“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.” (Dale Carnegie)
When an actor has to deliver a speech, the ﬁrst thing s/he has to think about is how to make it sound improvised – in other words how to make it not sound like a speech. The best politicians understand this instinctively. Others need to learn – and in certain people’s
case, learn fast. There will be a general election in the next few years and Ed Miliband deserves to become Prime Minister, and would be an excellent one. But there are one or two people he has to convince ﬁrst, and giving great speeches is going to be a huge part
So, here is my crash course in speech-giving, for everyone, but especially for Ed.
Step One: learn your speech. This is the obvious bit. Learn it as thoroughly as you possibly can. If you have to read it from auto cue, let it be only as a prompt. The best speeches must come from memory. It is never surprises me to remember that Churchill wrote his own speeches – and some of Obama’s and Tony Blair’s best speeches have also been their own work.
Step Two: Warm up your voice. This may sound too “technical” but you only have to look at George Osborne croaking his way through his budget speeches reaching ever more frequently for his glass of water, to see that it really matters. First, make sure your neck and shoulders are relaxed, and your nose and sinuses clear (this may involve steaming for a short while) then hum and do lip rolls for a couple of minutes. Vocalise some letters – start with m, and then move on to b, p, g and n. Experiment with your different “resonators” – ie the bits of your body that you use to amplify the sound your vocal chords make – the chest, the nasal cavity, the oral cavity and the sinuses. Move the sound round these different areas. Finish with some tongue twisters. (I could write pages about all this, but you get the idea.)
Step Three: Your speech. Think about who you are addressing. Every time an actor opens his or her mouth on stage they are addressing someone – even if it is only another version of themselves in their imagination. Every word has a target, a landing-place – a person intended to hear it. When you give a speech you need to think speciﬁcally about your target. Who are you talking to – and most importantly – what are you trying to do to them? What is the change you are trying to evoke in them? For that is what we are all doing when we speak – attempting in some small way to make things other than they are. When you gives a speech as a politician you are attempting to affect a lot of people and you must think about exactly how you are trying to affect them. Your target may morph and change during the speech as people take on board what you are saying. You need to stay open to this, try and sense it and run with it. You must connect with your audience. It is not about reciting words, it is about actually doing something.
Ok. Let’s look at some examples:
Here Charlie Chaplin’s unknown Jewish barber who has assumed the identity of the evil dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, is taken to the capital of Osterlich to make a victory speech. The speech is remarkable for several reasons:
1. Chaplin’s voice is a well-tuned instrument. The world’s most famous silent actor actually has a terriﬁc speaking voice, and obviously trained it well for this ﬁlm. Not a single consonant is lost, not a single vowel muffed, not a syllable garbled.
2. We absolutely believe that the character is making this speech up as he goes along. Of course he isn’t. Chaplin will have spent hours learning and rehearsing these words, but he makes them sound improvised. He keeps his vocal energy going – he doesn’t drop words, or ﬁnal vowel sounds – because he keeps his imaginative energy going.
3. Chaplin paces the speech brilliantly. His character starts of tentatively but senses that his audience are going with him as he speaks, and his delivery gets increasingly passionate. He doesn’t drop his energy – ever – he doesn’t pause and lower his eyes (as Ed Miliband does) between thoughts – he keeps his energy on the audience, and thinks on the line rather than before it. By doing this he keeps the audience engaged, and keeps them with him – which is what allows him to gather the pace in the way he does.
And now, have a look at Marlon Brando as Mark Anthony in Julius Ceasar, giving the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech:
Again, here is an actor making us believe entirely that he is making this speech up – a feat even more remarkable than than in the previous example, because these words are so well known. Again, the voice is properly warmed up, the articulation perfect and the breath control superb – meaning that he can rise to quite a pitch and volume in the latter part of the speech. Unlike Chaplin’s tentative barber, here we see a speaker who is absolutely convinced of his argument from the beginning, but is also aware that he has a lot of
convincing to do to persuade his audience to believe him. Notice that he doesn’t disengage with them for a second – he only breaks eye -contact to refer to other people and his voice retains its intensity throughout. Again, this is about connecting with the audience and making the speech about what he is trying to do to them, rather than just rattling off a series of words and hoping them to do the job on their own.
