Ordinary, everyday talk is conversational, two-way or three-way or more, something like bagatelle as it bounces around within a group. It is fuelled by uncertainty: nobody quite knows who might speak next, or when, or what they might say, or how whatever is said might be received. A speech is different; it’s an event, an occasion, a performance.
Speech as performance
The practice of unregulated, impromptu public speaking originates with fools and scholars who wandered from one place to another in the Middle Ages. London’s Speakers’ Corner is in Hyde Park close to Tyburn, a place of hanging, where the condemned were allowed to speak for the last time. It provides ‘a permissive, sometimes stimulating, often challenging space of conversation among people not only unknown to each other but who dwell in geopolitical regions where contact between them (perhaps for reasons of religion, nationality or class) might be prohibited, difficult or practically impossible’, as Davina Cooper explains. It’s something like a bazaar, a market-place for the informal trading of ideas, and a space of competition between their respective exponents. It’s also a kind of game, a place for play and the invention or reinvention of the self, and is imbued with a similar kind of risk.
The speaker must first gain the audience’s attention. A successful speech is one in which the audience is engaged, studied, and itself plays a part, responding with applause or sometimes laughter; a less successful one leaves the audience restive, distracted, even antagonistic. The speaker’s task is not to convey information, but to get and keep attention, and then to prompt and maintain agreement.
As the size of an audience increases, the challenge of holding its attention increases, too. A speech to a larger gathering must be more theatrical than to a smaller one. To this end, the speech is reinforced physically, enacted in changing vocal intonation and accompanying gestures of hands and arms, and not least by eye contact, for our attention is inevitably drawn to those looking at us (this need to make eye contact is why so few politicians wear glasses, at least in public).
Though we tend to think of effective speakers as ‘charismatic’, we might do better to think of ‘charisma as a method’. Speeches tend to be longer and more monotonous in authoritarian and totalitarian political systems, where there is less need to garner support, and more to demonstrate authority and the absence of dissent.
Speech and text
The speech is often marked out from ordinary talk in beginning as text, in being formulated first on paper, then delivered, and then being transcribed or converted back into text. Engaging directly with an audience is much more difficult when speaking from a script, however, since it appears to compromise or diminish the autonomy and agency of the speaker. It generates uncertainty about who wrote what is now being read, that is about authorship, and so about authority (it’s for this reason that speeches are projected in front of a speaker on to a perspex screen, which to the audience appears transparent).
The speech is performed frontstage, but prepared backstage. Ben Rhodes was a speechwriter, responsible for national security communications under US President Obama. He writes of Obama sometimes seeming to explore and test ideas with him, at other times stating quite clearly what he wants to say and at others again having drafts returned full of the President’s handwritten edits. He remembers ‘group writing sessions that went on for hours’ as well as being locked in a room alone, writing a draft under pressure of time.
The speechwriter is always writing the script for somebody else; he can never own the words – let alone the character – in the way the dramatist does. ‘[Obama] was like a subject I’d studied for years – reading his books, analysing his comments, internalising his speech edits, channelling his worldview into written words and policy. But still I wrestled with the constant concern that I was losing myself inside the experience, transformed into a cipher for the needs of this other person who, after all, was a politician, playing the role of the US President’.
Audience as actor
We think of the speaker as the principal protagonist of the speech, but the audience also acts: in gathering in the first place, in presenting itself as an appropriate recipient of a speech, in paying it due attention, in the act of listening. The success of a speech inheres as much in what the audience does as what the speaker says.
Audience reactions during a political speech are invariably prompted by favourable references to persons or to the collective the speaker represents (typically a party, group or nation), and unfavourable references to others, as well as by familiar tropes and cadences, of which the two most prominent are the three-part list and the contrast. These signal to an audience the completion of a meaningful proposition or statement, but also require its members to judge for themselves whether the contrast being drawn is indeed positive or negative in the way the speaker intends.
So applause is invited. An audience’s initial reaction may be vocalised in a cheer, a long vowel sound which gives others the opportunity to join in and reinforce it, and then joined by applause, which is physically easier to sustain. For a speaker to refuse applause, to raise a hand or fail to pause, is intended as a show of modesty, of seriousness, of concern for what he or she wants to say, and gives an additional sense of agreement being spontaneous and irrepressible rather than manufactured.
Heckling, meanwhile, originates in complex and often surprisingly collective ways. Nick Llewellyn notes the formal instability of local public consultation meetings, expressed in the tension they must manage between speech-making and the one-to-one questioning of representatives and a more general, spontaneous discussion among all those present. In this uncertainty, audiences are able to intervene or participate both in the talk of council representatives and in that of other audience members.
