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The ritual of speeches

Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A speech is a ritual as much as a form of words. The symbolic value of the occasion that it represents transcends the purely personal: in a great speech we feel that the speaker has tapped into a current of broader truth and emotional power that unites and electrifies people across time and place. That is why it is so important when writing a speech to find common ground with the audience, building bridges between listener and speaker that relate to shared location, experience, touchstones and ideals. It is also important to build a sense of justice, harmony, and momentum into the rhythm and structure of the speech. Balanced clauses often transmit a feeling that the speaker is weighing ideas fairly; groups of three nouns, such as ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ have a magical resonance. Ideally, the speech will also build its impact through taking us on a journey. Martin Luther King, Jr took his listeners to the ‘mountaintop’ from which they could see the ‘promised land’ of racial tolerance and equal rights. The sense of crescendo as he reached that rhetorical peak was breathtaking. Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, which is only 272 words long and lasted only a few minutes, took listeners from the past, to the present, to the future. The scattered dead of a particular Civil War battle were transfigured in his lyrical tribute, ‘dedicated’ to the larger, preordained and ongoing project of creating American democracy. If a memory is the echo of a thought, certain words echoing earlier words can act as the voice of memory within a sentence. ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation’: in Lincoln’s opening line, the repetition of ‘four’ and ‘forth’, conjures up ‘forefathers’. Honouring our ancestors and bringing them back to the table of our shared hopes and aspirations is one reason we give speeches.

The symbolic value of rhetoric means that it is often what was unsaid or misspoken that remains in the mind. Thus, Ed Miliband never recovered from the fact that he had apparently ‘forgotten’ at the 2014 Labour Party Conference to deliver a section of his speech on the economic deficit. This omission, critics implied, signalled his inability to tackle the economy itself. The deficit and the hole in his speech had become one. Meanwhile, David Cameron unwittingly told us in his 2014 Conservative Patty Conference speech that his party was there to ‘resent’ ‘children from the poorest estates and the most chaotic homes’. If he meant that his party was there to ‘represent’ these neglected groups, somehow the Freudian slip meant that anger spilled into the gap between representation and meaning.

The Queen’s Christmas Address is perhaps the only ritual speech in the British public calendar that is addressed to the public in their homes. Where Americans have presidential inaugural addresses and, each year, a ‘State of the Union’ address, Britons have only the Queen’s Speech on the State Opening of Parliament, written by the government to set out its legislative agenda: a speech that is usually about as inspiring as a lead pipe in a velvet wrapper. We have a Scottish Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, to thank for persuading George V to record a Christmas Message to the nation, a point the BBC had been urging since 1923. In 1932, King George finally acquiesced and read out a script written by Rudyard Kipling. The 1930s were a challenging period for the monarchy: Empire was shrinking; the abdication crisis loomed; and war was in the air. The Christmas message endeavoured to emphasize and to enact unity and stability at a time of division and change. The core purpose of the Queen’s Christmas message remains that of uniting the nation, the faithful, and indeed the Commonwealth – which is always namechecked – in celebration of a holiday that can be shared by all, even those ‘of another faith or of none’.

In her first televised Christmas address, the Queen acknowledged that to some she must seem a ‘remote figure’ whom they had never met. However, her family, she said, were gathered around the television set at that moment: just as those families were who were watching around the world. In that broadcast, the royal family living-room became a mirror of all family living-rooms. Rhetorically, the underlying message of the Queen’s Christmas remarks, is ‘at this season, on this day, we are the same’. Like Christmas lunch, which it follows, the contents of this speech vary little from year to year. The military and the emergency services whose duty it is to serve on this day, will be praised and thanked. There will be some personal allusions to the notable events of the year: perhaps a new great-grandchild; or flooding; or recent terrorist attacks. But these will always be drawn toward reflection on the meaning of Christmas: rebirth; the community that springs from adversity; reconciliation after conflict. Often, the Queen quotes from a Christmas carol; she favours Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ with its emphasis on service and on love. In honouring Christ’s service, she implicitly asks us also to respect her own fulfilment of a life of duty. Whether we are ardent Royalists or gunpowder Republicans, the speech is so much a part of the fabric of Christmas that we are accustomed to it. Familiarity is its point. Sometimes rhetoric succeeds in its purpose not by being memorable in itself, but by occupying the primal space of things we do not need to remember because they are always there.

Dr Sara Lodge is a Senior Lecturer in English, specialising in nineteenth-century literature and culture. She currently holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to write a book about Edward Lear that examines his work in new contexts, particularly his dissenting religious beliefs. She has worked as a speechwriter for the Secretary-General at the United Nations in New York.

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