Thoughts on Great Speeches

Early in August, I was the Chief Guest for the prize giving function of a Declamation contest.

A declamation competition is founded on the principle that certain famous words have left  a definite mark  on the world, perhaps even changed the course of history. An aberration was surely  the Jasmine Revolution  that took place a few months earlier in Tunisia, when disaffected  people got together on Facebook. I mused that many  uprisings and great events were stimulated by the eloquent words of  charismatic persons who unified a crowd with a sense of purpose.

The great speeches of the world have arisen in many a different context. We may not immediately think of them as great speeches, but the  words of spiritual leaders have  defined  their followers beliefs for  all ages to come.

Rousing words have affected war outcomes by instilling the fighting spirit. I recall the words of that famous woman monarch, Queen Elizabeth I who spoke to English troops in the face of the invading Spanish Armada-” I know I have but the body of but a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too. ” By the time of the II World war, battles were waged not just  with weaponry but also across the radio waves as contests of eloquence between leaders of opposing nations. Winston Churchill’s words which stirred the patriotic spirit to unlikely victory  were among those performed that day.

The Indian nation owes a debt to the powerful words that were spoken during  The Indian freedom movement which  mobilized the masses against British rule, whether those of Gandhi setting out the unusual principles of non-co-operation and civil disobedience or the  fiery words  of Subhash Chandra Bose- ” Give me blood and I will give you freedom.” The mellow words of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous tryst with destiny speech forever  spell out the lofty ideals of a new nation.

Struggles  for political equality everywhere  have also known their inspiring moments, notably Martin Luther King’s famous  “I have a dream” oration that would arouse the hopes of a racially oppressed minority in America.

I reflected that some of the world’s great speeches are not those about war, but about peace and reconciliation after conflicts, such as those given during acceptance of  Nobel Peace Prizes . These speeches are noteworthy because they go beyond the interests of  a particular nation or group and address themselves to all humanity.

I pronounced on what would  make  a declamation contest a real learning exercise. A contestant need not worry about the quality content because that is given. The premium is on perfect memory and expressiveness to do justice to the great content, but these elements must be backed by holistic understanding.  Knowing  the context of  the words promotes the right mood of   expressiveness. Secondly,  as much as great words move people to great things, equally there have been those disturbing moments when cunning demagogues have manipulated mobs and unleashed destructive forces.  Understanding the context  brings out the distinction between what sounds good for competitive purposes, and what in the end is truly meaningful.

There should be appreciation  of the value systems involved in a speech, such as democracy and human rights, or qualities like courage and determination and compassion so that they can be upheld and strengthened. Great speechs of the world have already proved impactful- their clarity of thought and conviction of purpose have eternal messages and enduring lessons. It would be a worthwhile exercise  to analyse the structure of great speeches for their central ideas, their use of language etc  so that it furnishes  actual training ground for future leaders by expanding the thought process.

I thought each of the young performers enjoyed a unique opportunity- to stand in the shoes of a famous leader and relive a rousing moment from history.  It might be  beyond each and everyone of us to shake up the world as these famous words have done. Nevertheless life gives us opportunities to make a difference with words on different occasions- to celebrate a special moment,  to offer comfort,  to speak up for what we believe in , to convey significant ideas and values, to offer  ourselves for responsibility, to promote, encourage and inspire.

At each such opportunity, the thoughts shared should be our uniquely personal ones, appropriate to the situation. It is however possible to be guided by the spirit of great speeches  that continue to exert  influence on the thought process of humanity.

– GISELLE MEHTA

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About proteanpen

Giselle Mehta, an entrepreneur, engages in writing, theater,public speaking and activities with a creative/intellectual stimulus. She is the author of the acclaimed novel "Blossom Showers."
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