Henriette Van Der Blom - Oracy and rhetoric: the relevance of public speaking skills in antiquity and today
Henriette is Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Network for Oratory and Politics.
‘Rhetoric is the science of speaking well’ (Quintilian, The Education of the Orator 2.15.38). Compare this ancient definition by the Roman rhetoric teacher Quintilian with the definition of oracy by Voice21: ‘Oracy is the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through spoken language.’
When we look at the words, these two definitions do not really tally. But when we think about the meaning of the words, they begin to align. Both rhetoric and oracy are about speaking and the spoken language. Both focus on the skill or the development of the skill of speaking through a framework: Quintilian’s ‘science’ means a structured approach to categorising the elements of rhetoric which guide the teaching of it; the oracy definition entails training in identifying and articulating ideas which are tailored to engage the audience.
And both rhetoric and oracy are about being able to successfully communicate a verbal message to others.
While rhetoric and oracy are not exactly the same, the shared function – successful communication of a verbal message to others – means that they are highly significant for individuals and for society. The ability to engage other people in our ideas is important in daily life (try persuading your child to dress in the morning or persuading your parent not to dictate what you wear), in school (try persuading your friends or your teacher to follow your suggestion), at work (make up your own example!), at community level and on a national level.
This is what we do all the time and what we receive from others all the time, without thinking about it. Rhetoric and oracy simply helps us to analyse the issue, identify the strongest arguments, structure the message, select the best language and tone, and deliver the communication in a way that best fits the audience and situation. Rhetoric and oracy also allows us to better understand what other people are saying to us. This ability to communicate – speaking and listening – is crucial for our successful engagement with others at all levels.
In my university teaching and in my research, I focus on Roman rhetoric and the practice of public speaking in ancient Rome. I am interested in the speeches, in the orators and, particularly, in the interplay between public speech and politics.
In a period without modern mass media – print, radio, television and social media – public speaking was the main means of communicating on a large scale, whether with fellow politicians or with the electorate: the Roman people. Preparation for a public career included teaching in rhetoric; in fact, it was considered the final – and most difficult – educational subject before a young man (and yes, only men engaged formally in Roman politics, although we know of some women who had a say through informal channels) could embark on a career in public life.
This education consisted in reading and analysing famous speeches, thinking up good arguments through exercises based on mythical and historical situations, considering the best organisation of these arguments and which tone and style to use (think of the different tones of wedding speeches from funeral speeches), training their memory skills, and practising the delivery. And although some of the exercises sound rather ludicrous to us today (for example, arguing on both sides of ‘The father who was dragged from a graveyard by a debauchee’, Seneca, Controversiae 4.1), they did train the students in the range of possible arguments and how to communicate them effectively to their audience.
When I make my students engage in these exercises in order to better understand Roman rhetorical education, when I make them analyse both ancient and modern speeches, and when I make them prepare, practice and deliver their own speeches, they become better speakers. Although gratifying, this is not surprising. What is perhaps less obvious, initially, is that they also become better at listening to others, understanding others and engaging with the ideas of others. They are developing into ‘rhetorical citizens’, a phrase invented and discussed by two Danish rhetoric scholars, Professor Christian Kock and Dr Lisa Villadsen, in their book Rhetorical Citizenship.
My concern to make the study of ancient rhetoric and oratory relevant today also spurred me to set up a national Network for Oratory and Politics with colleagues from Modern Languages and Classics at Glasgow and UCL. The network joins up the many academics who work on aspects of rhetoric but are spread over many subject disciplines such as Classics, History, Modern Languages, English, Linguistics, Politics, Media Studies. The network also joins these academics with practitioners of public speech (politicians, speechwriters, journalists and recorders of political speech such as Hansard), and members of the public interested in the intersection between oratory and politics across historical periods.
The network has hosted lecture series, postgraduate and general workshops and has co-hosted a research project together with the Political Studies Association’s specialist group on ‘Rhetoric, Discourse and Politics’ on the Crisis of Rhetoric in modern British politics. You can find a booklet summarising our findings here.
One of the findings was that we need to encourage training of rhetoric in schools to educate the next generation in how to identify, analyse, structure and communicate their ideas and in how to listen to and engage productively with the views of others in order to make them better equipped for our deliberative democracy and for their own lives and careers.
While this is a major undertaking, I believe that the Speaking Citizens project will bring us some way towards that goal. I am therefore looking forward to following and supporting the project in the coming months and years.
[illustration: Silvestre David Mirys (1742-1810) - Figures de l'histoire de la république romaine accompagnées d'un précis historique Plate 127]