Resurrecting the Lost Art of Oratory

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 17, 2008 · 39 comments

in Manly Skills

“Oratory is the parent of liberty. By the constitution of things it was ordained that eloquence should be the last stay and support of liberty, and that with her she is ever destined to live, to flourish, and to die. It is to the interest of tyrants to cripple and debilitate every species of eloquence. They have no other safety. It is then, the duty of free states to foster oratory.”

-Henry Hardwicke

The power of the spoken word is undeniable. At all the great crisis and hinges in history, we find great speeches which swayed the outcome. Great speeches have motivated citizens to fight injustice, throw off tyranny, and lay down their life for a worthy cause. Words have drawn meaning out of tragedy, comforted those who mourn, and memorialized events with the dignity and solemnity they deserved. Words can move people to risk life and limb, shed tears, laugh out loud, recommit to virtue, change their life, or feel patriotic. By weaving and spinning words into great tapestries of art, a man can wield an almost god-like power. Of course, even the most malicious leaders have known this and sought diligently to hone this skill for nefarious purposes. The power of speech can be used for good or evil and comes with great responsibility. Those who uphold virtue and goodness must be prepared to speak as masterfully as those who seductively and smoothly seek to convince the public to abandon its values and principles.

What is oratory?

“Not until human nature is other than what it is, will the function of the living voice-the greatest force on earth among men-cease. . . I advocate, therefore, in its full extent, and for every reason of humanity, of patriotism, and of religion, a more through culture of oratory and I define oratory to be the art of influencing conduct with the truth set home by all the resources of the living man.”

-Henry Ward Beecher

All oratory is public speaking, but not all public speaking is oratory. A teacher’s lecture, the best man’s speech, a political candidate’s stump speech, all of these things are not necessarily oratory, but they can be elevated to that status.

If public speaking is fast food, oratory is a gourmet meal. Not in pretentiousness or inaccessibility, but in the fact that oratory exists above the ordinary; it is prepared with passion, infused with creativity, and masterfully crafted to offer a sublime experience. Oratory seeks to convince the listener of something, whether that is to accept a certain definition of freedom or simply of the fact that the recently deceased was a person worthy to be mourned.

Oratory has been called the highest art for it encompasses all other disciplines. It requires a knowledge of literature, the ability to construct prose, and an ear for rhythm, harmony and musicality. Oratory is not mere speaking, but speech that appeals to our noblest sentiments, animates our souls, stirs passions and emotions, and inspires virtuous action. It is often at its finest when fostered during times of tragedy, pain, crisis, fear, and turmoil. In these situations it serves as a light, a guide to those who cannot themselves make sense of the chaos and look to a leader to point the way.

The history of oratory

Oratory in Greece

While the spoken word has been central to humanity since our species began to vocalize, it was in ancient Greece that speech would be raised to an art and true oratory would be born. A “golden age of eloquence” was ushered in by the statesman, general, and master orator Pericles. His funeral oration was perhaps the first great speech to be written and prepared for the public, and set the standard for all orations to come. Yet it is Demosthenes who is remembered as the greatest orator of Greece and perhaps all time. His speaking ability roused an Athenian people, deep in an apathetic slumber, to fight the threat Philip of Macedon posed to their liberty.

Yet the practice of oratory was not confined to the elites of Athenian society. Oratory was considered one of the highest arts, even a virtue. It was an essential part of every man’s education, the foundation upon which all other academic pursuits and disciplines were built. The mastery of oratory was considered an essential part of being a well-rounded man.

Oratory blossomed so splendidly and reached such an apex in ancient Greece because of its central function in public life. Athens’ democratic government marshaled every male citizen into politics. Any citizen could be called upon or inspired to sway others to the merits or criticisms of a particular piece of legislation. Laws were few and simple, giving judges considerable latitude in applying justice and lawyers great flexibility in making their case. The assembly, council, and courts were thus filled with vigorous debate and brilliant oratory.

Oratory in Rome

The art of oratory was slow in coming to Rome, but began to flourish when that empire conquered Greece and began to be influenced by its traditions. Roman oratory thrived in the courts, Comitia (assemblies where people debated the passing of laws), and Senate. Roman oratory borrowed much of its style from Greece, although there were differences. The Romans were less intellectual than the Greeks, their speeches less meaty and studded with more stylistic flourishes, stories, and metaphors. Nevertheless, Roman oratory was still a vibrant art and produced its own virtuoso: Cicero. Cicero’s “Catiline Orations” exposed a plot to overthrow the Roman government and did so with masterful eloquence and skill.

