Politicial Campaigns: Effective Speechmaking (Tactic Two)

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This article is part three in a series on political campaigns (first part here, second part here). This article features as part of the series, as Tactic Two, however, it is different in style and tone to the previous articles. Whilst still being in the context of public relations and political campaigns. This article can be read in isolation, however, as a discussion on the importance of rhetoric and oration in public speaking generally, especially within political campaigns. Its import to public relations may seem tenuous, but it is vital to remember that speechmaking, rhetoric, and oration are acts of public relations. This is especially true within the context of public policy and political campaigning.

Roman copy of a portrait bust of Plato by Silanion for the Academia in Athens (c. 370 BC)

“I don’t know how you, fellow Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, but for my part I felt myself almost transported by them, so persuasively did they speak. And yet hardly a word they have said is true…”[i]

So, opens Plato’s Apology: Defence of Socrates, which, if you’ve ever read you shall know is actually an attack on rhetoric. What I find ironic is that Plato’s character Socrates rants against rhetoric and yet in doing so uses rhetoric. Rhetoric is the use of persuasive argument to convince your reader or hearer of the validity of your point. Rhetoric, in my opinion is not as empty as Plato claims, it can be used for good or bad, but is merely a tool. In this article I hope to convince you that its importance for good in political speechmaking is to help win a political campaign, and if not to win but to begin to turn the tide. I would add that when used for good, it will always be in defence of truth, justice. And in defence of the following picture painted of a democratic state by the great diplomat, political scientist, and historian Alexis de Tocqueville:


Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (1850)

“I admit that, in a democratic State thus constituted, society will not be stationary; but the impulses of the social body may be regulated and directed forwards; if there be less splendor than in the halls of an aristocracy, the contrast of misery will be less frequent also; the pleasures of enjoyment may be less excessive, but those of comfort will be more general; the sciences may be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance will be less common; the impetuosity of the feelings will be repressed, and the habits of the nation softened; there will be more vices and fewer crimes. In the absence of enthusiasm and of an ardent faith, great sacrifices may be obtained from the members of a commonwealth by an appeal to their understandings and their experience; each individual will feel the same necessity for uniting with his fellow-citizens to protect his own weakness; and as he knows that if they are to assist he must co-operate, he will readily perceive that his personal interest is identified with the interest of the community. The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong; but the majority of the citizens will enjoy a greater degree of prosperity, and the people will remain quiet, not because it despairs of amelioration, but because it is conscious of the advantages of its condition. If all the consequences of this state of things were not good or useful, society would at least have appropriated all such as were useful and good; and having once and for ever renounced the social advantages of aristocracy, mankind would enter into possession of all the benefits which democracy can afford.” [ii]

I appreciate that’s a rather long quotation. Who better to define a democratic society than a man who lived through the French revolution and witnessed both its disasters and success? Who better than the person, who the watched, charted and recorded the rise of the Republic of the United States of America? Of course, as a democratic socialist, I read these lines as a form of socialism prior to Marxism, I may be slightly biased.

Excellent, exemplary, and effective speech-making is probably something you’ve read about before. Amazon Kindle lists 118 titles for ’speech making’. 3,417 titles for ’public speaking’. For ’effective public speaking’ it lists 205 titles, and for ’effective speechmaking’ it lists 14 titles. I believe that many in those searches may be duplicates. The ’effective public speaking’ the top 10 (listed by popularity) were all ’How to’, ’lessons’, ’guides’ or ’self-help’ books. This tells you something about speech-making. People desire to be good at public speaking. The top-selling book was focused on overcoming the fear of public speaking. This doesn’t surprise me, its listed, by many, as the number 1 phobia. Unlike these books, however, I have no ’secrets’ to impart. I am not promising or guiding you through any kind of ’political campaigners guide to public speaking’. I am just discussing theoretically some tactics to use when making speeches. I will also discuss some of the history of rhetoric and oratory. History should be discussed because we do not live in a vacuum, we understand and enjoy good oration and great rhetoric. And our understanding and enjoyment of oration and rhetoric is because it is built on ancient and historic lessons.

