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The Art of Public Speaking By Mark Angus, Principal, The British International School Shanghai, Nanxiang Campus


At The British International School Shanghai, Nanxiang Campus, as part of their International Award programme, secondary school students are being schooled in the ancient art of public speaking, or oratory, culminating in a competition in April 2010. We consider it to be a vital skill with far-reaching benefits, both practical and philosophical, and one that empowers and enables students, gives them confidence and poise and prepares them to be aware, compassionate and committed citizens of the future.

ASK THE EXPERTS Sophist (hence the pejorative connotations associated with the word ‘sophistry’ today). Nevertheless, the ability to construct an argument was seen as central to being able to find truth, as well as being essential in practical matters such as adjudicating in a court of law, or deciding upon a course of action to be taken by society. In Ancient Rome, public speaking was a crucial part of public life, so much so that the scholar Quintilian believed that an orator should be trained from birth. Like his Greek predecessors, he emphasised the idea that oratory should have an ethical application, and therefore at this time the widely-held view was that a good public speaker was, by default, a good citizen. Paradoxically, however, there was also a move at this time towards seeing oratory primarily as a means of entertainment or cultural analysis (many orators achieved great wealth and fame) and it began to play a less important part in the political decision-making process, although it still remained important in law.

For as long as human beings have lived together in any sort of grouping or society, the art of public speaking has been central to these societies. This is because any decision that is taken by more than one person – from the profound to the mundane – will necessarily involve an exchange of views, attempts to bring others around to a common opinion or the arguing and defending of a position. The ability to persuade and inform others, to present an argument or to refute one, to express a vision or counteract another’s standpoint, is therefore integral to man’s ability to co-exist peacefully, and developing these skills today in the citizens of tomorrow is what we are aiming to do in this programme. That the value of and need for these skills in society has long been recognised is evidenced by a brief survey of the role of the public speaker throughout the history of Western civilisation. Oratory was the means through which political and judicial decisions were taken in Ancient Greece, as well as the way new ideas and theories were disseminated. Heroes in The Iliad were considered wise and great leaders as a result of their abilities to advise and exhort those around them, and any citizen who wished to succeed in court, in politics or in social life had to learn techniques of public speaking. Indeed, classical philosophers believed that the art of public speaking was not only a means of communicating truths, it was also the way in which truth could be discovered, requiring as it does the ability to order and classify thoughts and arguments. The worth of oratory was taken further by the Sophists, who are believed to have written

the first manual on public speaking in the fifth century BC, and who in essence saw public speaking as a means of democratisation, as they sought to prove that human excellence, or virtue, was not a result of the accidents of birth or privilege but rather a skill that could be learned and taught, and that the skills and techniques required by successful oratory were central to this idea.

“For as long as human beings have lived together in any sort of grouping or society, the art of public speaking has been central to these societies” Later thinkers and speakers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle likewise gave much and detailed consideration to the way in which oratory was linked to the idea of virtue, although in broad terms their emphasis lay much more on the importance of dialectics – the resolution of disagreement through rational discussion and ultimately the search for truth – rather than placing value on the mastery of rhetorical techniques alone, making them essentially anti-

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After the decline of the Roman Empire, the study of the verbal arts likewise went into decline for several centuries, but began to be valued once more in medieval Europe with the founding of the first universities, where oratory was emphasised as a vital component of a liberal arts education (the Trivium consisted of the study of grammar, rhetoric and logic). If we move forward to the more recent past, oratory can be seen to have once again assumed a prominent role in public life. While we may have moved away from consciously assuming a link between the orator himself and virtue (i.e. the idea that the public speaker is necessarily, through the mastery of oratorical skills, a virtuous person) there is nevertheless a clear connection with the ancient world and its values in that the great public speeches of recent – and very recent – history, and indeed the context in which the majority of public speaking occurs today, are associated with ideas of ‘right’ – with addressing the problems of society, of enacting change, of making the world a better place in which to live. One only has to think of recent elections, or the nature, direction and tone of the debate on climate change, to see the vital role that oratory continues to play in society. For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy and vision are perhaps best remembered and encapsulated through his many fine political speeches, not least his House Divided address in 1858, or the Gettysburg Address of 1863. Winston Churchill’s addresses to the British nation during WWII, and in particular during the Blitz, live on in the collective memory of people far too young to have heard them delivered. President John F Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1962 was undoubtedly integral to securing the American’s people’s support for the space race, while his 1961 muchparaphrased inaugural address – “Ask not what your country can do for you” – set the tone for

