A lot of Hot Air


The BBC reveal their guide to making speaking in public more interesting for the listener.

There is an art to public speaking. But all too often those called upon to speak have little idea how best to engage with their audience, be it co-workers, a classroom or members of the public.

Very true. I remember the first time I had to speak in public, as an awkward teenager running for a position on the (long forgotten) National Union of School students executive against someone destined to become a very successful writer. I had been politicized by National Front (so-called) “adults” handing out leaflets outside my school gate. Looking for a way to show my opposition I attracted the attention of a left-wing teacher by reading a copy of “Socialist Challenge”in class. (I had bought it from the station newsagents at Herne Hill: a hotbed of sedition at the time. ) After being sent to meet a man in regulation ex-RAF greatcoat and kaffiyah worn as a scarf I was promptly signed up by the SWP and sent out to convert other “yoofs” with my devastating oratory. (Nowadays they would probably just give me a PC and point me at Harry’s Place I expect.)

Nothing had prepared me for public speaking. Every previous effort of teachers and parents seemed to have been directed at keeping me quiet. By contrast everything in my opponents previous life seemed to have prepared him to speak with the utmost confidence. He emphasized words, maintained eye contact and appeared to exude sincerity. By contrast I mumbled, only made eye contact to stare aggressively and must have looked like the artful dodger attempting to address the local neighborhood watch. Needless to say he eviscerated me and won the post.

Chastened, (and beginning to realize how society worked to the disadvantage of those who could not articulate themselves well enough) I resolved to learn how to speak and took to watching how politicians managed it. Two in particular seemed to me way above the rest, and, perhaps because I did not agree with the politics of either,it was easy to study the form rather than the content of their speeches.

The first was Enoch Powell, who although burdened with the remnants of a Birmingham accent was still a mesmeric master of language – although rather too much in the grammar schoolmaster style for me to aspire towards his kind of oratory and usage of classical allusion.

The second, Tony Benn, was much more homely. I heard him speak at Brixton town hall in the days before he was a mere after-dinner speaker. He charmed everybody, including the Tories who had come to heckle him. You found yourself trusting him (is it ridiculous to say that there was something of the Michael Caine about him I wonder?)

Dangerous men? Possibly. But the power of a good speaker should never be underestimated.

So do you have any tales of public-speaking? Or any views on politicians as communicators? The BBC’s “expert vocal coach” goes for Rudolph Giuliani. Chris Tarrant and Bill Clinton as the best of the modern bunch (Surely we can do better?)

These days after several years in Adult education and Workers education classrooms I persuade myself that I have developed a reasonably interesting style (well, nobody has actually fallen asleep since I did my PGCE.) But I find that as I get older it is my own ears which are becoming much more selective.

The BBC however, may have had the answer to how to become an effective speaker in their archives all the time…..

Works for me anyway…..