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Simon Parke: Carry on speaking

29 April 2009

FRIENDS, Romans, countrymen — lend me your ears. Listen to my mess­age, hewn from the forests of truth. And believe me when I say, as God is my witness: oratory is making a come­back.

It is the Obama effect, really. A man who has proved himself start­lingly good with the autocue has put the spoken word back on the map. We have had good speakers be­fore; but Barack Obama is “now”, he’s black, and he’s the President. After George Bush’s error-prone fumblings, pray silence for the rhetoric of Mr Obama, crashing through walls of seasoned political scepticism like a tidal wave through deckchairs.

The BBC has responded with The Speaker — a talent show to find the best young orator in the UK. And what a career-move it could be; for even if they do not become world leaders, there is serious money to be made from after-dinner speaking.

Oratory, however, like sheep-shearing or kicking a football, is a skill, not a virtue. To say that you are a world-champion sheep-shearer says nothing about the con­tent of your heart, and it is the same for orators. Hitler was a wonderful or­ator, as was Abraham Lincoln, but the outcomes were different. The power of words is the power of the con-man as well as the visionary.

Hitler was famous for showing a complete lack of inhibition when he spoke, and people believed what he said. It is passionate, emotional — so it must be true. The Greek dem­agogue Demosthenes also believed in presentation. Content was not really important — just delivery, delivery, delivery.

Rhetoric, the art of verbal per­suasion, is morally neutral. The only real question for the orator is this: to what end shall I put my skill? The former US President Bill Clinton still believes in the spoken word. His favourite example was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and he defines a great speech as one that changes the way people think; for then they might also change what they do.

Oratory thrives particularly in a crisis; and if there is no crisis, the orator must create one. Churchill’s crisis was clear, and, in 1940, his words went to war quite as much as the Spitfires. But often there is more crisis within the speaker than in the world he or she denounces: the gift of oratory has been the gift of almost every manipulative and danger­­ous religious leader down the years. People are swept off their feet, but swept into hell. The wise Socrates had a deep distrust of oratory.

In the cold light of day, it is not the speech we remember, but the sen­tence or the silver-bullet phrase. The Sermon on the Mount — ten minutes, and the Gettysburg Address — two minutes, both had them; while King’s “I have a dream” speech is remembered mainly for those four words. And Mr Obama’s genius? That will be remembered in three words: “Yes we can!”



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