Why do some people view oratory with suspicion? In the wake of the parliamentary debate about whether or not the UK should be bombing IS in Syria, much has been made of the speech by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. Many were inspired by it, while others (including his colleague John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor) took the line that the greatest orators lead us into the greatest mistakes. As Rupert asked me in a post on the Public Speaking Skills Facebook page, is there really a connection? Is oratory dangerous?
This post came two days after Jane had posted an article on our page about the oratory of Sir Winston Churchill, which played a significant part in the British war effort, stiffening sinews and spurring the nation on to victory. Would we view Churchill’s speeches differently if the Nazis had triumphed?
Even linguistic philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, whom we can expect to have given the question a great deal of thought, is dismissive of oratory, saying in an interview:
“I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people.”
Well, needless to say, I disagree. Given that talking is a good way to reach people, why not hone that talking so that it’s as clear, concise and effective as it can be before presenting it to the audience?
Of course it’s the content that counts but I don’t see any problem with packaging it for maximum impact. Quite the reverse. It’s basic human nature to offer the ‘product’ in its most enticing form, no different from polishing a car you want to sell. The crucial factor is the quality of the vehicle or the ideas: if you’re peddling rubbish and people are buying it, shame on you. But, I must also add, caveat emptor.
The two conclusions I draw from this discussion are these:
- Oratory can be powerful, though it can’t actually force anyone to think or do anything they don’t want to. If a speech motivates us to behave in a certain way, it’s because, deep down, we agree this is the right thing to do – the speech is merely the catalyst. We are not lemmings; we can listen to the speech and decide for ourselves.
- If our opponents are skilled orators, instead of pretending their skill is a form of cheating, let’s improve our own game.
Far from fearing oratory, I say three cheers for it!