Great forensic oratory passed away with the fall of the Roman empire for “eloquence cannot exist under a despotic form of government. It can only be found in countries where free institutions flourish.” Tacitus, a century after Cicero’s death, lamented in the “Causes of the Corruption of Eloquence” that “the speakers of the present day are called pleaders, and advocates, and barristers, and anything rather than orators.” Lawyers began to hire claquers to attend their speeches and applaud generously, leading Pliny to note, “You may rest assured that he is the worst speaker who has the loudest applause.”

Modern Oratory

As democracy waned, so did great oratory. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, oratory was largely confined to the religious sphere. But it would be revived in the 18th centuries as France, England, and America created parliamentary bodies of government and the issues of liberty and freedom burned brightly in debates.

Great oratory began its current decline with the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Taking office during the Great Depression, FDR soon began his famous fireside chats. The country was demoralized and frightened, and Roosevelt’s warm, grandfatherly voice poured into millions of Americans homes, bringing a sense of comfort and security.

After FDR, Americans expected the same “folksy” speaking approach from all their presidents. Grand, eloquent speeches were considered a bit suspect, smacking of pretension and the lack of a common touch. Yet the reception and praise given to Barack Obama’s speeches suggest that there has been an untapped hunger among citizens for oratory that will inspire them and touch on their ideals (although the ancient Greeks would have criticized Obama’s speeches for sometimes emphasizing style over substance).

While a few great orators exist today, the art has generally fallen into disregard. When a man is called upon to speak, he often hems and haws, boring his audience to tears. It should not be so, gentlemen. It is time to resurrect and cultivate the art of oration.

Becoming a great orator

“Oratory is the masculine of music.”

-John Atgeld

While most men will never summon troops into battle or debate a Congressional bill, every man should strive to be a great orator. Whether it is giving the best man speech, arguing against a policy at a city council, making a proposal at work, or giving a eulogy, you will be asked to publicly speak at least a few times in your life. Don’t be a man that shakes and shudders at that thought. Be a man who welcomes, nay, relishes the opportunity to move and inspire people with the power of his words. When a speaking opportunity arises, be the guy everyone thinks of first.

Being a great orator takes work. You must do the following thing if you wish to master the craft:

Practice, practice, practice:

“The history of the world is full of testimony to prove how much depends upon industry. Not an eminent orator has lived but is an example of it. Yet, in contradiction to all this, the almost universal feeling appears to be, that industry can affect nothing, that eminence is the result of accident, and that everyone must be content to remain just what he may happen to be. . . For any other art they would have served an apprenticeship and would be ashamed to practice it in public before they had learned it. . . But the extempore speaker, who is to invent as well as to utter, to carry on an operation of the mind, as well as to produce sound enters upon the work without preparatory discipline, and then wonders why he fails!”

-Henry Hardwicke

The great myth perpetuated about public speaking is that talent in this area is inherent and inborn and cannot be learned. But our manly forbearers knew better. The great orators of the world from Cicero to Rockne practiced the art of oratory with resolute single-mindedness. Demosthenes exemplified this drive particularly well. As he was a child he was weak and awkward in both body and speech. But he determined that he would become a great oratory. Like TR, he built up his body with vigorous exercise. And he did a series of unusual tactics to hone his speaking skills. He would go to the ocean and attempt to recite orations louder than the waves. He then isolated himself in a cave to put full focus on the attainment of his goal. In order to avoid being tempted to leave the cave before he had mastered the art of oratory, he shaved half his head bald, knowing he would be subjected to ridicule were he to show his face in that state. In an attempt to improve his enunciation, he recited speeches while his mouth was filled with pebbles. He daily practiced his speaking in front of a mirror, improving any defect in his delivery or bodily movements. Finally, he had a nervous tic of raising one shoulder while he spoke. So to correct this, he hung a sword above that shoulder which would cut him were he to raise the shoulder. His work paid off handsomely; he became the one of the greatest orators of all time.

Be a virtuous man.

“The speech of one who knows what he is talking about and means what he says-it is thought on fire.” -William Jennings Bryan

No grammatical garnish or oratorical flourish can add as much to a speech as good character. The very hint of hypocrisy will doom even the most eloquent speech. Conversely, when you are virtuous, honest, and earnestly committed to that which you speak of, this inner-commitment will tinge each word you utter with sincerity. The audience will feel the depth of your commitment and will listen far more intently then when they know it is mere claptrap.

