Wednesday, September 05, 2012
The word “oration” comes from the Latin word “oratio” for “speech” and “orare” for “to plead, speak, or pray.” It is sometimes - unfortunately, in my estimation - associated with a sort of high-flown pomposity. I suppose it can be, but there's a real art to it. Some are born with this gift or a natural proclivity to it, but I think, like any other art or skill, it can be learned.
Plato and Aristotle were well known orators and the art of public speaking was taught for use in court, politics, or any time the need arose.
As a preacher - someone who has to communicate a message from the pulpit - I'm fascinated by orators - those who have a gift and the skill of public speech - and their ability to communicate their message. I've actually listened to speeches given by Adolph Hitler, more trying to figure out how he convinced an entire nation to rise up and hate a people of another nation than anything else.
I'm always amazed by the vast variety of techniques and styles or orators. I mean, compare the gravely voice of Winston Churchill with that of the broad, flat, undeniably New England tones of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Or, the clipped, almost Shakespearean cadence of Tony Blair with the gravely, sexy, Arkansas drawl of a Bill Clinton.
What is it that makes the difference?
My dictionary tells me that the word 'oration' also comes to us from Middle English, oracion, meaning prayer. As in ora pro nobis (Pray for us). I think this gives us a little hint about the power of oration.
That means that a good speech, in part, not only speaks for me but inspires me. It says something I've thought about but puts it in such a succinct way that it's not only crystal clear but something I can remember and repeat. ("We have nothing to fear but fear itself".). It offers me hope and points me to another way of thinking about things as well as to something greater than myself.
In that way, good oration is a little prayer.
Author Tennessee Williams had his character, Big Daddy, say in the play, 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' "There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity . . .You can smell it. It smells like death." Indeed, it does.
I have learned, over the years, that authenticity is absolutely critical in delivering the message. If I don't believe what I'm saying, no one else will, either.
In order to be effective, the message has to be embodied - in and from my body. It has to be congruent with the rest of the way I live my life. I think that's what makes people I strongly disagree with - like Newt Gingrich or Paul Ryan - effective with other people. They do not speak my truth, but they speak a truth that others hear, and that truth has congruence with the way they live their lives.
There needs to be a least a few sparks of passion in the delivery of the speech. I don't like it when people yell but I do expect their voice to rise with the emotion in their hearts. In that way, we can not only excuse the speaker when they "choke up" or, perhaps, stumble over a word. It's understandable. It makes them more human.
It also helps to have a sense of humor - to be able to make people laugh. Sometimes, that can even be at the speaker's expense. It makes them more human. More real. More accessible. People do want to be engaged in what the speaker is saying and humor often engages people.
There is not only a coherent theme to the speech, but it is delivered with a certain rhythm- a cadence - of speech. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a dream". Even Ronald Reagan had a way of holding onto the podium and swaying his body slightly as he spoke that was very effective.
Finally, in a great oration, it's also about "the whole enchilada" - the way the speaker looks and dresses and acts - and the consistency of their message. It's the "chemistry" and the science and the art of good oration.
For all those reasons, and some I can't articulate, I though Michelle Obama's speech last night was an absolute, unequivocal "10" to the 10th degree.
She was positively brilliant. Hands down. No contest.
All that....and, and, AND...she was dressed beautifully in a simple silk pink and gray dress by Tracy Reese, a young African American designer, which showed off her beautifully toned arms. She was feminine and strong, all at the same time - just like her speech.
She did not slight any Republican but you still knew she was addressing issues raised by worthy opponents in this Political Campaign.
Yes, she told stories about her father and her husband's grandmother, but they didn't just hang there like political props. She used those stories to lift up the values and principles she and her husband and their children and this administration and the Democratic Party stand for.
There was enormous authenticity when she said of her husband, “He believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
And this was, for my money, the most quotable character quote of the night: "I have seen firsthand that being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are,"
I suspect people will be talking about this First Lady's speech for a long time to come. It will at least become the measure by which all other speeches by every other potential or actual First Lady is judged. She set the standard, and those standards are incredibly high.
I woke up this morning proud to be an American. Proud to be a woman. Proud to have Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters in the White House, working for me.
And, committed to work for the re-election of this President and this administration.
I have never - ever, not once in my life - put up a presidential campaign sign in my yard. Mostly, that's because I've lived in rectories or diocesan owned housing and did not feel it was appropriate.
This is my home. Indeed, next month, the mortgage will be paid off in full.
The "Obama-Biden" sign is going up in my yard tomorrow.
And that, dear friends, is what excellent oration can do.