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Public speaking from Demosthenes to Obama

In our culture oral persuasion counts for a lot, but it seems like we’ve been going downhill. Despite the beliefs of many, public speaking and persuasion are skills that can be acquired.

The comic playwright Aristophanes in the 5th century BC pointed the finger at those clever rhetoricians whose weasel, winning words made what was in fact bad seem good, and vice versa. And, in the end, everyone knew that Demosthenes had cured himself of his stammer only to give a storming series of speeches, so brilliantly advocating a foolish policy that they brought disaster on Athens in its conflict with Philip of Macedon, and led to his own suicide. Even now, we feel squeamish about powerful oratory directed towards unpalatable ends.

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The use of these professional political scriptwriters has turned the politician from an orator to an actor. The best they can do is give a good performance; but it isn’t oratory, any more than the Queen’s Christmas message.

The Romans saw exactly this problem almost two millennia ago. The historian and political analyst, Tacitus, writing at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, reflected on why the quality of oratory in his day seemed to have waned. The answer was obvious: oratory only thrived in a free state where there were real issues to be decided and debated; one-man rule (or, in our case, centrist, corporate, pseudo-democracy) had made the power of persuasive speech redundant.

A little later, Tacitus described the coming to power of the emperor Nero, and his first actions on assuming the throne. These included a speech delivered in praise of the achievements of his predecessor, Claudius – elegant enough, as speeches go, but in fact composed by Nero’s tutor Seneca. The old men in Rome shook their heads. This was the first ruler, they observed, “to depend on the eloquence of someone else”.

As we now know, Nero was only the first such “ruler” of many.

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