Study all the arts

“In an orator, the acuteness of the logicians, the wisdom of the philosophers, the language almost of poetry, the memory of lawyers, the voice of tragedians, the gesture almost of the best actors, is required. Nothing therefore is more rarely found among mankind than a consummate orator.” -Cicero

In order to appeal to noblest and finest sentiments within your audience, your speeches must be filled with allusions to the greatest characters, events, and artistic expressions of history. Oratory thus combines all of the arts into one expression. You must keep abreast of current events and study human nature, religion, science, literature, and poetry. Read the newspaper. Watch great films. Read a least a paragraph of great literature each day. Do not simply frequent blogs and media sources that flatter your pre-existing view points! A great orator must be aware of the counterarguments your critics will raise and deftly address and defuse them before anyone else has the chance to.

Immerse yourself in great oratory

Take as your coaches and mentors all the great orators of the past. Read their speeches. Study the way in which they constructed their sentences, how the placement and arrangement of words builds rhythm, how the choice of words and stories creates vivid imagery. Examine how each line flows into the next, how the lines are distinct and yet together compose a cohesive, unified whole. Listen to great speeches. Listen to where the orators pause for effect, where their voice rises and falls. Ponder what makes certain sections electrifying and other parts captivating.

As part of the Art of Manliness’ quest to revive the art of oratory, we will be bringing you weekly tips, taking you from writing a speech all the way through to delivering it with aplomb. Stay tuned.

Sources

Atgeld, John P. Oratory: Its Requirements and Rewards. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1901.

Buehler, E.C, and Richard L. Johannesen. Building the Contest Oration. New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1965.

Hardwicke, Henry. History of Oratory and Orators. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1896.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bernie Franks July 17, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Good article, any chance of compiling links to audio of great speeches?

2 Peter Hoeschele July 17, 2008 at 7:53 pm

check out http://www.americanrhetoric.com/ .. I usually find an interesting speech and read it, or listen to it, as many of the greats are archived, when I feel the need for inspiration before a big speech or forensics meet.

3 Brett July 17, 2008 at 8:29 pm

@Bernie-

Check out the link Peter provided. And we’ll definitely be compiling a list like you mentioned….25 Greatest Speeches of All Time, or something like that. Stay tuned.

4 Kevin (ReturnToManliness) July 17, 2008 at 9:13 pm

This is an excellent topic. We see examples of UNBELIEVABLE orators right now, but we don’t really know how great they are, or will become, until much later.

Obama is one that has the potential to be one of the greats!

5 Israel July 17, 2008 at 9:14 pm

Damn, you keep coming up with some darn good articles. This one is becoming a favorite. I have printed out the newsletter/sheet from the forum and handed it out to the guys i know. Plus I sent them the link to the site. This is a must read site for men. Must READ.

6 Brett July 17, 2008 at 9:27 pm

@Israel-

Thanks for your support. I truly appreciate it.

7 Eric July 18, 2008 at 3:34 am

I echo the sentiments above. An excellent article. well written. If it were a speech, I have to believe I would have been enthralled (depending on your own oratory skills, Brett).

having said that, do you or anyone reading this belong to a local Toast Master’s club? Perhaps I’ll take this to the forums. See you there!

8 Kyle July 18, 2008 at 4:54 am

This is an excellent subject, and I’m looking forward to the next parts. Definitely a fine trait for a gentleman.

9 Butch July 18, 2008 at 5:24 am

I have recently learned to love speaking to a group. I think the love comes after beginning to get good feedback from the audience. Maybe its a love of hearing myself talk :)

But I do have to say, I think people give more respect to a man that can get in front of an audience and speak. Your article sure strengthens that statement!

Definitly a must read.

10 Marcel July 18, 2008 at 5:50 am

Great article Brett! You’re totally right about public speaking being learnt. I used to be absolutely terrified of speaking in public to the point where my hands and legs would visibly shake. Despite my efforts to combat this by taking a public speaking course when I was 15 in high school, this persisted until recently when I decided to take up a part time job as a tour guide whilst I finish my Master’s degree. The absolute worst job for someone terrified of speaking, right? Well, it forced me to swallow my fears pretty quickly because I needed food and that needed money. Money required I speak…and well! Sometimes you’ve just got to force yourself to do things!

11 Israel July 18, 2008 at 6:14 am

@Brett, it is my pleasure.

I have always liked being the center of attention by giving a speech, from childhood, to being the captain of the football team, to being one of the best at what i do for my job. I just like it a lot.

funny tho, I am more of a spontaneous speaker and do better when i dont plan too much in advance. I feel its too “prepared.” I like showing emotion, passion, and action!

