Once I dated a man who, accused me, irritably, of ‘speechifying’ at him. My speeches were point by point elucidations of the problems in our relationship and my proposed solutions. I was good at simulating fairness, but the truth is those speeches just skimmed the surface. Long on incriminating facts they were short on what was really going wrong between us. That relationship didn’t end so well. I won the arguments but lost the affection.
Rather like Julia Gillard when she was Prime Minister of Australia. She incorporated lines into her speeches to signal that she was in a dialogue with the Australian people, but it was a crude copy of the real thing. She would say “I understand that people are hurting badly in some parts of the economy.” Or, “I understand that people have issues with the carbon tax.” But she was paying lip service to these views, rather than engaging with them. She never went on to respond meaningfully to the sentiments that she apparently understood. You suspected that if she had really recognised the depth of feeling out there, then she would have had something more to say – some explanation or mitigation or argument.
But as a practitioner of speechwriting it has to be said that creating a real dialogue is hard. Sometimes there is an elephant dominating the room, demanding explicit recognition under awkward circumstances. More often it’s a shadow in the corner, and it is a delicate judgement call whether, and to what degree, the speaker acknowledges the underlying problem or contradiction.
Here’s an example.
In 1588, England was under a very real threat of invasion and mass destruction by the Spanish Armada. The English army had gathered at Tilbury to await the expected enemy landing. Elizabeth the Queen arrived on her grey horse, dressed in white with a silver breast plate, to give a stirring address to rouse her troops to battle. She had been monarch for thirty years by then. Under her leadership England had become peaceful and prosperous. But now it faced an existential threat. She spoke from her horse. She began with a heartfelt statement of confidence in their loyalty and a commitment to fight the Spanish alongside them, and if necessary, die with them.
My loving people,
We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear.
Let tyrants fear. What a line.
I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.
This is magnificent stuff. The monarch down in the muck and dust among her fighting men, ready to fight, ready to give her all. Then she says something extraordinary, something that still pulls you up in surprise.
I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman…
What? Why on earth did she feel the need to say this? She had been Queen of England for thirty years – it wasn’t as if they didn’t know it was a woman under all that makeup. Why did she decide to deliver a very public reminder that she was a woman?
…but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too….
Let us must imagine the huzzahs that followed this line. And now she swells, she grows in ferocity.
... and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
Time for some pragmatic motivation. She was a very practical woman.
I know already for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid.
Note that in this line she calls herself “a prince.” She has overcome her weakness and assumed manhood. And she concludes as the leader must always conclude – with a message of confidence and hope.
In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.
Many modern advisers would have counselled Elizabeth against making a point of the fact that she was a woman. She doesn’t just draw attention, she overplays it, using not one but two adjectives; weak and feeble. She pushes the negative connotations of femininity extra hard. It’s not a lantern hung on the problem, it’s floodlights.
Here’s my theory. Elizabeth must have taken the view that even her most loyal troops – those who adored their Queen in prosperous peace-time - might have wondered whether a young, virile King might not have given England greater advantage in this moment of desperate peril. She was not going to leave them to stew in their negative thoughts. She would not let them feel that their Queen didn’t understand the worst, most fearful and ignoble imaginings that were going through their minds, and possibly undermining their fighting spirit.
So she raises their worst fears and her only weakness.
But in the naming of it, in defying her own weakness, Elizabeth is doing more than demonstrating her sympathy with, and her understanding of, the misgivings of her troops. She is lending her ‘weak woman’s’ courage to all those young and fearful soldiers. She is turning her own apparent weakness into their greatest strength.
Nearly every speech is an act of overcoming. Something awkward, shameful, or contradictory must be addressed, either implicitly or explicitly, if the speech is to succeed. That’s what the greatest speeches do. A speech is a dialogue, and the great speeches include and transcend the arguments.