You are here
The art of good speech-making
Oh, how I wish that I were an English teacher at this moment in time. I know that my students would be studying the speeches presented at the US Republican and Democratic national conventions. I have always felt that the best English lessons come from pop culture and the news stories that surround us, and the speeches that have come out of these political conventions are filled with many invaluable lessons about communication and persuasion.
My favourite speech was the keynote speech presented at the National Democratic convention by Julian Castro, the young, engaging mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Castro packed that speech with personal anecdotes about his Chicano (Mexican-American) background to create a structure for his political philosophy. Castro managed to show—not just tell—information about the immigrant experience while connecting political issues about immigration to the historical and personal experiences of American immigrants.
My second choice for an excellent “teaching” speech would be former President Bill Clinton’s speech for its wide range of emotion. There is much fact-checking to go along with this speech. Speeches are the oral version of persuasive essays, and they are excellent ways to teach structure, form and voice—the author’s attitude towards his subject. They address a vanishing skill—listening—and force the listener to decide whether he will process information in a subjective or objective manner.
Students need to know that an effective speech uses facts and statistics to back up claims and a politician who tries to get by by merely attacking an opponent in a personal way is trying to skirt the issues and appeal to people’s ignorance rather than their intelligence. All “facts” presented in a speech need to be checked.
A good speech has a visual impact as well. No one can get away with an abstract speech. The listener has to be able to relate to images in the speeches. This in turn develops comparative skills. One of the biggest problems I see in students’ essays is that they lack visual, concrete examples that help the writer develop a sense of organisation and the reader to make sense of that organisation.
Speeches—like the ones presented in this convention—help students to develop critical thinking skills that they need for life. Most of all, speeches should be studied for how they reflect leadership. This is the murkiest of issues here in Trinidad and Tobago because as far as I’m concerned most schools really don’t teach students to be individual thinkers and capable, future leaders. Instead, they teach conformity to a neo-colonialist system of shut up and put up. Don’t rock the boat. Absorb “knowledge” as opposed to thinking about knowledge.
Learning needs to be active—not passive. It is challenging to find enough great essays out there for students to use as models for academic writing. They’re usually too long, too intense or too complex to teach basic structure in essay writing. Whenever I teach SAT classes, I always find myself taking news stories from the Internet that could mask as a good lesson in essay writing simply because Internet stories tend to be short enough to use as a lesson. Some of those news stories are good examples of great essays, but like speeches, some are good examples of poor essays and all of the mistakes you shouldn’t make when writing.
Many “traditional” essays won’t hold the interest of students, but a teacher can get away with using speeches as models for essays because students get caught up in the presentation of the speech and the visual impact of the speech, the presenter’s mannerisms and the cutaways to the audience.
Speeches teach communication skills that can be used in many forums including debates. They teach students about physical expression as a language in itself and show how attitude and expression send subliminal messages about the personality or emotion of the presenter. Look at Adolf Hitler’s speeches as compared to John F Kennedy’s speeches and see what you can determine about character.
Speeches demonstrate how the presenter can use his speaking voice, intonation and pauses for an effect. They also teach the importance of diction—choosing that precise word to make a point. Speeches, then, can be used as a study in vocabulary—even a rationalisation for building student’s vocabulary. Because students tend not to read as much as they should, they might not realise how important it is to build vocabulary until they actually see the connection in something like a speech.
Examining the poetic devices used in speeches can even help students to understand figures of speech like metaphor, simile, irony, sarcasm and metonymy. These poetic devices are used to create pictures and emotions to create what is comparable to textualisation in literature—ways to involve the listener in the actual text.
Students need to be exposed to excellent examples of communication so that they can learn to be better communicators and better citizens in the future. They need to understand how effective communication is important for success in life.
Yes, there really are many lessons to be learned from speeches.
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff. Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Please help us keep out site clean from inappropriate comments by using the flag option.
Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments. Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.