12 Plor July 18, 2008 at 8:16 am

While I agree that FDR brought about a decline in oratory by presidents, but I disagree that Barack Obama is the revival of this, he is but another example of an exception to the trend set by FDR. John F. Kennedy inspired America with his speeches, and Ronald Reagan led the country to defeat communism in part with his great oratory. I think this Obamania is a good thing for the country, but to look at it as unique is a little nearsighted.

13 Meiji_man July 18, 2008 at 8:21 am

Well written!

May I suggest taking a public speaking course at your community college?
Or attending your local meeting of Toast Masters? http://www.toastmasters.org/

I had an opportunity once to speak in front of the Salt Lake City Council and crashed and burned so badly I had to stop, apologize to the Counsel for making a complete ass out of myself (yes I used that word), and sit back down. I did get applauded for that though…

Since then I have tried to exercise my speaking skills.

14 Brett July 18, 2008 at 8:39 am

Thanks for the kind words everyone.

@Plor-
I agree that Obama doesn’t represent a revival of oratory, and is an exception to its general dearth in today’s society, the same way that Reagan or JFK was. But I think that is why it gets so much attention-people instinctively love great oratory and want more of it in public life.

@Meiji Man-A great story and an excellent show of humility. Humility is a manly trait as well!

I’ve thought from time to time about Toastmasters and I’m curious about others’ experience with it. I think I’ll check out the forum to what people have to say……

15 Mike July 18, 2008 at 9:16 am

Great article. The only thing I’d add is that being a good speaker is as much about being a great writer as anything else. And that the only way to get better at both is to practice. Check around in your local area; see if there are any public speaking organizations in the area. My father, normally kind of a wallflower, belongs to a speakers’ bureau, and gives speeches on a regular basis on whatever topic moves him. He seems to love it and has become a much better communicator.

16 Meiji_man July 18, 2008 at 9:19 am

@Brett
I’ve Been blessed in my life with many opportunities to exercise that Trait.

17 Chuck Vosburgh July 18, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Toastmasters changed the course of my life. I was so shy it crippled my career and any are of my life that required oral communication. It was out of desperation that I tried Toastmasters. What I found was a group of people from all walks of life with the common goal of helping each other improve their communication and leadership skills. It took me a few months to get up the nerve to join, but in a years time, I went from pathetically shy to a paid speaker. Sure, it was hard work, but well worth it!

I owe much of my success to Toastmasters and the kind patient people in my local Toastmasters club. Ask some of the people you admire, I’d bet the majority of them have been Toastmasters. If I can get that kind of benefit, you can too.

18 DLUX: THE LIGHT July 19, 2008 at 12:42 am

A little new to the oratory arts. Unless I missed something seems like oratory applies mainly speeches designed to argue a view point. What would be your take on oratory as it relates to other popular spoken traditions such as spoken word poetry and art of emceeing rapping?

One,

DLUX: THE LIGHT
The Spoken Word Hip Hop Poet
http://www.dluxthelight.com

19 Easy and Elegant Life July 19, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Do you recall the British officer’s speech to his men the evening before they entered into battle during the first Gulf War? “Be terrible in battle and magnanimous in victory.” Something like that. Stirring, riveting, stuff.

I’ve got a CD of Churchill’s speeches (from Ben Silver) that are equally riveting to listen to.

20 Allan White July 19, 2008 at 10:52 pm

Manly, manly, manly. Great topic and post.

I work for Luis Palau, a Christian evangelist who’s been on the radio worldwide for over 50 years. The man’s memory, logic and humor are sharp as ever (he’s 72), and he can wax eloquently on pretty much any topic.

Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen writes on this topic frequently (in the context of giving great presentations). Definitely worth reading.

I did Forensics/Debate in high school and drama in college – I’m so glad I did. The training was a huge help from the boardroom to the home bible study.

21 public speaking tips July 31, 2008 at 3:48 am

hi there,

Toastmasters is one the reason that convert me into who i am now as a public speaking coach.so i highly recommand it for everyone who wants to master this skill.

22 miragana September 14, 2008 at 6:05 pm

Good day!
It is very informative and has a very good quality in it.
I like it…

http://www.Squidoo.com/MPI
mliragana.blogspot.com

Thank you very much for your time.

23 hamzah October 7, 2008 at 3:44 am

i want to be the best orator

24 katrina November 6, 2008 at 1:29 pm

i was reading this article and i found it very inspiring

However, while reading it to myself-

it was tiresome to keep on substituting the term ‘man’
in the article for ‘woman’

25 Aaron January 5, 2009 at 9:21 pm

“Oratory is the masculine of music.”

