I’ve always been fascinated by speeches. Someone standing up (literally) for what they believe.
From great historical speeches that shaped nations to the best man’s speech at a family wedding and everything in between. It’s like going to the theatre, watching live sport or going to a gig – you never quite know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what will be said. How the crowd will react. You don’t know how you will feel afterwards. It’s raw. Scary. Exhilarating. Wonderful.
Growing up in a Liverpool, Irish, Catholic family you heard speeches all the time. Every day. From everyone. People didn’t tell stories or have conversations, they gave orations. Declarations. Monologues. They performed. They held the floor whilst they made their point – always with passion – always with extraordinary use of language – not all of it fit to hear before the watershed!
They were determined to influence you; to stir you; to make you laugh or cry. As a child I remember so vividly listening my Nan. Speaking from her arm chair like it was a podium or lectern. Her story-telling was legendary – more often than not it was done on her hind legs – it captured my imagination for persuading – for speech-making. She could by force of personality and power of her eloquence change the course of events or family history. Not that she was conscious of it, but she deployed all the tricks of the great speech-making trade – often using the rhetorical devices of the Ancient Greeks to get her point across. She wouldn’t have seen it like that – to her she was just talking. Brilliant.
Going to Mass provided another regular opportunity to see the art form in the flesh. It was a weekly chance to watch someone stand in front of others and try to persuade. To change minds. To inspire others to action. The homily was, and still is, my favourite part of the Mass. To this day I judge the Priest (sorry Father!) on the quality of their argument; the placing of the Gospel in a modern context; their ability to leave me with a message that I remember long after the Sunday afternoon football that follows.
These early influences were built upon when I realised I’d been bitten by the political bug. I had found a place in which speeches were currency. I would – and still do – watch Party Conferences and Parliament religiously and back then write to MPs to request copies of speeches I had heard – this was in the days before Google!
It continues to be a great passion – I love to listen to someone build an argument in a speech to try to shape opinions and change minds. I look for the theme; the structure of it – does it have a beginning, middle and end; does it hang together as a story; and how do they draw upon the history of yesterday and yesteryear to place their case in context to persuade the audience they have the answers for today. It is one of my favourite things.
This week we were served up a treat with Pope Francis’ extraordinarily-crafted speech to the US Congress – more of that in a future post – and happily we are now in the midst of the party conference season at home. This is a great time of the year for speech geeks like me. Like a golfer waiting for the Masters or a football fan on the morning of the Cup Final.
Over the coming weeks, I will be blogging more about speeches and speech-making, reflecting on some of my favourites in history and seeing what we can learn for our every day life and our work. In the meantime, if you have chance, read the Holy Father’s speech from this week. It will be time well spent.