Monday, April 18, 2011

Beard, Mary. "What Makes a Great Speech?" GUARDIAN Ferbruary 26, 2011.

When the Greeks read of Demosthenes speaking through the pebbles, or trying to make himself heard above the waves, or declaiming loudly as he climbed up hill, almost out of breath, they were grasping an important truth of ancient culture: that the art of public speaking could be learned, that the techniques of oratory were teachable. In a culture in which oral persuasion counted for almost everything in politics, it was crucial to believe that public speaking was a skill that could be acquired by almost anyone who was prepared to put in the hard work.

Ancient literature was full of advice to would-be orators. Although they are little read now, even by the most devoted students of Latin and Greek, volumes of this stuff survives, dealing with everything from how to move your hands or when to make a joke, to the rhythms, cadences and structures of effective oratory. And Roman boys (the rich ones at least) spent most of their school days practising the art of speech-making. Some of these school exercises still survive: "Defend Romulus on the charge of having killed Remus", the kids were asked; or "Make a speech advising Agamemnon whether or not to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia". The Roman equivalent of the national curriculum was committed to training boys to speak persuasively, even on these flagrantly fictional topics.

The modern world has largely inherited the ancient view that oratory is a matter of technique. True, we do have a romantic notion that some people are "naturals" at public speaking – whether it is something in the air of the Welsh valleys that produces the gift of the gab, or the "natural" sense of timing that great orators share with great comedians. But modern speech-writers always stress the importance of technique, and they advocate many of the same old tricks that the ancients used ("group your examples into threes", they advise – that's the classical "tricolon", which was taken to extremes in Blair's famous "education, education, education" soundbite). . . .

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