-John Atgeld

. . . say that to a real drummer. Like Buddy Rich…

I get the idea, but a blistering musician is in a sense an orator as well. His language is just universal…

26 Joseph Sanchez December 28, 2009 at 8:36 am

@Dlux the light
I was thinking the same thing. The art of spoken word and even emceeing is very similar, yet the purpose and setting is different but the skills are pretty much the same. Interestingly, I would argue that future orators would merge from the culture of Hip Hop and have a background in spoken word, community organizing or facilitation.
This was a very interesting article. I appreciate the insight and look forward to more on the topic.

Peace

27 Fuad Ahasan Chowdhury December 29, 2009 at 4:33 am

I was expecting Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheikh_Mujibur_Rahman ) on the list.. He should listed here.. undoubtedly.

28 ari-free April 14, 2010 at 8:13 pm

I don’t give any points to someone who clings to his teleprompter as if it was his security blanket. A real man has to be able to speak without any written notes.

29 gaman amy November 7, 2012 at 4:04 am

this is really interesting, i will really want to be a great orator, thou each step i take as the day goes by takes me ahead of my yesterday. thanks for being part of my trainees. i love your work.

30 Salahuddin November 7, 2012 at 11:51 am

I consumed the article like a favourate dish as the reason why the world is spiralling into chaos dawned before me. Those with the right frame of mind to take world events into the most rational direction are currently being overpowered by self seeking speech reading destroyers of the human race. People are moved into supporting cooked up wars. Popular perceptions of fundamental concepts such as democracy are daftly twisted to suit whichever murderous activity they plan to undertake. Enough is enough and all yee orators, rise up in this so called civilized age and find ways around information siphoning tactics and be heard. Oratory as is also stated in the article requires wide readership and an insightful grasp of both sides of any story. One should not be found signing songs of praise for Hitler while History spat him like mucus with a pungent smell. Orators, you have all the aspects of eloquence in you, use them for the survival of the humility of man.

31 Jake December 6, 2012 at 11:32 am

Cicero said that to be a great orator, one must have “ingenium” (it is implied that one is born with this trait) in that area. The word we get from that is “genius.” So apparently, to excel in the field of oratory, one must be a genius at oratory. Now that doesn’t really sound fair, does it?

32 Shava Nerad December 25, 2012 at 8:55 am

To recall a dialogue with one of our founders — remember the ladies! Not all great orators were men, and those of us of the “fairer sex” have no less grand or delicate a way with words than our brothers.

I’ve made a living as a speech writer and ghost writer for a good slice of my life, much of it as a woman writing for men who were good conceptual thinkers — and poor at putting an idea into words for spoken or written presentation. Coming from generations of ministers, union leaders, political activists, NGO leadership, military leaders and so on, I come by my skills honestly.

Speech writing and ghost writing are one of the havens of oratory in the modern world. I wrote a well-circulated essay in ghosting’s defense which started as a sort of throwaway blog article here:

http://usefularts.us/2010/02/06/ghost-write-blogs-ethics-shava-nerad/

Like oratory itself, speech writing and ghost writing have lost their honor in recent days. But it’s incredibly satisfying work.

33 Thomas Cunningham December 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Thanks for posting this article – this was a skill I have been looking forward to mastering recently.
If there are any more tips on this subject, I’ll read them!

34 Davis Nguyen June 14, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Having great public speaking skills opens so many doors professionally and personally. I noticed this article came out around the same time I started my quest from stage frightened introvert to national public speaking champion three years later.

On a side note, it is amazing to see how much Art of Manliness has come. I didn’t know you used to reply back to each comment when they came.

35 chido July 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Oratory is truly a lost art that seeks revivation. Grammatical garnish shouldn’t be mistaken as oratory, articulation is one thing and the gift of the garb is another. Oratory commands attention, personally and professionally, Its an art to be imbibed by every man. I for say have never been a stage frightened kind but have a misgiving at captivating my audience for long. I would appreciate a few tips on some kind of stories to be inculcated in my speeches and the best manner to manage my literature.

Any suggestions ?

36 Enoch Gyas March 21, 2014 at 7:51 am

I so much appreciate your tips .its very informative & i desire more its kind, because it has been my passion.

37 Mat R March 26, 2014 at 1:08 am

Great article.Speech has the power to change the world.! I used to be terrified of public speaking but once I was given the stage (and a little encouragement) I have not looked back.

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