Speech-making has become virtually a lost art. If anything, oratory is suspect: it has the air of what used to be called ‘sophistry’ – an ancient greek form of speech and argument which relied more on the style than the content to convince.
Yet, paradoxically, in fact today we do just that: we rely so much more on the presentation, the style, the ‘image’ and the ‘feel’ than the rational content. Advertising has made sure of that. To a large degree it has shaped our consciousness and our expectations.
And yet it is true, as Michael Fullilove has written in his introduction to Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches (Edited by Michael Fullilove, Vintage books, 2005): ‘There is no better way to convict a criminal, or defend an innocent, or prosecute a cause, or toast your gran’s birthday, than with a speech.’
Fullilove is a veteran of politcal speech-writing, and thinks that speeches matter. He refuses to believe that television has destroyed the value of speech-making and the historic public meetings where speeches have had great impact in the past. On the contrary, he thinks it is laziness on the part of leaders, party workers and all of us, which has neglected and devalued these meetings.
In contrast, today we have everywhere the PowerPoint presentation … ‘Well,’ says Fullilove, ‘a PowerPoint slide never changed anyone’s life, except maybe for the worse. Speeches change people’s lives.’
The book from which I am quoting is a valuable collection. It has a wide range of texts from addresses within and about Australia, over the last hundred years of so, and as such provides a fascinating representation – yes, a re-presenting – of significant moments in our history, when speeches actually made that history.
But now I find myself wondering about this idea of speech-making and history-making. I am a person given to making speeches, I guess. The kind of speeches I
give are sometimes called sermons, others are called lectures. I
wonder: is Fullilove right, that speeches can change things, even
change people’s lives? Can speeches really make a difference, or are
they just ‘all talk’? Is he just hankering for the power and influence
of a by-gone era?
Graham Freudenberg (another great speech-writer), in his Foreword, has some valuable insights into what makes a great speech. He speaks about the essential relationship between speaker and audience, and how a speaker’s understanding of their audience helps determine the nature and style of the speech, the event itself. Another great idea in that Forword is Freudenberg’s description of a speech as ‘passion controlled by reason’. He goes on to note the importance of logic, of a coherent argument and the central or governing idea. All these points suggest that great speeches are precisely not mere sophistry.
Speaking can make a difference; that’s the message of this book. I have often wondered just how this might be.
Two things occur to me as crucial. First, I think the great speeches are those which draw people out of the separateness and aloneness of our individual, private concerns, and draw us beyond the sense that we don’t count. I (little old me …) don’t matter or have any part to play in the big scheme of things. No, a great speech offers a vision of things, of a new situation, in which I have a part, in which you and I, all of us, are somehow together, we are part of things, and that speech invites to go there, to reach out for this new situation, or to hold onto it (if perhaps we are bieng told that we already have this thing of value and must not let it be destroyed).
So a great speech draws us in and holds us together. It moves us. It moves us.
But second, precisely because it is both passion and reason, a great speech does not overwhelm us with its rhetoric. It does not do what is commonly called ‘a snow job’, hiding from us what is really going on. It opens up the way for us, without blinding us. It does not destroy our sense of judgment. In fact, it appeals to our judgment and invites (not demands) a response. A great speech respects us, as its audience. It appeals to us. it does not commandeer us, forcing us to go with it. It seeks informed consent.
These two ideas seem to me essential to good preaching and good teaching.
There must be both passion and reason. There will be an appeal to a new reality, as it were, and an invitation to go somewhere new, together. But there must also be the respect that allows questioning, even dissent.
Can speeches make a difference?
I am sure Fullilove is right about PowerPoint. I know that what he invites us to see about speech-making has been true and still can be true (even if the media will not even report some of the truly great speeches made today).
The question of whether this is all just ‘a pipe-dream’ or not is really up to us. Do we care enough to gather, to prepare, to make speeches, to listen (that’s a skill too!), and thus to allow ourselves to be moved?
I hope so. Preachers, teachers, speech-makers: believe in your art!