Now let’s look at an actual politician. Here is Barack Obama back in 2008 (you only need look at the ﬁrst 1:30 of this…)
Obama pitches his voice well, and uses plenty of chest resonance. And he never stops engaging with the audience – his tone has a sense of urgency, of profound belief, and of the need to take the audience with him on his journey. Interestingly, this speech contains a lot of questions – always useful to speakers, as asking a question demands a slight upward inﬂection at the end of a sentence, and so ensures that you don’t nosedive and lose vocal energy as the sentence nears its end, which so often happens with Ed Miliband. Obama never disengages, never loses eye-contact and only uses pauses to let a sentence or an idea ring in his audience’s heads; he keeps his focus on them at all times.
And ﬁnally, let’s turn our attention to Ed.
Right. Let’s look at this speech.
First: Ed’s articulation is not great. “Worrying” sounds like “worring” and often “immigration” in this speech sounds like “mmigration”. These issues are easily solved with a bit of practice, and once eliminated will lend his voice more authority, and give him far more command over the text he is delivering .
Second: there is no sense of trying to connect with his audience – honestly, look at that speech and he could be speaking to a row of stuffed toys – perhaps he was, I don’t know. In theatre we talk about “inventing” your audience before you can speak to them – it is the same in politics: you have to know who you are talking to, and believe in them, before you can speak to them.
Next, he should look at his notes far, far less -and when he does look at them he should ﬁnish his sentence before looking down or he risks sounding like a weather forecaster. (My bete noir – they breathe in the middle of sentences and are already thinking about the next sentence halfway through the current one. Grrr.)
His vocal energy is terrible – he drops the end of nearly every sentence and throws words away as though they don’t matter. No, Ed. Every word matters. If it doesn’t then you shouldn’t be saying it. Keep your vocal energy going right through to the last syllable. This
is as much about connecting with the audience as it is about vocal technique. If you truly commit to the idea of changing your audience, if you actually need them to believe you, then the right vocal energy will follow.
He needs to think on the line, rather than before it. So often his mind is in one place (the next sentence) while his mouth is in another. This is a disaster. It’s almost impossible to really listen to someone who delivers a speech like this. It’s no wonder he often need to
release the text of his speech the night before he gives it – if the press had to sit and listen to that without having read the speech in advance they would be hard pressed to make much sense of it.
Which brings me to my ﬁnal point: a sense of theatre. The really great speech-givers, whether actors or politicians, have a sense of drama, of the magic of trying to change the world by words alone. To me, releasing a speech before it is delivered kills this drama
before its had a chance. And not just that – Ed Miliband needs to enjoy the live experience far more than he seems to when he gives a speech. When he improvises, Ed is brilliant. He is engaged, passionate and what we in the theatre call “in the moment” – his focus is
entirely on his audience, not on the text of a speech, and he is using the words as a tool rather than as an end in themselves. Because he’s convinced by what he’s saying he sounds convincing. Because he what he is saying matters to him, he becomes charismatic and we suddenly want to listen to him. And this is what he needs to achieve wit his written speeches. It’s not easy, but it’s entirely possible, and if he can manage it we may stand a ﬁghting chance of getting a decent government in 2015.
So, there we are.
I leave you with one of my favourite ﬁlm moments of all time. It’s a magniﬁcent example of an actor making us believe that his character is talking on-the-hoof – and carrying a room full of people with him as he does so. A great speech, brilliantly delivered by Dustin Hoffman.
Tootsie: the reveal. Enjoy.
Fiona Laird is a theatre director, writer and film maker