An incipient restless murmur or ‘buzzing’ constitutes what is essentially an ‘interactional display for other audience members’, and becomes a way of establishing both ground and opportunity for someone to openly confront a speaker. Successive heckles, significantly, respond not only to what a speaker says but to previous heckles, as audience members complete or extend each other’s interventions, collaboratively articulating a complaint, pursuing a response or formulating an argument. ‘Through ‘heckling together’, different audience members could pursue single lines of argumentation… The audience were not acting independently of each other, they were coordinating their actions quite finely… [Audiences] ‘were able to complete rhetorical forms set in motion by other speakers and even co-produce grammatically coherent sentences. Such sequential possibilities represent a strong way in which a group can display shared sentiments and – in a sense – become a collective’.
The debate is distinctive for putting speakers directly into relations with each other. It’s the core activity of parliaments, a key feature of electoral campaigns, and a longstanding practice of political associations and clubs.
Debate is ‘the practice of speaking pro et contra on an item on the agenda between a plurality of agents’. It is especially rule-bound talk, following from the simple requirement that ‘Only one topic will be under consideration at any one time, and only one person at a time will be speaking’. These rules and conventions govern appropriate language and forms of address, and it is the role of a moderator or presiding officer to ensure they are kept, as well as to determine who should speak when. He or she has also to judge whether contributions speak to the matter at hand, and may either accept or deny amendments which seek to move it in one direction or another.
Parliaments differ in their debating practices: in an adversarial system, like Westminster, speakers expect to be challenged and interrupted, while in others they are not. The norms of Westminster behaviour seem to ensure the fairness and fullness of debate, and to work largely in favour of the individual parliamentarian, while its procedural standing orders, introduced in the interest of getting things done, tend to favour the government and its business managers. There are differences of expectation between systems, too, as to whether talk should naturally and organically result in consensus, according to a Habermasian sense of deliberation, or whether debate should culminate in a vote, a final expression of ‘voice’ which forces a decision, dividing participants into a majority and a minority, winners and losers.
Parliamentary procedure is the more significant to the extent that it serves as a model for other organizations. In the US, Robert’s Rules of Order was first compiled by US Brigadier General Henry Robert on the basis of congressional practice, and published for use in organizations and meetings of all kinds.
A televised leaders’ debate was first held in the US between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, and has since become a feature of election campaigns in many countries. Debates vary by number of participants (how many relevant parties and therefore leaders varies by political system); in their use of a sole moderator or a panel of journalists; whether questions are taken from the audience and in what form. They are also staged differently, as to whether participants sit or stand; whether or not they make opening statements and immediate rebuttals; how long they are allowed to speak.
In 1960, the tv networks initially offered eight one-hour Meet the Press slots, and the format eventually adopted was negotiated in a dozen meetings between the campaign teams and the networks. The idea of a formal debate risked boring the audience, it was thought, and was replaced by four question and answer exchanges, more like parallel interviews. At issue in the discussions were whether moderators should be public figures or tv professionals, whether the panel should include print journalists, whether candidates should use notes and whether reaction shots should be used.
Of course, it is part of the purpose of these debates that they themselves become an object of discussion, and they are immediately subject to comment and analysis in the news media of respective countries. Debates are accompanied by a flurry of Twitter activity, partly from supporters and others providing observation and comment in close to real time, and partly by a broader ‘viewertariat’, as audience members share their reactions with others. The exchange between participants is but the principal axis in a much more extensive, variegated pattern of political talk.
When Adlai Stevenson spoke to the UN Security Council during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, he used maps and photographs propped on an easel while other delegates gathered round. When Colin Powell went to the Security Council in 2003 looking for support for a war against Iraq, he used PowerPoint. Both presentations were forms of assisted speech, ways of showing as well as telling, displays of evidence meant to invoke an authority external to the speaker, material and objective.
PowerPoint is as much visual as verbal, a hybrid arrangement of text and spoken word, as though words need not only be said but must also be seen. It is speech seeking the authority of text, text which now includes visual images and often audio material. It is a technical as much as a rhetorical achievement, a multimedia nexus of different forms of digital communication.
The presentation is in part a demonstration in the manner of a scientific experiment, an account of what is known, an assembling of evidence in order to reveal a truth: ‘What you will see is an accumulation of facts…’, as Powell began. But it is just as much a ‘display of virtuosity’, of the ability to gather such a wealth of information and of the authority to interpret it, to arrange it for rhetorical effect, and of the presenter’s skill.