Oratory is: ‘The art or practice of formal speaking in public.’[iii]. Today we tend to link it to rhetoric, and simply call it speech-making. Whilst it is both of rehtoric and speechmaking, oration is also being able to speak clearly and precisely. It is also being able to speak eloquently (which doesn’t always mean big long words). It is the ability to project your voice, and emotionally engage a whole crowd whilst seemingly speaking to an individual.

One of the great writing styles of the Ancient world was histographies. These are writings about history, however, unlike modern history books these weren’t about times, dates and events, they were polemical or rhetorical in nature. Take this quotation from Polybius, a writer of ancient histography, regarding handling speeches in historiographical writing:

“The whole genus of orations… may be regarded as summaries of events and as the unifying element in historical writing”[iv]

Titus Livius Patavinus

Histographies didn’t focus so much on the whole of a speech, but on its ’message’. It’s a summarisation of an event, an occasion. Thus when making speeches don’t try and list dates and events, rather speak to the unifying elements of the moment. When making a speech don’t overload with the details, speak to the moment. To historians studying ancient writings, it is well known that ancient histography used rhetoric extensively. That does not mean, as one could read from Polybius’ quotation that histographies made up speeches or even events. Histographies are more akin to the modern ’newspaper chronicling current or recent events than [they are] a modern history book.[v]. What tended to happen was rather an arrangement of information in such a way as to tell the story in the way they desired. Ancient histographies borrowed extensively from the earlier Greek genres of drama and poetry. It is important to realise at this point that these histographies, as is probably the case with Livy, spent more time composing their histories than they did actually studying the history itself. And amongst historiographical writers of the ancient world, there was often arguments about who hadn’t paid enough concentration on their rhetorical composition![vi] I have made some sweeping statements regarding the composition of histographies in the ancient world. Certainly not all are alike, it is the theologian and textual historian Ben Witherington III who writes:

“Roughly speaking we may divide the influences of rhetoric into two schools of approach… [firstly] the more scientific approach to writing history… [based on] Aristotle’s advice about rhetoric and history writing. Polybius, for example, felt that whilst it was the task of the poet to more or to charm, it was the task of the historian to teach or persuade, but to do so by a selection of events and speeches that record what really happened or really was said, however commonplace…”[vii]

The romanticized engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works

It should be noted that this is essentially rhetoric — the historian was to teach or persuade, and others would argue, at the time, that they should do so through the use of moving and charming their hearers. Remember that even renowned ancient historians such as Josephus whilst claiming in the prefaces of their accounts that it was true and unblemished, it is important to realise that they were writing, on the whole, propaganda pieces.[viii]

When you make a speech, do so eloquently, using good and sound oratory, but remember you are polemical, rhetorical in your arguments, you are trying to charm, move, teach and persuade. In this regard you are like Aristotle and others, but you are essentially using the arts of oratory and rhetoric to convince your hearers that you are the one to vote for. Remember that people don’t just use the content of your speech, but the way you speak, to assess whether to vote in your favour. Are you statesman-like in your language and eloquent? Are you down-to-earth, are you selling a vision? You have to determine how you will approach every word — is your pronunciation good, will your phrasing offend someone, will your argument dissuade people? These are all points you should consider. But don’t let anyone try and tell you that you shouldn’t use rhetoric, you have a job to persuade. The question is do you listen before responding in debates? DDo you imply openness, honesty, earnestness and sincerity in your public interactions?

Like the ancient historians your job as a rhetorician and orator is to ’attract the attention of one’s audience by making clear that one’s subject was historically important, essential, personally relevant, or useful to the hearer.’[ix]. Often ancient histographies were about the coming social change or upheaval, and it is important to remember that as a political candidate your speech is certainly about a social change. You are supposed to bridge the gap between the upcoming change, and the past. Be that as a stabling influence, a calm hand on the tiller; or as the radical rebellious rabble-rouser whose intention is to bring forward the change. Where your image and language is, that is where you have placed your public relations efforts, be that on listening, on challenging the status-quo, or on maintaining it. Your speeches should not challenge the image you have, until this point cultivated, though if you choose to do that, you may be seen as brave, and bold, in the face of the ’establishment’.

