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Ancient and modern

The ancients were aware that there’s more to making speeches than just words

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

Cicero said that the good orator could arouse in the listener many different feelings: ‘delight, grief, laughter, tears, admiration, hatred, scorn, envy, pity, shame, disgust, anger, relaxation, hope, fear’. But however the orator brought this about, the ancients were aware that there was more to making speeches than just words. The speaker should in a sense be an actor (Greek hupokritês, cf. ‘hypocrite’), using his whole body to reinforce what he was saying. Given the crushing verbal tedium to which the country, day in, day out, is currently being subjected, budding MPs might think about speech as performance.

The professor of rhetoric Quintilian (d. ad 100) gave oddly specific hints about hand movements. At the start of a speech, place the middle finger on the thumb and extend the other three fingers, moving the head and hand gently left and right together. Drive home argument by opening and shutting the hand. To denounce, extend the hand, turning the middle and third finger under the thumb. ‘Deliver’ the words to the audience by drawing the fingers towards the body, pointing down slightly, then opening them more widely facing the opposite way. Mark different points in an argument by relaxing the hand and closing in the thumb, sweeping it palm upwards to the left and downwards to the right. And much more in this vein.


Aristotle and Cicero gave far less detail, advising little hand movement, the arm occasionally thrust forward, striking the forehead or slapping the thigh for particular emphasis, perhaps a stamp of the foot to end a passage. The countenance played the really vital part, said Cicero. In order to avoid contorting the features and looking idiotic or depraved, control the eyes in tune with your words, he said: ‘now concentrated, now relaxed, now serious, now amused’. Words, he went on, might fly over people’s head, but ‘delivery that animates your feelings influences everybody’.

When the great 4th-century bc orator and statesman Demosthenes was asked the first rule of rhetoric, he replied ‘Delivery.’ And the second? ‘Delivery.’ And the third? ‘Delivery.’ So stand and deliver: your political life depends on it.


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