Different, Not Worse: A Study in the Change in English-Language Oratory Techniques

As Lewis Copeland writes, “Human history is primarily a record of important and dramatic events, which have often been profoundly affected by great speeches.”[1] Each era of Western history boasts its own unique orators, people whose words have stood the test of time because their messages have proven to be both transcendent in meaning and indicative of the times in which they were spoken. Speeches are not only catalysts for change in society, as Copeland suggests, but they also serve as educational documents for scholars in later decades and centuries because they show what a segment of any given society was concerned about in the past, and—more importantly for my thesis—shows how people expressed their views.

Speeches illustrate the valued method of addressing important information to people. Orators historians regard as great are, at least in part, great because they knew how to reach the audience of their lifetime with the words, phrases, techniques, and sentence structures they used. As time has progressed, orators’ styles have changed stylistically, which leads some critics to believe that, as Brian MacArthur says, “Oratory is always a declining art. Every generation judges contemporary speakers unfavorably against the giants of the past.” As evidence, MacArthur cites a collection of speeches from the 1920s that claimed “oratory had given to ‘talk.’”[2] Later in his book, he prefaces a speech like so: “[S]tandards of oratory have deteriorated in the age of television ‘sound bite’ and declining educational standards in the West.” This blatantly negative attitude toward modern speeches goes unsupported in The Penguin Book, and MacArthur would have us take his opinion for undeniable truth. He would rather lament the departure of the good old 1800s, when orators spent two weeks writing speeches, polishing phrases, and committing them to memory, than stop to consider the many advantages of current oratorical practices.

Many pre-twentieth century orators spoke in fancy diction because their audiences were more socially elite and valued that kind of speech. While it may be true that, in general, contemporary British and American orators employ far plainer, less flowery speech than their predecessors, I reject the idea that the decrease of rhetorical ornamentation equals decreased quality in writing and overall effectiveness. Contemporary orators’ speeches tend to be more direct and to be closer to the everyman’s language, which should be viewed positively because more people can understand the speeches and be affected by them. And what is the point of giving a speech if not everyone will understand it, in the first place? Modern speeches, while more concise and legible, can still contain a great depth of meaning, and may adapt the same old techniques to the new style; therefore, they are no worse than—and possibly even better than—the more long-winded speeches of yore.

Just to play devil’s advocate, I researched a book entitled How to Give a Damn Good Speech, by Philip Theibert. Seeing as how the cover insinuated that the book could assist would-be speech-givers “Even when you have no time to prepare,” I knew immediately that this kind of publication could fuel MacArthur’s point about the downfall of meaningful oration. I expected to find a kind of formulaic ideology about speech-writing that details to readers multiple steps toward the perfect speech. I knew I had struck gold when I read in the introduction that “a worksheet at the end [of Part 1 of the book] will help you develop your next speech.”[3] The outline on pages 45-48 set the following basic template for a “great speech”:

1) Address the topic (preferably using one of the book’s “100 Fantastic Openings!”)

2) List three or four main points

3) Tell the audience why they should care about those points

4) Introduction of Point 1

5) Facts supporting Point 1

6) Personal story/anecdote supporting Point 1

7) Insert famous quotes to reinforce Point 1 (preferably using one of the book’s “250 Great Quotations”)

8) Repeat steps 4 through 7 two (or three) times to illustrate Points 2 and 3 (and possibly Point 4)

9) Begin the conclusion by restating the main points

10) End with a call of action for the audience

Theibert’s set-in-stone step-by-step approach is, of course, laughable, and the kind of practice MacArthur would point to as a sign of the times; it is hard to imagine the great rhetoricians filling out a “worksheet” and following these guidelines word-for-word. One cannot take shortcuts if he wishes to write a truly great speech—and he definitely cannot write anything even halfway decent with “no time to prepare.” Let MacArthur say what the will about the damning implications for a book like How to Give a Damn Good Speech, but in some ways Theibert is not completely wrong. Indeed, many speeches are structured around three or four main points and do contain quotations, facts, and anecdotes. While a speech-writer would be unwise to follow Theibert’s narrow grid speech after speech after speech, he would not be unwise to take some tips from some of its elements. As I will show, many of these techniques are not unique to “the age of the television ‘sound bite,’” as MacArthur would have it, but are, on the contrary, implemented generously in speeches of all eras.

Many examples of the utilizations of Theibert’s techniques come in the 17th century, well into the language era labeled as Early Modern English. In 1645, Governor John Winthrop quotes a Latin phrase while giving a speech to the court in Plymouth: “[M]an. . . hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to do evil as well as to good. . . The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil, and in time to be worse than brute beasts: omnes sumus licentia deteriores.”[4] In order to make a point about how man when exercising his own free will becomes savage and evil, Winthrop summons the prestige of the Latin language to basically restate what he had just said. It was not enough for him to explain himself in English and to say that people who abide by their natural liberty become “brute beasts.” Instead, he seems to concur with Theibert’s thought about quotations:

Wouldn’t it be great if every time you gave a speech you had someone standing behind you, a famous historical figure, a world-renowned poet, or someone the audience holds in awe? Of course that won’t happen. But the second-best thing can. You can quote a respected person and imply their endorsement.[5]

Winthrop is not literally standing on a noted orator’s shoulders, but a whole language’s.

