What makes a good speech? (Part 2)

Passion, sincerity and authenticity make for a good speech as the blog mentioned (22/5/13) in the context of the recent Anzac Day speech by Dr Brendan Nelson, Australian War Memorial Director, which rather failed to display any of those qualities.

There are also a number of technical rhetorical devices, known from ancient times, which also help although over-use of the formulas can make speeches seem too formal and contrived. The history of these techniques, and speech-writing generally, is discussed in more detail on this site in the review (under Articles and Reviews) of Don Watson’s book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart.

Striking brevity and appropriateness can have a stunning effect. Perhaps the best examples of this are in the Hollywood where would be directors/writers pitch films to producers. The need to capture the attention and interest quickly is vital in an industry with limited memory and limited intelligence. The best example of this the blog is aware of is the pitch for the film Kindergarten Cop which consisted initially of just the words: “Schwarzenegger teaches kindergarten.” On the other hand there is the famous (possibly apocryphal) direction from a studio head to “come up with something completely original …and show me it’s worked before.”

Being somewhere at the right time, with the right words, in an important moment in history can produce dross but it can also produce brilliance. At Gettysburg the respective performances of Lincoln (the second and lesser speaker at the event) and Edward Everett, Harvard President and principal speaker, are prime examples of this. Anyone wanting to learn more about how to write speeches might well read, as well as Watson, Garry Wills’ book about the Gettysburg speeches: Lincoln at Gettysburg The words that remade America. The book also includes a detailed dissection of the core of Greek rhetorical devices through a deconstruction of Pericles’ funeral oration as reported by Thucydides.

This week we have been reminded of the contribution made to having your rhetoric remembered by having the right words at the right time by The Economist Erasmus blog. It looks at two speeches by Muslim community leaders. The first followed the murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh. As the Erasmus blog says: “One of the things that helped calm the situation was a remarkable speech, in a mosque, by a Labour politician of Moroccan origin, Ahmed Aboutaleb. As the religiously observant son of an imam, he had impeccable Muslim credentials. But he sensed that this was not the moment to strike a defensively Islamic note. The most important values in the Netherlands, he declared, were religious freedom, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination. ‘For people who do not share these common core values, there is no place in an open society like that of the Netherlands. Everyone who does not share these values would be well-advised to draw the [obvious] conclusion and leave.’” (http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/index.xml ).

This week a similar opportunity came to Ajmal Masroor. Masroor had been an unsuccessful Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and is involved in a number of NGOs and community groups. His comments came in a Sky TV interview and echoed the Aboutaleb approach focussing on the important of participation in civic life. The Economist blog link above has links to both speeches.

Now the blog has never been a fan of love it or leave it rhetoric – it has been a hallmark of the Alan Jones’ Right and the US radical right – but the Jones approach is the antithesis of the tolerance and moderation advocated by Masroor and Aboutaleb whose appeals are of a different order and import altogether. Moreover, the latter use a more sophisticated version of it. In doing so, they also demonstrate one important example of framing theory through subtle framing around choices.

Of course, in terms of rhetoric, the original Erasmus is also an inspiration. Brilliant, moderate, considered and intelligent he was often considered a trimmer by contemporaries who were more in favour of intolerance and persecution. One can’t imagine him getting a regular slot on either Alan Jones or Ray Hadley, even if they started broadcasting in Latin, and one suspects his comments might be treated today a bit like the UK tabloids treat the comments of the current and immediately past Archbishops of Canterbury. But he would most probably have got on quite well with Masroor and Aboutaleb.