TAKE MY WORD
What makes a good speech and why are there so few great orators today?
If you doubt the power of oratory in the 21st Century consider this: one reason Barack Obama is popular is because he appeals to our emotions and aspirations with his personality, powerfully conveyed through his words. And one reason why so many British MPs have so unpopular is because they do not.
It has become normal for words and expressions to become ubiquitous and devalued. People believe that communication is easy, when quite the opposite is true. If anything, communication is at a premium for two reasons. Firstly, the way words are used and the results they achieve remain vital for progress and success. This applies anywhere, in any language. Secondly, words are amplified through modern technology, spreading further, faster. They are more immediate and influential than ever. Despite this, the skills of the great orators risk being lost or forgotten.
Great speeches have several characteristics. Understanding these can help explain why there are (or appear to be) fewer great speakers around today. First, the best speakers are not afraid to be open and personal or to show their passion and values. This builds trust and a connection, and it means listeners get to know the speaker. For example: Barack Obama often refers to his wife and children, while Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech frequently mentions his children. Similarly, Sebastian Coe opened his presentation for London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics with a very personal, engaging story. He spoke about how he watched a black and white television in his school to see two local athletes competing at the 1968 Olympics. He spoke movingly: “That day a window to a new world opened for me. By the time I was back in my classroom, I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.”
Great speakers also show empathy, understand their audience and appeal to their values. This is valuable for any speaker: who is your audience? What are your mutual interests? For example, Winston Churchill understood that people wanted a confident, defiant, resolute leader – a sense of clarity and purpose.
Virtues of honesty, fairness and courage are also hallmarks of a great speech. Typically, we want them for ourselves and we value them in others. Great women, from Emmeline Pankhurst to Aung San Suu Kyi, do this particularly well.
Also, let words suit the moment. Often, with politicians and business leaders this means being clear, determined and unequivocal – “Yes we can” and “A change has come.” Great speakers think about their message and how to engage their audience, and they use the tricks of good oratory (alliteration, imagery and examples, the rule of three, a clear message and even something for your audience to think about or do).
Perhaps the reason that there are so few great speakers around today is that mastering the complexity of modern communications has come to dominate at the expense of traditional values and virtues. For example, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Bill Clinton are great communicators but they are all criticised for values that are seen as skin-deep. Gordon Brown, in contrast, is recognised for his ‘moral compass’ but widely seen as a weak communicator with limited influence. Speakers need to master the message and the media, and this double challenge proves difficult for many.
Also, people seem to be more reticent than in the past about giving of themselves when speaking publicly, perhaps for fear of criticism or ridicule from a much wider range of sources (tweets, blogs, websites and 24-hour news alongside conventional media).
Finally, it may just be the case that the reason we have less oratory now is because we have fewer people who genuinely hold universal values that connect with people. For example, after this year’s expenses scandals and economic problems, can we really say that politicians and executives really understand their leadership role? Do they understand their influence and the expectations of their constituents? I suspect the answer is no – or not completely. In those areas where universal qualities of courage and service remain, for example the military, then great oratory persists from people like Colonel Tim Collins and General Sir Mike Jackson.
Oratory is not detached from society, it reflects it. In the USA there has always been a ‘can-do’ spirit of optimism where the banal phrase ‘Yes we can’ resonates. In the UK, with a more complex mix of emotions, this would clearly be less effective. But what works well everywhere is a clear realisation of what people value – understand that, and you begin to become an orator.