Wednesday was quite a day for speeches.
First there was the House of Representatives debate on the Third Reading of the Same Sex Marriage Bill – well debate is was not, the majority of speakers favoured the proposal and opposition was rather token. But as an old (no, former) English teacher, I took interest in the speeches. A rare chance to hear a succession of MPs delivering their short speeches which were written, well rehearsed and delivered with varying degrees of effectiveness. All-in-all it was a bit like a school speech contest only with a topic that was weighty, critical to the direction our social maturity was heading and deeply and intensely personal to many. And, unlike school speeches, the outcome of the vote was not a book token but a change to the law.
So how did the speakers do and what tips could school children take out of it?
One thing, always hear a speech when you are writing it. Producing a piece of pearly written prose can not only be inappropriate for a speech but can actually be rather hard to say out loud. This caught a few and I was left thinking that if they could give me a copy it would all be better. Make sure that you can actually say the sentences in a manner that sounds effective. And don’t use words you cannot easily pronounce.
Be careful of using humour. It’s hard and it can be dangerous. Several MPs judged pretty poorly in this respect. A very early speaker managed to be both inappropriate as a comedian and as a result fell rather flat. It was a bit like a test opening batsman striding seriously to the wicket and proceeding to attempt trick shots with the inevitable result.
Stick to the time allowed. Usually a speaker has put some effort into that final sentence and quite a few never got to deliver them when the Chair (especially the Deputy Chair) cut them off in mid-stream. This is a special danger when the “speech” is actually an essay.
Introducing the personal into a speech often has a very strong effect and so it had in the debate. The clarity with which the pain of discrimination was spoken about was matched with personal anecdotes, tales of bigotry and the overwhelming feeling that the world was about to change a little. Many of the speeches were strong in this regard.
Finally, a speech is a speech is a speech and so few of the speeches in this Third Reading will be remembered as a speech equal to the occasion. Speeches techniques that are not usual in short written pieces. Repetition is one of these. I don’t mean simply repeating words and certainly not that irritating habit of politicians of repeating the last few words they say (as in “and that is why repealing the act would result in suffering and pain, suffering and pain.”) Repetition is best effective when it is structural and each iteration of the phrase moves the argument or ideas along. A couple of the speeches had some excellent examples of this in them.
Overall the “debate /speech contest” was interesting and at the end the teacher could have commended them all.
Then a quick look at Maggie Thatcher’s funeral service – not many speeches here. The bulk of the spoken word was taken from that compendium of brilliant language, The Bible, and the St James Version at that. So no much scope here deviating from the script.
The one speech was from the Bishop of London who from the pulpit delivered a considered and brilliant commentary on the life of Thatcher. Setting is all and the great St Paul’s Cathedral provides no better platform to indulge in the patterns, resonances and cadences of formal English language at its best. I have always loved the use of inversion in biblical and liturgical language – “I to the hills will lift mine eyes” sort of stuff.
One of the parliamentary speakers made use of literary quotation, an extract from The Merchant of Venice but it went on too long and losts it point a little. Not so the Bishop who made lovely use of literary quotation, a short extract from Little Gidding (T S Eliot’s Four Quartets).
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. (V)
The context in which the Bishop used this quote made it most appropriate. It occurred to me that it was perhaps the point at which the parliamentary debate had ended.