Latin had been the prestige language for more than a thousand years. True, the language had faded out of use, and English had been common for centuries. Nevertheless, to know Latin was to appear a learned individual, even in American colonial times, and even though Winthrop merely restates himself using the words of a dead language in this passage, he still gains points for invoking the illustrious Romans.

Not to be outdone, the English of the same period were also quoting Latin. Oliver Cromwell, in his 1655 declaration to dissolve British Parliament, spoke about the common misconception that the system of constitutional monarchy with one king and a house of Parliament was adequate because it is “most likely to avoid the extremes of monarchy on one hand, and of democracy on the other;—and yet not to be found dominium in gratia ‘either.’”[6] Cromwell’s use of the phrase Dominium in gratia is just a fancy way for him to explain that the monarchal system preceding him did not claim to rule directly in the name of Christ. Fancy is the key word here, as Cromwell also includes a 129-word sentence in this speech’s first paragraph, embedded with short, choppy, and confusing phrases. Try to keep track of what all Cromwell is trying to say in the middle of this sentence:

—how can it be reasonably imagined that a person or persons, coming in by election, and standing under such obligations, and so limited, and so necessitated by oath to govern for the people’s good, and to make their love, under God, the best under-popping and only safe footing:—how can it, I say, be imagined that the present or succeeding Protectors. . .[7]

In that segment, alone, one can count nine commas and two dashes, and that is only a fraction of the sentence. MacArthur must love that beastly sentence, even as his head explodes while trying to remember all of its parts to put them together as one logical, coherent statement. If restating oneself in Latin and writing ungodly long sentences is a keystone of great oratorical method, count me out.

One can compare the instances of old uses of quotation with newer orators’ more effective quotations. Take, for example, Robert Kennedy’s “A tiny ripple of hope” speech of 1966. The last sentence in the piece is a quote from his own brother: “[A]s President Kennedy said to the youth of my country, that ‘the energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.’”[8] This timely quote fits the situation at hand in so many ways. With JFK’s death still in the national consciousness, a mention of the late president by itself must have added power to the independently-powerful words. The quote is packed with meaning because it works on the symbolic level, too, by comparing political activism to a light that can brighten the whole world. It even harkens back to Biblical scripture, where Jesus is depicted as the light of the world whose good deeds served as great examples for ethical living. Compare RFK’s outstanding example of a speech quotation to the aforementioned 17th century Latin quotations, which were hardly timely and did not add nearly as much to the information already in the speeches.

Quotation is only one method Theibert advocates—another he writes about is that of the rhetorical question. He details this technique in the heading of the ninth out of 100 Tips for Outstanding Speeches: “9. Take Control: Shape the Debate With a Simple, Understandable Question. Make It a Question Your Audience Can’t Say No to.”[9] This idea, much like all his others, is not unique his, but is actually a standard practice in speeches.

Sir Robert Walpole is one prime example of a speaker unembarrassed to smother his listeners with an unending tirade of rhetorical questions. In a 1741 speech that was his attempt to not be removed from Parliament, his speech’s second paragraph starts off strong with ten consecutive rhetorical questions.[10] Compare this to a 1909 speech by David Lloyd George, an English politician widely known for his talent at improvisational speaking, where he asked: “Have you ever been down a coal-mine?”[11] This one simple sentence does a lot all by itself, without the help of a whole host of accompanying rhetorical questions. While it does set the stage for an anecdote George is about to tell, it also stands as an accusation to all the members of Parliament who knew nothing about the common man and his life of poverty, and who therefore have no right to tax the lower classes further. George’s simple-yet-powerful manner of speaking caught on and cleared a path for all of the down-to-earth, unpretentious twentieth-century speakers to come.

Just as Theibert must appreciate George’s brand of simple-yet-effective rhetorical question, he believes in straight-to-the-point introductions to speeches. He cites a speech that he believes begins perfectly: “Morris K. Udall, the former Arizona senator, once began a speech with these six simple words. ‘I’m here to talk about crime.’ Bingo! That’s how you can segue into the topic. . . don’t waste any time—tell the audience your main point.”[12] While I would argue that Udall’s introduction in particular is too short and mundane, and that it would not have been a waste of time to expand at least a little, I would also not sponsor the kind of long, vague introduction William Ewart Gladstone delivered in Parliament on November 7, 1879. It began:

Today, gentlemen, as I know that many among you are interested in the land, and as I feel that what is termed ‘agricultural distress’ is at the present moment a topic too serious to be omitted from our consideration, I shall say some words upon the subject of that agricultural distress, and particularly, because in connection with it there have arisen in some quarters of the country proposals, which have received a countenance far beyond their deserts, to reverse or to compromise the work which it took us one whole generation to achieve, and to revert to the mischievous, obstructive, and impoverishing system of protection. [13]

