Jerry Seinfeld does a bit about people’s number one fear. The stand-up comic says the ultimate fear people have is public speaking. The second is dying.
In his distinct style, he extrapolates that if speaking in front of a crowd is number one and number two is death, then someone delivering a eulogy would rather be in the casket than behind the microphone.
Public speaking is an art form. When it’s done well, it’s poetry, flowing, challenging, stirring. When it’s done poorly, it’s interpretive dance - confusing, disjointed and embarrassing for everyone involved.
Think of the great speeches. They have in common a powerful message, pathos and connection with the listener.
Someone once gave me a lovely hardback book called Speeches that Shaped the Modern World filled, as you might have already guessed, with landmark orations.
The usual suspects are there in all their articulate glory: Martin Luther King, JFK, Neil Armstrong, and Nelson Mandela.
There’s a disparity in female voices, but Queen Elizabeth II’s Annus Horribilus address, Magaret Thatcher’s speech on the Falklands War and Indira Gandhi’s 1980 talk on the liberation of women are included and are powerful messages.
You see similar rhetorical devices like repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia and short sentences that build monosyllabic words into multisyllabic ones.
Public speaking does not come naturally to most people. Certainly not me. I agonise over it, feel like I’m speaking at a Gatling gun rate of words and not making any sense (perhaps that’s the reality).
The best advice I’ve had was on structure: Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em that you’ve told ’em.
So what makes a good speech? It varies on the time, setting and audience. A clear delivery, yes. A connection with the listener, yes. A powerful message, certainly.
Overall, it’s speaking a truth; either universally acknowledged, subliminally understood, or, perhaps most powerfully, revelatory – something hitherto unknown.
Seinfeld might be right about fear of public speaking trumping fear of death. But of all the great speeches, it is the eulogy that stands out. Not in a morbid or macabre way, but in the inherent emotion and pathos entwined in the event. There is a connection between audience and speaker through shared grief and understanding that the eulogiser is delivering the hardest speech of their life at the hardest point of their life.
There are standouts. Teddy Kennedy’s for his murdered brother Robert – made all the more tragic because of that tragic family history – or the Earl Spencer’s sharp address at his sister Diana Princess of Wales’ funeral that bordered on Antony’s address over Caesar with its pointed undertones.
You might not think George W Bush is someone whose public speaking would make that list. Google Bushisms and you get a whole host of garbled metaphors, malapropisms and mispronunciations.
The best is when he’s talking about education because the irony is overt.
“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Or, “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”
His speech after the 9/11 terror acts is in the book. At a time of great emotion and anxiety it was reassuring, if not a little jingoistic. It was a speech of its time as it was what people needed and wanted to hear.
But it was his eulogy to his father George HW Bush that delivered a stirring speech.
It was a fine example that involved humour, reflection, grief, hope and happiness.
He shared his 94-year-old father’s verve for life: “I once heard it said of man that the idea is to die young, as late as possible.”
He quoted his father’s inauguration address: “We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car … We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighbourhood and town better than he found it.”
He addressed his personality: “In victory, he shared credit. When he lost, he shouldered the blame. He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life, but taught us never to be defined by failure. He showed us how setbacks can strengthen.”
He noted his foibles: “To us, he was close to perfect. But not totally perfect. His short game was lousy. He wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire. The man couldn’t stomach vegetables. Especially broccoli. And by the way, he passed these genetic defects along to us.”
He shared intimate details of their last conversation: “I said, ‘Dad, I love you, and you’ve been a wonderful father.’ And the last words he would ever say on Earth were, ‘I love you, too.’”
Finally, he spoke of the happiness his father would have in joining his wife, who died seven months prior, and daughter, who died from leukemia, aged 3: “And in our grief, let us smile, knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mum’s hand again.”
A powerful message regardless of politics.
- Mark Baker is Fairfax Tasmania managing editor