The Art of Speaking  

Take Churchill's advice

Decline of public speaking makes us so much poorer

By Geoff Johnson

If we learn anything useful from the news these days, it is that history has proven Winston Churchill to be prophetic when he said:

"Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king."

Nonetheless, observers of the political process, both in the U.S. and here in Canada during the recent general election, bemoan the decline of oratory.

As far back as 1984, Henry Fairlie, writing in the New Republic, claimed that "politics is starved not only of eloquence but of argument as well."

And he had not even heard Donald Trump ("I know words, I have the best words"), a possible leader of the free world whose speeches, virtually devoid of any substance, border on illiteracy.

B.C.'s English language arts curriculum recognizes reading, writing, listening and speaking and the intended learning outcomes for oral language, include explaining, arguing and entertaining.

In practice, though, these speaking skills are often less emphasized in the classroom.

Great orators from Pericles and Demosthenes to Lincoln, Churchill and Ghandi have demonstrated that the spoken word, or at least words spoken well, have the power to change the course of history.

Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama demonstrated the truth of the often-quoted historical reference: "When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.'

"But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'" 

In 1963, U.S. president John F. Kennedy summed up Churchill's speech writing and speaking achievements, saying:

"In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone — and most men save Englishmen despaired of England's life — he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."

Churchill was, of course, a gifted writer as well as orator, and understood, as he said in 1938, that "a state of society where men may not speak their minds cannot long endure."

Why, then, is the great value of the ability to speak in public not a more significant part of our English language curriculum?

It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that an inability to speak in public hobbles an individual's ability to fully participate in a democratic society where those who can and will speak tend to win the day.

Churchill established four essential principles, all notably absent in the speeches of many of today's politicians, that he believed students of English must learn and practise.

The first is correctness of diction. Knowledge of a language is measured by an exact appreciation of words. Churchill himself was a master of the richness of our language.

The second is rhythm. Perhaps Obama alone is the master today of the rhythm of the spoken word and understands that, as with music, what happens between the words and sentences can be as important as the words themselves.

Churchill's third "must" is what he called the accumulation of argument. A series of facts is brought forward, and listeners are able to anticipate the conclusion.

This ability was notably absent from contenders in Canada's federal election and is missing without a trace in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Last, advised the great orator, is the use of argument by analogy — establishing meaning through verbal pictures.

Elvin T. Lim, a political scientist from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, has chronicled the gradual dumbing-down of oratory as part of political discourse.

His 2008 publication The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, looks specifically at U.S. presidential speeches, yet his observations have relevance across the spectrum of our own nation's political discussions.

Lim says speeches given by politicians of every stripe are increasingly filled with vacuous statements that do not invite rational disputation.

Speeches are designed to maximize applause lines, stroke the emotions and appeal to our intuitions, while being lean on substance.

Perhaps, as Fairlie claimed, the first reason for the decline of oratory is that "the audience for oratory has disappeared."

That is probably the most compelling reason why a true appreciation of oral language skills should be re-emphasized as part of every student's English language experience.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools and lives on Vancouver Island.


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About the Author

The mission of a Toastmaster Club is to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment that offers every member the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.

There are eight Toastmasters clubs in the Central Okanagan.

For more information and/or to find a club near you, check http://www.toastmasters.org.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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