April 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Strictly speaking

By Alan Saunders
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“I’m not going to bore you with a lot of oratory, because I’m not an orator,” Sir Les Patterson once remarked. “I’m an Australian politician.” He was unfair to his breed and to his country as well. Australia’s reputation for tongue-tied inarticulacy or, at best, strong silence, still much cherished in the Old Dart, is ill-founded; our politicians attain considerable eloquence. Think of the solid decency of Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ speech, the passion of Paul Keating at Redfern and Kim Beazley’s concession speech in 2001 – a noble oration so good you were left thinking that had he made more speeches like that, he wouldn’t have had anything to concede.

Political oratory is clearly in decline, though. It’s easy to blame TV, particularly the sound bite, for this but I suspect the real problem lies elsewhere. As Canberra and Westminster creep steadily towards a more presidential style of government, parliament – which ought to be the great arena of the nation, the one place where you can be confident of hearing good argument and fine rhetoric – has steadily become less important. William Hague, the former leader of the British Conservative Party, was a victim of this. He regularly outperformed Tony Blair in Prime Minister’s Question Time, but because it happened in parliament, hardly anybody noticed.

Oddly, this has not happened in the great home of presidential government. Barack Obama is certainly a fine speaker (and, let’s be fair, even George W Bush could occasionally muster eloquence, as he showed when he stood with a bullhorn on the ruins at Ground Zero), but then Washington is full of good public speakers: American politicians have to be good because the constitution ensures that Congress still has an indispensible role to play in government. These speeches may be careful and lawyer-like, but they are good speeches.

Another thing Americans have in their favour is the sermon. We have sermons too, of course, but not like American sermons, not like the Baptist sermons that furnished the armature of one of the greatest speeches of the last century: Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’, which combines biblical quotation with reference to classic American texts, and is not afraid of repetition (four consecutive sentences begin “Now is the time” and “I have a dream” is reinforced eight times).

Needless to say, to turn from American political rhetoric to Strictly Speaking, ABC TV’s new public-speaking contest, which will air later this year, is to lower the tone a bit both emotionally and intellectually, but let’s not be too harsh. The host, Andrew Hansen, is trying far too hard, but the judges are serious and helpful and the contestants (each delivering a two-minute prepared speech and a second off-the-cuff, one-minute number on a subject they’re given) are never less than capable. Sadly, though, this is not one of those blood-drenched talent shows over which Simon Cowell looms like Titus at the Colosseum, and we don’t get to hear the ones who didn’t make it to the competition proper, with, one assumes, their sweaty brows, their rambling speeches and a fixed, hunted look in their eyes.

The theorists of classical oratory – the personal trainers of the guys in togas – typically divided speeches into three categories. There were the forensic, addressed to a jury and concerned with the evaluation of a past action such as a crime; the deliberative, addressed to an assembly and concerned with the evaluation of a proposed action; and the epideictic, delivered in honour (or dishonour) of its subject (the sort of thing you get today from the best man and the father of the bride). Most of the speeches on Strictly Speaking tend to mingle the deliberative with the epideictic: you take a subject and try to persuade the audience to agree with your viewpoint.

Unfortunately, there is a fourth mode – unknown to the Ancients – and it proves almost impossible to avoid in these speeches. That mode is stand-up comedy. You soften them up with a joke and you’re away; sometimes you also carry on with a joke and sometimes you end with a joke, though some of the best contestants manage to start with a joke and then turn things around so that the audience suddenly finds itself staring at a serious point. I particularly like the guy who starts with observational comedy about dunnies and then takes us to the problem of depression in our society. Something similar happened with World Series Debating, the ABC’s earlier oratorical TV show, on which I appeared a couple of times. The pressure was always on not so much to argue persuasively as to make people laugh. Audience applause determined the winners, but I never knew whether they were judging our logic or our jokes.

The other problem here is content. It’s all very well to make a speech about public speaking itself or why there’s nothing wrong with being a single mother, as two of the contestants here do, but this is not the sort of thing that the orators of ancient Greece and Rome cut their teeth on. They were told to imagine, say, what Achilles would have said when he was given the news of the death of Patroclus. The task was to illuminate the motivation of the character they had assumed and to convey the emotional impact of what they were describing. There was a weight to what they did, which we seem unable to shoulder these days.

Sometimes, I listen to ‘I Have a Dream’ much as I might listen to Bach or Miles Davis. The peroration is sheer music. King soars, free of his notes, and leaps from summarised travelogue (“the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire”, “the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado”) to a conclusion he is not ashamed to borrow from an old spiritual: “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” My soul soars when I hear this – and there are no laughs in it at all.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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