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In Defence of Oratory

What ever happened to the art of Public Speaking?

There was a time I suppose, not so very long ago that a leader of any sort (politician, boss, preacher, teacher) was expected to have a strong command of language as well as a notable skill in the art of relating to their audience in order to do their job well. Even though soon-to-be former president Obama will go down in history as one of the great orators of our time. The fact that there are few others who even receive comparison to him tells us something about the rarity of his talent.

Whether you agree with their policy, opinions or direction, in years past you still could still expect leaders to be able to construct and deliver a clear argument in an oral fashion. But this isn't just true for politicians. A Classical education in the western world was built on the primacy of rhetoric as a basic skill required for all who wished to raise their station in society or to participate in the discourses of the day. But today "the Classics" are often considered a fanciful and unnecessary part of the University. Often under-funded and generally scorned for it's low rate of graduates with "jobs in their fields".

What jobs are there that require no training or understanding in logic, rhetoric or public speaking? OK, most IT-related jobs don't seem to require an abundance of such skills for their basic performance. A programmer doesn't need to speak or argue, they need to write code. A computer graphic designer doesn't need to make a logical case for their designs, they have to make them cool! Unless they develop an app and want to get funding or try to sell it to a big tech company, in which case they'd better brush up on those ol' people skills. They might need to present an idea to a potential client. They might need to make a case to their boss for better equipment, or days off, or a new desk chair. They might even be asked to give a toast at a wedding which has nothing to do with work but still happens to people in daily life.

The point being: even if jobs requiring dynamic public speaking skills are fewer today, the skills of oratory are useful to many and one would expect essential to some. However, the number one fear most of us still share is this exact thing. So we are being gracious by extending our fear of this to those who it would seem have little reason for it. The fact that you might get nervous and stumble on words, occasionally stuttering as you try to get your message out means that you can identify with someone else who has the same problem. When that person is also the billionaire head of a major technology corporation, it's akin to saying "Oh, well the ability to present yourself and your idea or product well doesn't matter when you have an amazing idea or product!"

OK. But what's wrong with presenting it well anyway? Yes Tesla sells more cars than they can produce. And yes, Mr. Musk has a kind of charisma that appeals to many who also share the same vision. But what about those who have yet to be convinced? What about changing the minds of the rest of the world? What about facing the detractors? Product launches and keynote addresses are now as important as any marketing campaign for a company or product trying to build and maintain customer loyalty and trust. One could argue that Steve Jobs set a high bar for innovation in his presentations, not easy for business or technology mavericks who follow in his wake. If the best response to the famous Apple head is to go completely in the other direction (sans theatrics or charisma, or apparent confidence) I wonder if that means we have also started to become people who prefer leaders who reflect our own insecurities rather than as someone to look up to as an inspiration?

The fact is, for most people it doesn't take a great deal of effort to become a better public speaker. Even by reflecting on past experiences to improve on your next venture is an important step forward. Spending a few dollars on a coach and a few hours in practice might vault you into the upper echelons in a world more and more deprived of good speakers. As a bonus, you might also overcome a major personal fear in the process.

What is that fear anyway?

When you really look at it, many people don't actually fear the act of public speaking as much as they fear the negative perceptions of others. The fear of being mocked, ridiculed, scorned or rejected may be the underlying reason we don't really want to do this presentation.

Is it the fear of trying too hard?

If we do have to do a speech and it doesn't go well, it feels better to say "Oh well, I didn't even practice so I'm not surprised". By setting a low expectation for yourself, you manage to avoid the real fear that your best effort still isn't good enough. In this way many people manage to deny the world and themselves the possibility of something truly enlightening with self-sabotage.

So if we keep low expectations for ourselves, we might be able to drag others down to our own level of fear. And that would make us just as good as them! No more elite speakers! But no one is born an elite speaker, no one is born speaking at all! More than anything, the way we speak and the voice we use is the result of the education we were given or that we chose. But it's difficult to acknowledge the vulnerability we feel around this. So let's face this vulnerability rather than being ruled by it or making it an outcast.

So if speaking aloud to others is something you fear, you are in good company because we all agree it can be terrifying! In fact the fear of failure may be the biggest thing keeping you from even trying. Because it's better to fail when you didn't really try than when you gave it your best.


Maybe. If so we all would do well to admit we are limited in terms of our resources and our talents, even in our ideas. But when we hide these resources from the world out of fear we are also denying their importance and possibly even their existence.

So from now on, why not try to get better. Let's insist that it's possible. It's not as cool to stagnate and act cynical as we think it is. The cool things in this world usually start out pretty raw and unglamorous. But they don't stay that way, nor should they. So let's make public speaking cool again. Let's get over ourselves and work on finding ways to let our ideas and our passions be shared and reflected in those around us. The world needs more passionate people, not less. Never less. And passion is infectious. So open yourself to the possibility of changing the way you look at yourself. You might have a lot more to say than you are currently saying. It's looking less and less likely that someone will step in and be the voice the world needs to hear. But eventually someone has to.

So why not you?

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