Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Public Speaking

Franklin was no orator. He said barely a word at the constitutional convention, preferring to have his written comments delivered by another. Yet the shy will not be consoled that Franklin’s famous diplomatic career was launched not by his brilliant writing or powerful friendships but by his one major public interview, an event that bridges the homely anecdotes of the Autobiography to his founding-fatherhood. It established him as the expert on colonial affairs and as America’s de facto ambassador to Europe:  a lengthy, often hostile, and very public examination before the House of Commons on February 13, 1766.

Parliament was debating repeal of the Stamp Act passed the year before. Its injustice caused colonial dissent among both the Assemblies and occasional violent mobs. Franklin was invited as expert witness to explain Americans’ resistance to the Act. With the feelings, facts, and statistics of his homeland on the tip of his tongue Franklin faced the opposition with acute observations, extensive preparation, and practiced delivery.

Hints for the budding public speaker: know your material, know your audience, and know what to expect. Franklin anticipated many of the questions and memorized his answers; he foresaw likely lines of attack, and practiced with ministers friendly to his cause; these same MPs posed prearranged questions for Franklin to answer with theatrical effect.

The exchanges advanced his fame when reprinted in Europe and America. Van Doren’s description is certainly the highlight of his book and worth the entire read. A fuller account of his four-hour interrogation can be found at franklinpapers.org (search for “Examination, House of Commons”). Unfortunately, I can't find the official record from Parliament; though Hansard is online, its records only began in 1803.

One hundred thirty years later, a young Winston Churchill, not yet elected to Parliament, in his essay The Scaffolding of Rhetoric did not understate the value of effective speaking:
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable. (Written in 1897, Churchill portends his own days in the political wilderness, lonely decrying the 1930s rise of Nazi Germany.)
“More durable than that of a king…” Eripuit Coelo fulmen, mox Sceptra Tyrannis as Turgot described Franklin: “He seized the lightning from Heaven and the scepter from the Tyrants.”

To be continued…

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