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          Volume 10 |Issue 38 | October 07, 2011 |


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Public Speaking gone Artless

Shah Husain Imam

Not sadly or self-pityingly, I suppose, our colonial connection gives a handle to pick up gems from the repertoire of British politics today. The fact that it does so, in spite of the 'mother of parliaments' going into obsolescence with the end of the British empire, goes to only prove the point.

Margaret Thatcher, reputably the “only man in the cabinet”. Photo: courtesy

The other day, labour leader Ed Miliband was spotted entering an arena over and over again, as his aides coached him how to 'walk the walk and wave the wave'. To unroll the words, he was being doctored on 'how to walk into the Labour Conference Hall and how to give an authoritative wave' (Mail, online). His 'sins and omissions' by Gordon Brown's side, make such tutoring of details perhaps a compelling necessity. Authenticity is key to convincing political salesmanship.

Actually, such attention to nitty-gritty of public speaking had commenced during Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative government (1979-90). Reputably, the 'only man in the cabinet', she had use for a certain mellow delivery of words (the Queen's is simply mellifluous) including where the emphasis would be placed with maximum effect on her audience. Core messages would be underscored at least thrice over a speech with varying pitches of inflection, but consciously avoiding grating in an overall performance of sweet-sale. (Remember Gordon Brown's faux pas in a constituency during an election campaign. A pejorative he used towards a complaining retired lady pensioner who had sneaked through a still-open listening device as he just got seated in his car impelled him to apologise to the constituency in question). So sensitive is the British public.

Fragile as our own democracy remains causing a huge appetite for grovel among the electorate, there were times when we had captivating public speakers, but clearly no more. If the star orators were in a minority in the past, they are not even miniscule today, they are non-existent.

Among the civil society and the academia are, of course, a powerful lot of speakers who can hold the audience spellbound for the time they are at the podium. Even their number is falling. A handful of them is simply breathtakingly refreshing, a treat to the mind if you are in the right place at the right time. Their sense of humour, witty cracks of wisdom, both worldly and learned from lively prints through the range of their reading must compare favourably with their counterparts in any other society around the world. But does it matter much when brawn puts brain out of any effective circulation?

Gordon Brown had to apologise for using a pejorative during an election campaign. Photo: courtesy

Politicians of the present day, more of the elected kind (some of the unelected party leaders being good speakers), do not either care about their elocution or are incapable of speaking effectively and well enough to create an impression on the public mind. Beginning with pompous deification of leaders, past and present, as a signature tune of loyalty which is neither in question nor doubted, for that is the ticket on which they had come to parliament and are operating elsewhere any way. So why?

With due respect to our leaders, recital of their names on special occasions would be perfectly in order but for speech on current or constituency-related affairs why must the ritual take up so much of the time-slots in parliament? They should say what the public really want to hear from them.

Shouting matches among the mid-rung leaders to the swelling of the vocal chords, mike or no mike, is habit forming rather than cultivated. The other thing is they sound like broken records because of no change in the storylines. Both the habits are dispensable knowing that it is the logic or lack of it, of their respective positions that can either win hearts and minds of people or alienate them. Since their appeal should be to the floating votes to make a difference in the vote their speeches should be accordingly scripted. This is only to emphasise that no matter what they say their hard core vote banks will vote for them anyway.

While our top political leaders more often than not speak in a shrill rhetoric, and with their contents being abrasive and ballistic at each other, hearing them out is not always a pleasure as it should have been. We expect that they rehearse their speeches like, for instance, heads of government and opposition leaders in other democracies usually do, before going public.

Public speaking is an art that should come naturally to our political leaders.


The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.



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