Monday, 20 December 2010

Oratory - A Dying Art?

Oratory is defined as "skillful and effective public speaking". In my view, this has become a dying art over the years. I regret that speakers are told to use visual aids, because "A picture is worth a thousand words", and that audiences are told that modern man no longer has sufficient attention span to listen to a speaker for more than twenty minutes at a time. The result is that few speakers today have considerable oratorical powers, and that most people have lost the ability to listen. I don't deny that visuals can be helpful dependent on the content of the message, I just decry being told that visuals are essential for a message to be understood. For me, there are few greater delights than to listen to an Orator, hold an audience spell - bound purely by the power of the spoken word.

I have spent most of my life in one form of public speaking or another, and as arrogant as it may sound, I believe that I have been a "skillful and effective public speaker". Feedback from weekly audiences of around 500 people have encouraged me to believe this. Being brought up in Wales gave me an ideal grounding in the art of public speaking. My first performance was at the age of 5, when I delivered a poem at the annual sunday school anniversary in the local Baptist Chapel (the Church was always the Anglican Church: the Chapel was always non-conformist). There was no PA system in those days, and I was schooled in the art of voice projection, and what is now known as body language. There were also many opportunities through school for choral speaking, choirs and debating. All encouraged you on the presentation of whatever message you had. Feedback was given, even though at times it was not always wanted - it could be very harsh. I preached my first sermon in my local Chapel at the age of 15. Actually it wasn't mine, I knicked it off an 18th century preacher who impressed me, as I didn't think he'd mind as it was my first attempt at a full sermon. In those days if someone spoke for less than an hour, they were asked if they were feeling OK.

Because I believe that oratory is a dying art, my heroes tend to be from the past. I'll mention two of them. One inevitably is Welsh (by the way it is a fallacy to say that all Welsh people are great speakers, just as it is to say that all Welsh people can sing), and the other American. There is no desire here to discuss individual life or morals, simply their message and presentation.

David Lloyd George was described by his peers as someone with "very considerable oratorical powers". Put yourself in the House of Commons in 1909, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he forced through Parliament what he called The Peoples' Budget. Listen to these words, "This is a war budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests". Feel the passion and the conviction of a great orator - there really is no need for a nice picture.

It was said of Dr Martin Luther King that, "No public figure of his generation could match the skill with which he made a mastery of the spoken word the servant of his cause". He was undoubtedly the leading light in the American Civil Rights movement. In August 1963, 210,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial, with the highlight of the day being a speech by Dr King, which forever since has been known as his "I have a dream" speech. Do look it up on YouTube, but choose the 17 minute version, as that is the full speech. The written text is also available on the Internet. The Guardian Newspaper nominated this as the greatest speech of the 20th Century. It doesn't do justice to the speech to pick out parts of it, but listen as he speaks, 

"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has give the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds'".

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character". He ends the speech with,

"Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual; 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

This is what oratory is all about. A great message delivered with power and conviction, that can move the very soul of man. This is being lost in a world that only wants its information in bite sized chunks. We are poorer for it.

If you believe there are great Orators about today, why not post a comment and let me know who you think they are. I'd hate to be missing out on something special.

1 comment:

  1. Dad - You'll be embarrassed to hear this but I can confirm for your readers that you are one of the finest speakers I have heard.

    Someone who I believe should be on the list is Churchill - here's the text of his most famous speech, remarkable for its camaraderie with France and brilliantly moving by describing Britain as 'our island.'

    'I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.'