University of Stirling’s “Be the Difference” Slogan
King in 1964

When attempting to cover the history of oration and rhetoric, there is one element I have largely missed out. I am more biased towards including it that missing it out, simply because I am by training first a Christian Theologian, and only secondarily am I a public relations person. I will not labour the point, great speeches exist down the centuries, coming from the medieval and Reformation-period in the form of homilies (or sermons). These homlies have influenced the way we think of public speaking, and what we call a great speech. Take Martin Luther-King Jnr. — a Baptist pastor, famed for his ’I have a dream speech’, or John F. Kennedy — a Practicing Catholic, famed for his inauguration speech ’Ask not what America can do for you…’. These two men are famed for their speeches in the 20th Century, perhaps above all others. Third we could probably cite the British Prime-Minister Winston Churchill, “We will fight them on the beaches” — a devote Anglican (note that Churchill was trained in Classics at Oxbridge). All these speeches, owe themselves to the Christian Church — to the preaching and teaching of the Church. They ’sell a dream’ or better yet, they show a vision of the future. The Church has been selling a vision of a future life, of a better world, and a better you for nearly 2000 years. In truth they were probably professional Public Relations Officers before Public Relations became a ’thing’.

Portrait of The Reverend John Wesley by George Romney (1789),
National Portrait Gallery, London

The reason I try to argue that there is importance in the Church sermon is not that you have to be a Christian to adopt the principles of great speechmaking. But because since before the Reformation, the greats in the Church have had massive political and social influence. I would need to double check this reference. I believe it was historian professor Dr David Bebbington at the University of Stirling, who wrote that no one can talk of 17th Century Britain without first speaking of John Wesley. John Wesley was an Anglican-Methodist open-air preacher and evangelist. He was the founder of Methodism. Methodism incidentally is also responsible for most of the today’s unions and labour movements. John Wesley’s Sermons, alongside those of his friend (and sometimes distant-rival) George Whitefield, were best-sellers in their day, attracting thousands upon thousands to their field-preaching. The UK’s first mega-church which had 5,311 members and more-non-members in attendance in 1891 was Metropolitan Tabernacle, a Baptist church in London. It’s pastor/minister was Charles Spurgeon, who became known as the Prince-of-Preachers. He served as the minister of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London from age 19 in 1854 until his death in 1892. And finally, for mere examples. In the 20th Century there is the now recently departed, Billy Graham, who was a renowned evangelist and public preacher, attracting thousands to his rallies.

RuPaul Charles’ famous catchphrase from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

These men knew how to make speeches, they knew how to sell their vision using great oration and clever rhetoric. Now I hasten to say my words appear cynical, but they are not. I realise one could be cynical and assume they were just slick-salesman, but they sincerely believed or at least appeared to sincerely believe their own message. That ultimately is the way one must make convincing, and vote-winning speeches. You have to be convinced of your own message before you can convince anyone else.









[i] Plato, Apology: Defence of Socrates from Gallop, David (trans.), Defence of Socrates, Euthyphro, and Crito, (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1977), as used in Perry, John & Bratman, Michael (eds.), Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Third Edition (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27.

[ii] de Tocqueville, Alexis., Democracy in America – Volume I, 1835.

[iii] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/oratory

[iv] As quoted in Witherington III, Ben., The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), 33.

[v] Witherington III, Ben., The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), 3.

[vi] Witherington III, Ben., The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), 39-42.

[vii] Witherington III, Ben., The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), 42, also 11.

[viii] Witherington III, Ben., The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), 3.

[ix] Witherington III, Ben., The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 1998), 11.