pull it off.

In contrast, some months ago I was at an event at which a well known speaker, on reaching the podium, found the prepared speech and proceeded to deliver it, although it became clear within the first paragraph that it wasn’t his speech at all, but the speech of the person who was to talk after him. This was obvious not least because, as he began to speak, he found himself thanking himself for the excellent speech he had in fact not yet delivered. He also didn’t hesitate and, without any pause, continued with the next speaker’s address right through to the end, not excluding references to his past life that wasn’t his past life at all. The amazing thing was that this didn’t seem to put him off in the slightest way – he was a man obviously used to others preparing his talks, and his task was to deliver them and not wonder too much about the content; or possibly not even notice. But what was the next speaker to do? Yes, you’ve guessed it, he took the notes intended for the first speaker and read them out. It was the most bizarre event I have ever attended.

As I have pointed out before, years ago I used to read out all speeches according to a verbatim script I would prepare in advance. And I swear I was truly awful at it. Believe me, terrible. Then one day I decided to try speaking with just a couple of short notes setting out the structure in front of me, but no detailed text – and I have never looked back. Please forgive the arrogance, but I believe I am a good speaker. But the quality of a speech depends on two things: the amount of thought that has gone into the content, structure and objectives of the speech; and the skill used to deliver it. Some people can do that effectively with a prepared script, but in my experience the excellence of the communication is usually enhanced by the ability of a speaker to convey a degree of commitment and passion (and wit), and all of this is much more effective if it is done with an element of spontaneity that is apparent to the audience.

So if you need to speak in public, go on, throw away those detailed notes, just work out a structure and secure the necessary facts and data, and then speak from the heart.