On the Oratorial Arts

Often criticised for her speaking style, Julia Gillard delivered an historic speech before the US Congress overnight. In her address, she pulled no stops in underlining the strength of the alliance between the US and Australia. Observers have in turn praised and questioned her use of various rhetorical techniques to connect with her audience - “Ms Gillard deftly pressed her listeners’ hot buttons”, wrote Matthew Franklin - but connect she did. In fact, she received no less than six standing ovations - a diplomatic triumph by any measure. It’s a far cry from having her voice compared to a vuvuzela. Here’s an interesting linguistic analysis of Gillard’s accent.

Jerry Seinfeld famously quipped that, since surveys indicate fear of public speaking ranks higher than fear of death, most people would rather be lying in the casket than delivering the eulogy. The recent success of The King’s Speech has renewed interest in public speaking and speech. In a recent Guardian piece, Mary Beard asked what makes a great speech. She touches on technique, finds that the history of oration is gendered, and notes that the first recorded instance of a leader using a speechwriter was Nero.

On Monday night, the Wheeler Centre, in conjunction with the St James Ethics Centre, will host the first Intelligence Squared debate for 2011 at the Melbourne Town Hall. With speakers including Senator Penny Wong, former opposition leader John Hewson and former WA premier and federal cabinet minister Carmen Lawrence, the evening will feature some of Australia’s best public speakers speaking on the topic, ‘both major parties are failing the Australian people’.

There are many kinds of forms of debating. Monday night’s takes a form of chamber debating going back forst to the Cambridge and then Oxford University Unions. It allows several speakers to address a proposition in relative independence from each other. Even people who disagree with each other can speak on the same side, as long as they both agree or disagree with the proposition for any reason. At the end, there’s a floor debate in which members of the audience can speak for a minute each.