You know you are in a special place when you arrive at the library, the Mackintosh School of Art, Glasgow; if you stand under the dome of St Paul’s in London; looking down as the silent multitudes criss-cross Grand Central Station, New York. The hairs on the back of your neck and the tang in your mouth and the silence in your head tell you.
The guitar opening Guns ‘n Roses Sweet Child O’ Mine or Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (Rollerball theme) give a similar rush. It would be terrific double whammy if they were performed in Grand Central.
Great oratory does the same: King at Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy in Berlin, Churchill at the US Congress. The "mountain top" and "Promised Land", "ich bin ein Berliner" and borrowing "of the people by the people for the people" from The Gettysburg Address lift spirits. But oratory can do more than uplift. The idea of being given a "bad cheque", the fact that a wall needs to be built to keep people in, or reminding American politicians of "novel, painful and startling episodes of sudden war" take the listener to a different place entirely.
There are quite a few important oratorical performances coming up in the next few weeks. It’s Party conference season. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all have an hour to show us they are made of the right stuff. (Best of luck with that one, chaps.) Obama and Romney and Biden and Ryan will face-off in debates, which are undoubtedly the gladiatorial performances of modern politics and the best way to see the polished yet unvarnished personas of those who want our votes.
When you watch them, note the passages that invoke in you a visceral reaction, positive or negative. That’s when it’s getting through, just as it does in the involuntary human response that comes from seeing great architecture or being moved by music. You don't have to be an expert or a critic to feel it. In oratory, it’s rarely the numbers or the policies or the political posturing that does the trick: it’s the stories. These are the elements in oratory that get our juices flowing and inspire comment or debate in the pub afterwards. The pragmatic, the logical and the ordinary alone don’t cut it. They never have, they never will and, by the way, oratory and rhetoric as a means of persuasion have been around forever.
Right now teams of people will be working with the big political beasts (and their focus groups) to find the right words: the metaphors and analogies and sound-bites that will enter your soul before you enter the polling booth. Yes they are, they are all in this together and offering much blood, toil, tears and sweat (sic).
In anticipation of these set pieces, a few words by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, “The power the artist posses in representing objects to himself, and their tendency towards symbolism, illustrates the hallucinatory character of his work. But it is the creative imagination that is much more important: The artist cannot attain mastery of his art unless he is endowed, to the highest degree, with the faculty of invention.” Mackintosh is saying that elegant drawings (and there are plenty snazzy watercolours of the Art School) are all very well, but they are merely the mechanism for the hard bit: enclosing space beautifully and feeding the soul. He is saying it is dangerous to get caught up in just representing objects to yourself- making beautiful watercolours- at the expense of the creative imagination.
And so it is with oratory. Plenty politicians can make a decent fist of remaining vertical for an hour, talking with their mouths. They can usually rouse the Party faithful. Big deal. Few do it well enough to move us, to change us, to lead us. Creativity, in both the long hours of preparation and in executing extemporaneous delivery, is the X factor.
PS… The spaces described at the beginning are three things to do before you die: while you are doing them, your iPod will take care of Slashes’ guitar solo and Bach’s big organ.
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about the author
Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.