This opening sentence lasted a long time but did not actually express very much. Again, we have an example of a sentence that is too lengthy to be fully digested by audiences. This sentence is destined to confuse listeners, seeing as how it is already difficult to envision the meaning of a long sentence on paper. It verges on the impossible for a listener to catch everything a reader would, since at least a person reading a speech has the benefit of re-reading a confusing passage. Another of its problems is redundancy. Gladstone writes, “Today. . . I shall say some words upon the subject,” but all of those words could have been omitted. Obviously, he is speaking on the day that he is speaking, and instead of talking about how he’s going to talk about “agricultural distress,” he could just skip that step and go straight into the discussion. Were he born in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth, Gladstone might have written something more like “It is impossible to ignore the agricultural distress plaguing our country any longer.”

A happy medium between Udall’s and Gladstone’s introductions exists in a speech Dwight D. Eisenhower gave in April of 1953: “So it has come to pass that the Soviet Union itself has shared and suffered the very fears it has fostered in the rest of the world.”[14] We see again an example of a simply-worded sentence that says a lot. “So it has come to pass” implies that the situation is not one that had always been prevalent, but has recently developed. We also get a quick sense of history—the idea that the Soviet Union inspired worldwide fear. Most importantly, we discover that the Soviet Union is the victim of the same offenses it perpetrated, which creates some tension and room for listeners to wonder if the Communists are receiving their own medicine by a tragic coincidence or by vengeance from those they oppressed. Instead of subjecting us to a babbling multi-part sentence that, even on the page, is difficult to select a point on which to focus, Eisenhower has fully injected us into the mindset of his speech in a matter of just over two dozen words.

The fact that Eisenhower accomplished this level of concision while still speaking with impressive depth brings MacArthur’s and other critics’ claims that “oratory has given to talk” into question. If the great orators of times past could speak five sentences that only amount to one more compacted sentence, it seems that old oratory was merely talk—the old orators talked around their subjects, forming excessively long sentences and paragraphs merely because they liked the sound of their voices.

While the pre-twentieth century orators may have written with more eloquent language, the ultimate result of their speeches is the same, if not less than the impact of modern speeches. If Eisenhower’s diction had been more flowery and elegant, he would have sounded as if he were celebrating the Soviet Union instead of warning of its danger. If Robert Kennedy had quoted the Ancient Romans instead of his brother, his speech would not have had exuded the sense of urgency that it did. Had David Lloyd George’s speech consisted of a continual flow of rhetorical questions, his anecdote about the horrible working conditions in the British coal mines would not have been as powerful.

Contrary to MacArthur’s unsupported beliefs about the alleged cesspool that is inelegant and post-television oratory, the speeches from the twentieth-century and beyond are not at all worse than those that came before. They are just different. What right has MacArthur to call Western education declining in quality when more American high school graduates are attending colleges now than ever before? What the terseness of today’s oratory indicates is not that everyone alive is an idiot but that people are finding new, more direct ways to express themselves through language. People are deciding that beating around the bush in writing is too inefficient. Because today’s speeches are as meaningful as any while using and perfecting the same old techniques, it is apparent that critics of modern oration, like MacArthur, hold opinions based more on nostalgia for past centuries than historical fact.

Naturally, Theibert’s attitude of authoring a book that can help ordinary people write perfect speeches in no time at all is exaggerated for his own monetary gain, and as such, its writing is corny, gimmicky, and formulaic. Yet, interestingly enough, How to Give a Damn Good Speech can serve as a basis for comparing the use of the same techniques in different historical contexts and can illustrate the mindset of the speakers and their audience—be they grand, eloquent dawdlers of speech; or quick, efficient speakers whose goal is to be understood by the common man. Because this is true, it is clear that some techniques of oratory transcend so many eras and are so universal that even the kind of person who titles his book How to Give a Damn Good Speech knows they are important.

[1] Copeland, Lewis, and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds. The World’s Great Speeches (New York: Dover, 1973) v.

[2] MacArthur, Brian, ed. The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches (New York: Pengin, 1992) xiii.

[3] Theibert, Philip R. How to Give a Damn Good Speech (Franklin Lakes NJ: Career Press, 1997) 5.

[4] Safire, William, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York: Norton, 1992) 713.

[5] Theibert 6.

[6] Copeland 147.

[7] Ibid.

[8] MacArthur 372-373.

[9] Theibert 51.

[10] Copeland 152.

[11] MacArthur 12.

[12] Theibert 17.

[13] Copeland 188.

[14] MacArthur 250.


Copeland, Lewis, and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds. The World’s Great Speeches. New York: Dover, 1973.

MacArthur, Brian, ed. The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Safire, William, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. New York: Norton, 1992.

Theibert, Philip R. How to Give a Damn Good Speech. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 1997.