by James Mannion
Last year, I attended a fascinating talk by Simon Lancaster, a professional speechwriter. It was a variation on a TEDx talk he did a couple of years ago, which you can see here – it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.
Ever since, I’ve become kind of obsessed with the way leaders use language to get things done. Simon’s talk covers just six techniques, but there are many more (see here, for example). Once you learn about these rhetorical sleights of hand, you start seeing them everywhere. And once you realise that you can use these techniques to argue just as passionately for something as against it, it makes you suitably suspicious of those with a slick way with words. So not only does learning about rhetoric make you better at speaking and writing, it helps you read the world more critically.
All of which begs the question: why wasn’t I taught this stuff when I was at school? Why am I only learning about this now, in my forties? Regular readers of these pages will know that the teaching of things like ancient rhetoric is currently under-represented in (most) schools, compared with written literacy and numeracy. However, this is quite a recent development.
Throughout the middle ages, rhetoric was a part of the Trivium (alongside logic and grammar), a core curriculum first established in ancient Greece. Indeed, as Simon points out in his TEDx talk, “In London, right the way through to the 19th century, it was possible to get a free education in rhetoric, but not in mathematics, reflecting the importance that was placed on the topic”.
More recently, the teaching of ancient rhetoric has primarily become the preserve of exclusive (also, notably, male) public schools such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby. Take, for example, this short clip of Boris Johnson talking about Churchill’s way with words. There’s a fascinating moment where Johnson says “now that is an ascending tricolon, isn’t it?” Here, he speaks as though an understanding of ancient rhetorical techniques is common knowledge. To which one might lament, “If only it were true”. However, a better response would be, “Let’s prove him right”. Time’s up on this, as well.
The Language of Power: a one-day workshop
Anyway. A few months ago, Oracy Cambridge was contacted by Villiers Park, a fabulous charity that works with hundreds of young people throughout the UK, providing intensive support and outreach for students in years 10 to 13, to help them transition to a successful life beyond the school gates. They asked us to run a series of workshops with their year 13 scholars, to help develop their confidence with public speaking before they leave the school system for good: better late than never, as they say.
So, I put together a workshop to teach students “how to speak like a leader”. Since the new year, I’ve been running these workshops up and down the country, from Hastings to Tyneside, and the feedback from the students has been extraordinary. Here’s a sample of comments from the Villiers Park scholars:
“Needs to be longer. Have it over a weekend with multiple teams debating controversial topics with each other.”
“Really enjoyed it. Personal as we could choose our own topic.”
“The workshop was very well set, I thoroughly enjoyed it and thus no improvement should be made.”
What did you find most useful?
“The presenting along with feedback coupled with the teaching of language devices.”
“The quiz – fun, good for learning.”
“I learnt effective techniques in structuring my speech. To deliver confidently, likewise learning and understanding the terms.”
“Looking at examples of powerful speeches – shows people what to aim for.”
“Learning the different techniques used in language.”
“Analysing and picking out techniques – the quiz.”
“The demo of how the speech can be done by the presenter.”
“The analysis of Oprah and Trump speeches, because it was real-life examples of the techniques we’ve developed.”
Now coming to a town near you… (if you book it)
Oracy Cambridge are now opening up the offer to run these workshops in schools and workplaces around the country. It would work well as a one-day workshop for children (years 5 to 13). If you want to embed high standards of presentational skills across your school, we also offer it as a training event for teachers and support staff. And we’re also offering it to workplaces, because apparently (or so I am reliably informed) there is a world beyond the education system.
To find out more, or to make a booking, drop us a line – firstname.lastname@example.org.