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Speeches: Why we hate to read them, and why we do it anyway (Part three of three)

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These days, to hear speaking coaches and others tell it, the style of the speaker counts for more than the substance of the speech.

In the introduction to his anthology, Irish Orators and Oratory, Thomas Kettle addressed this “current” thinking in 1915 by remarking, “Portrait painters assure us that they never quite know what to do with the hands of their subject. The average public speaker would, if he were candid, admit that he seldom quite knows what to do with his own.”

He’s suspicious of the “’trained elocutionist,’ with his schedule gestures and cadences,” because “he’s always on the perilous edge of unreality.

“The ruling law is that a man must be true to his nature, his facts and his emotion,” Kettle says, and proves his point by listing great Irish orators with grave speaking flaws:

The outer histrionic shell does not in the end count for very much. To Byron, Grattan was a harlequin; to others, Burke was a majestic bore; Flood had an air of a broken-beaked vulture; Hussey Burgh bellowed; O’Connell tainted the winds with his perspiring vulgarity; Sheil piped a thin falsetto.

A speaker’s value, “in the judgment of posterity,” writes Kettle, “will depend on his share in impelling the civilization in which he lived towards its assigned goal of freedom and justice.”

Um, what was that again?

Kettle saw the orator’s work as nothing less than to aid in the reconstruction “of the fabric of civilization on a basis of economic justice and wisdom.

That is the task of the twentieth century. In approaching it we are in graver peril from littleness than from bigness. We may well regard with tolerance any evangel which, however it may miss the centre of supreme accomplishment, helps to keep alive the guttered and flickering candles of idealism.

What, friends, is the rhetorical task of the 21st?