Tuesday 16 January 2018

John Daly: Campaign season - and the lost art of rousing a crowd

President Michael D. Higgins delivering a speech at the European Parliament in April 2013 Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images
President Michael D. Higgins delivering a speech at the European Parliament in April 2013 Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

John Daly

They're out of the traps and the odds are we can brace ourselves as farce and fantasy dressed as serious discourse are now the order of the day from most politicians.

There isn't even the remotest prospect of decent elocution or winning humour. The canvassers knock and the first thought is: "I suppose a pearl of wisdom is out of the question?"

In a country acclaimed around the world for its oratory and clever wordplay, is there anyone out there today who can string together a decent speech - never mind one that would raise the hairs on our necks? In a Dáil where charisma and articulate speech have long been drowned in a vacuous sea of "dis, dat, dese and dose", the prospect of a budding JFK emerging from this morass is as about as likely as a balmy February.

Sean O'Casey might well have been pondering Leinster House when he observed: "All the world's a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed."

Yet while Irish politics in 2016 is mostly dominated by dull and anaemic public speakers, there are a few exceptions - most notably our President. Take a YouTube gander at his address to the European Parliament in 2013, where he elegantly eviscerated the austerity powerbrokers responsible for turning the EU into "an economic space of contestation between the strong and the weak", where citizens were reduced to "pawns in a speculative chess board of fiscal moves". Tell it like it is, Michael D.

He was ably matched by another president - Mary Robinson, on that momentous day in November 1990: "I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland. And above all by the women of Ireland, Mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system." You had me at hello, Mary.

Winston Churchill, a fair hand himself at rousing a crowd, said it best: "A good speech should be like a woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest."

Short is the key word, with brevity definitely the soul of wit. One of the most famous speeches in history - Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - lasted for just two minutes. As opening lines go, this one had killer written all over it: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." When it comes to creating a lasting impression, power and persuasion go hand in hand with pithy and concise. JFK inspired America with a speech that posed a singular question "Ask not what…" - lasting less than 15 minutes - while Martin Luther King's vision of racial equality, "I have a dream", was only two minutes longer.

Former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan once observed: "A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart." She could well have been talking about Jackie Healy-Rae, the Kerry politician whose soundbites enlivened many a campaign. Cunning operator that he was, the man in the flatcap knew well how to mix humour and pathos for maximum effect. On the trials of politics on the doorstep, he recalled: "I had some fierce escapes from dogs, but I nearly bled to death after this cock drove his spurs through my shoe and cut my vein. I bate the bejabers out of him."

He reminded us that hard luck cases were also a permanent part of the job: "Some people coming to me were so poor that they couldn't buy a jacket for a gooseberry." And his famous threat to pull the plug and force an election was pure Myles na gCopaleen: "Them fellas inside Dáil Éireann can be getting oil for the chains of their bikes."

But words are only half the battle when it comes to that winning style. Researchers who studied the more popular videos on TED Talks, the online intellectual forum, found body language and a good smile make speakers appear smarter: "No matter how serious your topic, find something to smile about," they stress. Most importantly, remember that speakers have just seven seconds to make an impression - the length of time it takes an audience to decide if they're going to vote for you. And, of course, speaking from the heart never goes out of fashion - like Steve Jobs's speech to a graduating class at Stanford, where he laid it down with drama: "Keep looking, don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."

For the year that's in it, Pearse's oration at the graveside of O'Donovan Rossa surely stands out for a sentiment and delivery impossible to unearth in Irish politics nowadays: "They think that they have foreseen everything, that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace." They just don't make 'em like that any more, and we are sadly the poorer for it.

Irish Independent

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