ASK THE EXPERTS his presidency and, some would argue, laid the foundations of both his legacy and his legend. People who know nothing of the life and death of Dr Martin Luther King know of his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963. In much more recent times, President Barack Obama’s exhortation – “Yes, we can” – at his speech in New Hampshire during the 2008 presidential campaign was in no small part responsible for the success of his campaign, while many political commentators contend that the current unpopularity of the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is due at least partly to his ineffectiveness as a public speaker. Perhaps without our even knowing it, therefore, oratory has a profound effect on what and who what we remember from history and has affected our perception of social or political ‘right’ and justice. Nevertheless, it could be argued that as we enter the second decade of the twentyfirst century, technological advances and the accompanying revolution in both personal and business communication have rendered the art of public speaking obsolete. Anything we need to say can be communicated quickly by email or text message, or via social networking sites. And these informal means of communication mean that the techniques of rhetoric and logic, of verbal dexterity and inventiveness, that are the hallmark of the good public speaker have no place in the modern world. However, at The British International School, Nanxiang Campus we contend that, if anything, the need to educate a new generation of welltrained, effective and highly-skilled orators is more pressing than at any time in recent history (and not only in a reactionary sense as a counter measure against the all-pervasive and yet increasingly acceptable illiteracy of the text message and Twitter). The very process of presenting a speech requires students to

“One only has to think of recent elections, or the nature, direction and tone of the debate on climate change, to see the vital role that

look at and think about the world around them, to marshal their thoughts and to take time to think and consider the viewpoints and opinions of others. It requires a speaker to be in command of their facts, to use reason and self-discipline in the construction and communication of their view and to lay out clearly and coherently thoughts and feelings that may otherwise be unformulated ideas and notions. Furthermore, while the successful public speaker is not necessarily virtuous, they are by necessity thoughtful and deliberate, passionate and committed, persuasive and persuadable. Students of public speaking are good researchers, have a good understanding of history and are engaged by current affairs. In short, they think, they consider, they care. Nevertheless, learning about the art of public speaking is not only about what you can do for your country, to echo JFK. There are undoubted benefits for the individual as well. For instance, you cannot possibly get to your feet in front of your peers with an ill-prepared speech and poorly thought-out ideas. The very formality – and yes, the pressure – of the occasion demands that a public speaker always give of their best and develops good independent learning skills. Further practical skills to do with posture and gesture, voice production and tone and facial expression are all extremely useful byproducts of studying oratory. To be successful in a public speaking competition you need to stand straight and tall without looking forced or uncomfortable. You need to speak loudly and enunciate clearly, while not sounding as though you are reading from an autocue. The play of your features should be both naturallooking and well-rehearsed. And all of this in front of a room full of people, while trying to communicate complex ideas and very personal thoughts and feelings. No wonder Quintilian thought that you needed to begin training to be a good public speaker from birth!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Mark Angus read English and Drama at Flinders University Adelaide where he specialised in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. He also has an MA in Early Modern Studies from King’s College, London where his main focus of study was the repertories of 16th- and 17th-century playing companies. He gained his PGCE in Secondary English from the Open University and was previously the Academic Deputy Head and Head of Boarding at Westminster Cathedral Choir School, a boys’ preparatory school in central London. Mark Angus has published articles in a variety of journals on a diverse range of subjects, from Victorian crime to the theatre of Sophokles, and has also written for the theatre and radio. His Interests include literature, theatre, wine, sport and travel.

Journal of the British International School


Cadogan and Hall Archive - Public Speaking  

An article discussing the history of public speaking and some practical advice for speakers.