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Page last updated at 16:23 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 17:23 UK

The art of oratory

Bill Clinton
Yes, I'm talking to you

It's been a busy week for speechwriters, with world leaders converging on London and Strasbourg. But how much of the success of a speech depends on what is said, asks Jay Mukoro.

When Barack Obama stood up to make his inaugural speech, the enticement for the audience set before him - and the world beyond - was not simply to see the 44th President of the United States take office (and all the historic significance attached to it), but to hear him speak.

Ted Sorensen, former speechwriter to John F Kennedy, tells us that words "are the instruments that a president of the United States uses to govern the country, and wins the support of the world".

However in the early 18th Century it was customary for political speeches to be read, not delivered. David Frum, President Bush's former speechwriter, points out that the political culture in America at that time deemed that if you sought power you weren't to be trusted.

As a result, oratory didn't figure as an attribute you should possess. By the latter part of the 18th Century, oratory had returned to the political stage, and by the 19th Century the ancient art of oratory was back in full gusto. On one inauguration day it had famously tragic consequences.

Yes We Can! The Lost Art of Oratory is broadcast on BBC Two on Sunday, 5 April at 1950 BST
Or catch up using the iPlayer

In the 1840 presidential campaign William Henry Harrison, a Whig, was portrayed by the Democrats' campaign machine as a simple frontier fighter and a hard cider drinker, living in a log cabin. In fact Harrison was a scion of the Virginia planter aristocracy, and he'd studied classics and history.

Once elected - and determined to slay this false image - Harrison delivered a three-hour inaugural address, pulling out all the stops and using all the rhetorical flourishes from his classical training, which included references to the ancient Athenian constitution.

Unfortunately for Harrison, this speech was delivered on a cold March day in Washington. Soon after Harrison caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he died on 4 April 1841.

At a mere 278 words, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address which he delivered in Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863, shows that perhaps one of the tricks to the art of great oratory is to be brief.

Body language

Political oratory, as a tradition, doesn't simply stretch back across the ocean to Europe, but back in time, to ancient Rome and ancient Greece. Cicero is generally credited as one of the most versatile minds of ancient Rome. He rose to the heights of the senator class by his eloquence.

As a man from a modest background with great ambition, "rhetoric was the thing at his disposal to make his career", says the writer Charlotte Higgins.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln's Gettysburg speech is one of the most quoted in history

In fact the art of oratory is as much about the performance as it is about persuading others of the merits of your argument. Gore Vidal notes that in ancient Rome the senators were really drama critics, critiquing not only the contents of one another's speeches, but the style of delivery.

Former President Bill Clinton agrees. He says: "A lot of communication has nothing to do with the words, a lot of it is just your body language, or your tone of voice, or the way you look in your eyes."

Tone remains an important characteristic or ingredient when delivering a speech. Bill Clinton, for example, says he tries to make his speeches "like a jazz music piece, where I've got a script and there's this ad-lib" in the middle. Winston Churchill liked his speeches to be heard like a psalm.

In the hands of a demagogue, however, impassioned rhetoric can be used to appeal to the worst excesses of nationalism.

"Ancient critics of rhetoric would have found Hitler a pretty good example of everything that they distrusted about rhetoric," says Charlotte Higgins.

Neil Kinnock in 1991
Kinnock was over-exuberant in 1992

And this is one reason why rhetoric has at various times in our history fallen out of favour because, as the author Simon Sebag-Montefiore tells us, "words lie".

But words have the power to stir people, as exemplified by Obama's campaign slogan "Yes We Can". And as Rev Jesse Jackson notes, "words paint pictures, words draw our imagination" and help us to believe we can achieve great things.

With the rise of television, we all have the chance to be critics. The classic example is the Kennedy-Nixon debate, which has set the tone for modern televised political debate.

Closer to home, Neil Kinnock's appearance at the Labour election rally in Sheffield in 1992 is cited by Diane Abbott MP as a clear example of someone getting intoxicated by the adulation of the crowd. It has been argued that this performance - in which an over-exuberant Kinnock cringingly repeated "we're awright" to the crowd - was one of the reasons Labour lost the 1992 election.

But perhaps Bill Clinton is one of the best placed people to remind us of challenge in delivering a truly great speech.

"You measure the impact of your words, not on the beauty or the emotion of the moment but on whether you change the way people not only think, but the way they feel."

And that's extremely difficult to do, but it's important to try.

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