This article is by LSE MSc student Boglarka Antall, and covers a recent talk by Philip Collins of the Times (pictured right).

Philip discussed the great speeches that have shaped the world, as part of Polis’ Media and Communication in Action series.

For many of us, political rhetoric is just a means for politicians to make empty promises to the crowds or as tools used to manipulate them through emotional appeals. The majority of these speeches fade away as time passes. However, every now and then there comes a speech that is more than just another spectacle in the theatre of politics. They move us collectively. They are part of our culture. When we hear them years after they were delivered we still feel inspired knowing the context. Ever wondered what the secret of those speeches is?

Philip Collins, former speechwriter to Tony Blair and columnist at The Times, believes good rhetoric has the power to carry the ideas that move democracy forward.

Rhetoric has a higher value in democracy than in any other kind of political organisation. Collins notes that “it is only in a democracy where persuasion is actually the currency” – meaning that despite other types of regimes using tools of rhetoric too – mostly as a way of providing information on decisions already made – it is only in systems of democracies where persuading the people can lead to inspiring the people for the better.

The idea of a single person going on stage to address their audience and try to convince them about any given issue is far from a new concept. Presenting a chronology of the shared development of rhetoric and democracy, Collins’ new book starts by evoking a speech of Pericles; seemingly, commemorating the war dead, he creates a powerful metaphor linking the war dead and the city together. He shows that the they stand for the city and thus for the Athenian democracy. The tools he uses to persuade, alongside those of Cicero and Aristotle, are special because their expertise did not become outdated; the art of rhetoric has remained true to its original form and the techniques these Ancient thinkers describe are still very much applicable today.

Although the audience and dissemination of information has changed, the best-practice on delivery has remained very recognisable. The reason for that is rooted in why the above-mentioned thinkers wrote their manuals; they did not offer advice on how to talk, they offered a way of conducting politics and they saw rhetoric as a way of governing.

There is no better example to represent this continuity in rhetoric, then the idea of participating citizens. Cicero, Thomas More and later, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy and even Obama echo the importance of an active citizenry. Kennedy’s famous inaugural statement “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” has a very similar message to that of what Obama states in “A More Perfect Union” and Lincoln and Jefferson too share their sentiment. They all echo Cicero’s idea of popular sovereignty and the republic of the people that are fundamental values of the ‘American Creed’. All these speeches share the idea of unity and the hopeful prospect of collaboration. What these orators try to achieve is to create peace among conflicting parties.

However, these are not the only messages great public speakers echo. Collins emphasises that war-time rhetoric has a special significance too. Looking at Churchill addressing the British during World War II, it can be seen that it is not enough for a speech to be well-written, it has to be revealed at the right time too. The success of using the same expressions and similar rhythm can highly depend on the context of the speech. The subject of the speech needs to be worthy of poetic approach. Using big words for small causes is excessive and disrespectful to your subject matter.

Linked to the right timing, progress is an element too, that needs to be considered. We live in a better world today then we did in the past in the Western hemisphere, although we face challenges, in the public’s eye they appear to be less striking than, for example, famines, epidemics and other problems that largely faded away in developed democracies. This is the reason why the grand style of rhetoric becomes less and less appropriate: “The more democracy succeeds the more it doesn’t require grand style”. The problems we face today, like global warming or climate change are far more complex and multi-dimensional than to be conveyed in one single speech, so Collins argues, speeches in topics like these are weakened by the fact that no individual speaker can stand up and speak, promising a change, as the audience will know it is not likely they can actually make a difference.

This is where the power of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech lies. Through him preaching to the crowds and building up to a monumental conclusion he combines the qualities of the best speakers. He did not create his context but he had the capacity, the voice, the vocabulary to make a difference.

Collins acknowledges that the power of rhetoric is not a purely good force. He points out that brilliant speeches can lead to horrible ends and great speakers can harm society by evoking the tools of rhetoric. However, taking the idea Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, presented in a speech called ‘The Perils of Indifference’ he concludes that the lack of interest and participation on the side of the people is the greatest danger to democracy.

The ideas Collins presents are thought-provoking in our current political context. The words we will write down will never be magical by themselves: it is the meaning, the context, the speaker and the purpose of the speech that will make it special. Looking at contemporary political orators, using the toolkit Collins provides us with, we might be able to understand why their speeches have the effects they do.


This article by LSE MSc student Boglarka Antall.

For more information about the Polis Media and Communications in Action talks, please visit our website.