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Have we lost the art of public speaking? Has Twitter taken over? And what can President Obama teach us?

19 November 2012

In the last 6 months I have read interesting articles here and here about the art of public speaking and oratory. Both articles looked to America as a nation who still prize public speaking and Obama as a person who is still able to address, persuade and win over an audience through his words.

The first article (writing from a UK perspective) said this,

The philosopher AC Grayling has complained that we live in a “post-rhetorical culture”…he said British politicians talked in soundbites and tweets, and that our last great orator was Winston Churchill, so we had to look to the US to find the tradition surviving, embodied by Barack Obama. It’s true UK politicians don’t, by and large, give the sort of orotund, poetic, self-delighting speeches that we associate with Churchill’s wartime premiership.

However, though people may no longer want 40 minute speeches today the article went on to say that Churchill faced the same issue.

Actually, it was out of fashion in Churchill’s time: for much of his career people thought him a windbag. Those rolling periods and apocalyptic cadences only really hit the sweet spot when western Europe was peering over the brink of the long drop, families were huddled round the wireless looking for uplift and something with a bit of historical resonance was called for.

So what is different about America and the UK (and I would say even more so Ireland which would be even more cynical of someone who stood up and gave a 40 minute speech in order to ‘rally the troops’ – see my previous blog called, do the Irish love their misery?)?

The reasons Obama can do what David Cameron can’t are fairly straightforward. At the risk of perpetuating a national stereotype, Brits don’t warm to speakers who sound as if they’re playing trumpet voluntaries to themselves. We are, in our political discourse, sceptical and deflating. In a country with a tradition of panto, as the former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins has pointed out, no politician could get away with “Yes, we can”. The reply from the other side of the house would be “Oh, no, we can’t!”

Americans like the high style more: they have an “American dream”; we have “the British way of life”…It’s a token of this that, when Tony Blair…was at his most high-flown he was attacked, rather than applauded, for being presidential.

Instead of oratory, we have soundbites on Twitter which means the art is starting to die out.

Cicero’s rhetoric was adapted to the Roman senate. Churchill’s rhetoric was adapted to radio. Modern political rhetoric is adapted to headlines, photo captions, rolling news and Twitter. There’s more rhetoric around us than ever before. But the less rhetorical it sounds, the less conscious we are of how it goes to work.

The second article I read looked at what Obama (and his victory speech in the recent elections) can teach us.

The speech was approximately 2000 words long, and he employed a technique he has used on other occasions…In the sweeping vista of Obama’s national and international political vision, we also had no fewer than 15 small, individual stories. These ranged from a boy in Chicago, to a Navy Seal in Pakistan, to an eight-year old cancer patient in Ohio. In the firmament of Obama’s oratorical heaven , these are the pinprick stars which bring the sparkle. If you wanted a summary of his reason for using such stories, you can find it in this sentence: ‘when he spoke to the crowd listening to that father’s story, every parent in that room had tears in their eyes, because we knew that little girl could be our own.

BTW – Obama is not against Twitter, I read in The Irish Times that

Just moments after his dream of a second term was realised, the president shared the celebratory tweet, accompanied by the words ‘Four more years’, with his 22.5 million followers, leading to speculation it could be the most shared tweet in the history of Twitter.

The article went on to share that both Obama and Romney used Twitter effectively and voluminously in their campaigns. On election day the website had a record 31 million tweets, hitting a peak of 327,452 tweets per minute. And congratulationary Tweets came in from all sorts of people, for example

Singer Rihanna tweeted: “Put one in da air for the Prez!!!! Our dear Obama!”

And rather more reseveredly David Cameron tweeted: “Warm congratulations to my friend Barack Obama. Look forward to continuing to work together.”

So whilst Obama is not against Twitter as a helpful means of communication he is still an example of the power of public speaking.

QUESTION: What do you think? Do the Irish and the British respond with cynicism when someone stands up to “we can do it?” If so why?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 January 2013 3:45 pm

    Thanks for this interesting article. Another word for this sort of speaker is: “demagogue”. Unfortunately B.O. is also effective at stirring up passions such as resentment, fear & racial animosity. His appeals to economic & social differences are numerous and frequent. It’s well-know, but seldom written about, that he has a large, well-staffed public relations/ propaganda dept. that scientifically examines his every public utterance, carefully crafting his speeches and “testing” their effectiveness in “focus groups”.

    These same advertising professionals have also been credited with devolping his twitter campaign, creating the content of all his tweets and manufacturing many of the bogus “followers” who re-tweet his “talking points”. In his first few years in office there was quite a lot of criticisim of his dependence upon omni-present telepromters used at every speaking event. Also, it deserves mention that he has intentionally copied much of President Reagan’s oratorical techniques and style.

    Would that more Americans had the British scepticism and cynicism your article mentions. Mr Hitler also had great oratory skills, but we don’t separate his brilliant powers of persuasion from the rather unpleasant results of his political programme do we? We should remember that when extolling the speaking ability of the forty-fourth CEO of the USA. This supposedly Christian politician has done more that any other President to promote (and fund with tax-payer monies) anti-family, pro-death constituencies and their agendas of normalising homosexual “marriage” and infanticide. His enthusiasm for drone missiles assassinations sums up his attitude regarding the value he places on human life.

    All the best to you and your ministry of the Word in Dublin. I look forward to reading more from you on this blog. Matt. 6:33

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