x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

In awe of the spoken word and the speechwriters' legacy

The spoken word, when combining eloquence, passion and perhaps a little wit, is one of the wonders of humanity.

The spoken word, when combining eloquence, passion and perhaps a little wit, is one of the wonders of humanity. But great oratory is not restricted to the highly educated; it comes from many walks of life, in a multitude of accents and on a variety of platforms. We naturally look to scholarly or influential figures of society to impress us with what they say. Politicians, lawyers, religious leaders, academics, trade unionists and men and women from the stage, screen or printed page frequently earn our respect and admiration for the power or persuasiveness of their public speaking.

But there have been noteworthy contributions to spoken English from unconventional or unexpected sources. Arsène Wenger, the French manager of Arsenal football club, is a good example because he not only represents a sport in which articulacy is at a premium, but expresses himself daily with clarity and elegance in what is for him a foreign language. Then there are the political conference upstarts. William Hague was only 17 when he addressed the 1977 conference of Britain's Conservative party, warning delegates of the approaching dangers of socialism with this little dig at the complacent: "Half of you won't be here in 30 or 40 years' time."

Mr Hague's words, described by Margaret Thatcher at the time as "thrilling", are still regarded as an exceptional example of speech making. The occasion was mentioned again when another bright teenager, Annabel Shaw, excited this year's annual conference of the same party with her denunciation of the present Labour government: "Gordon Brown, I want an apology for the debt burden you are passing on to my generation."

A little while ago, a British daily newspaper, The Guardian, published a series of "great speeches of the 20th century". Among the 14 speakers chosen were Winston Churchill ("We shall fight on the beaches"); John F Kennedy ("Ask not what your country can do for you"); Nelson Mandela ("An ideal for which I am prepared to die"); Franklin D Roosevelt ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"); and Martin Luther King Jr ("I have a dream").

The 21st century has already yielded contenders for a follow-up exercise 90 years from now. Think of Barack Obama and his presidential campaign speech on race, and his election night victory speech, spring to mind. Others would mention the "something happening in America" speech after his defeat by Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary; since appreciation of oratory is subjective, it is natural that opinions should differ.

Television has made countless people around the world familiar with the eulogy of Earl Spencer at the funeral of his sister, Diana; his theme ("the most hunted person of the modern age") remains instantly recognisable 12 years on. On reading the speech again now, I do not consider it one of the finest the world has heard. But the earl's words were emotional and striking, and in lining up his unmistakable targets - the British royal family and, especially, sections of the media - he also captured the public mood.

Remember how the applause began with the crowd outside Westminster Abbey, listening to a relay of the service, and spread through the congregation. There is no science to what constitutes a great speech, though there can be a formula to making an effective one; even Parisian beggars take care with structure with their remarks to passengers on the Metro, often speaking at such length that by the time they have finished, potential donors have reached their destinations and gone.

But in mentioning one more important point in favour of Earl Spencer - that unlike many individuals who make what are later hailed as great speeches, he wrote his himself - I would hazard a guess that the same applies to the beggars. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae