Monday Morning, January 7, 2008
Many would say that oratory is a lost art. The humanities have taken a beating the last thirty or forty years. Colleges and universities were conquered long ago by utilitarians who view higher education as a means to an economic end. The disciplines that thrive are those that prepare their students for high paying jobs and assurance of upward mobility.
Try telling your parents’ friends that you are a history major. “Well, what are you going to do with that?” will be the inevitable question. Or an English major. Or a philosophy major. Or worse yet, a theology major. Liberal Arts, once considered to be the primary purpose of higher education, are marginalized by a consumer oriented culture, to our detriment. But once in awhile there is a break-out, high profile performance that reaffirms the value of the core, too often forgotten, disciplines.
This week, we had a shining example of the power of oratory.
Not that the Liberal Arts department necessarily produces orators. Fine oratory is a combination of many disciplines. It can be compared to the skills of a concert pianist, for example. Music can inspire, transport us to new heights of awareness, express our deepest longings and hopes and fears, can capture our imagination and stir up powerful motivations and determinations. The musician who can take us there is years in the making. The pianist, in our example, spends countless hours on technique; overcomes all the temptations to move on to something else in life; connects with a series of teacher/mentors who guide, cajole, prod, kindle and infuse belief; finds joy and wonder in every new level of achievement. Then, for a distinct few, finely tuned technique combines with a depth of spirit, and the music soars, and us along with it.
Public speaking (oratory) can have a similar effect. But these days, it seems as rare as a piano concert. Sure, many folks will take to the microphone a deliver a speech. But not many. It’s well known that most of us would rather submit to a root canal without pain killer than stand up before a group and attempt intelligible utterance. So the simple attempt, as wobbly and aimless as it comes off, wins praise. Those offering it are simply relieved that someone else is doing it.
It can be argued that the most influential leaders are skilled orators. For good or ill, they capture something of the major themes, the high aspirations, the deepest yearnings, the eminent hopes, the lofty dreams. Their speech becomes the embodiment of those hopes. And masses are moved to action.
I have wondered why more people don’t think about these things. The technology for the delivery of the spoken word has never been more pervasive. But what content is poured into this massive delivery system?
I’ve grieved over the ineffectiveness of some of my favorite leaders to stand and deliver. Some of the problem, it seems, is that those who have the greatest opportunity to speak spend the least amount of time honing the skills. It’s like a concert pianist who skips practice to watch movies. Who suffers in the end?
And once in awhile, we witness a performance that reminds us of the amazing power of oratory. Obama’s speech1 after his remarkable win in Iowa may well be the tipping point in the race to the White House.
Other candidates seem to settle for stream of consciousness banter; peppered with slogans and sound bites conjured up in the conference room. Speeches become a recitation of bullet points and policy positions.
Where would Winston Churchill’s name appear in the history books without his towering oratory? Would FDR be remembered at all if not for his powerful voice? Ronald Reagan is now venerated as the Great Communicator. Why? The man could deliver a speech. (It didn’t hurt him to have Peggy Noonan writing his lines.)
The most memorable moment for our current President was when he stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center with a hand held megaphone.
Joe Klein2 compared Obama to another orator when he contemplated Obama’s opening line in the aftermath of his Iowa victory - “They said this day would never come.”
Klein wrote, “I suspect he was thinking bigger, back to Martin Luther King – and King’s dream that someday his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
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It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. You are caught up, as I am, in the race to the most powerful office in the land.
I’m not endorsing Obama’s politics. There are issues of disagreement on several levels. But I am moved by his ability to deliver a moving speech; one that may actually have historic consequence. And I’m left to wonder if, perhaps, this tidal wave of support coming from all corners is the result of his ability to articulate a powerful message as he recaptures what for most of his fellow candidates continues to be a lost art.
I heard two such speeches on Sunday morning. Actually, they were sermons. Both speakers brought the preparation and skill set of a concert pianist to the task. And both impacted a significant group of people.
You and I have opportunities to speak. We are leaders, after all. Let’s not be casual about the high potential of those opportunities.
There’s a world out there, hungry for something more.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008
1 LeaderFOCUS, July 26, 2004 (My musings on Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention)2 TIME Magazine, January 4, 2008