The role of Oration in Communication – a lost art?

The core purpose of communication is to elicit a change in perceptions, understanding or behaviour in the receiver; this is particularly true of communication with your team members. But if you want a person to remember or respond to the contents of the message, the first essential is for the message you are communicating to be ‘received’ – far too many messages are simply ignored because the sender is perceived as ‘boring’ or the message is seen as repetition of the same old information.

Effective written communication is a skill that is still appreciated and used by a range of professionals. How to write effectively is outlined in our White Paper WP1010 – Writing Skills and page layout is discussed in WP1065. However, you need to apply a completely different set of skills and re-structure the information if you want to communicate the same message verbally, this is the art of ‘oration’.

The Ancient Greeks developed the art of oratory over 2000 years ago. In classical Greece and Rome, the main component was rhetoric (that is, composition and delivery of speeches), and was an important skill in public and private life. Good orators are able to change the emotions of their listeners, not just inform them.

The ancient art of oration is still an important skill to acquire even when you have access to powerpoint or are only speaking to one or two people. The challenge of effective oral communication is staying on message (mixed messages don’t help anyone) whilst changing your style and rhythm to avoid becoming boring……

Great communicators use a similar approach to great music. It does not matter if you listen to Beethoven’s 5th or one of my favourites, Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ you find consistency and variety in the same piece. Patches of high intensity contrasted with quieter movements within a memorable and complete masterpiece.

The same effect can be achieved in your communication by balancing positive and negative elements of a message or changing the direction of the information flow, for example:

  • If you want someone to stop an undesirable behaviour certainly point out the problem (a negative) but also highlight the benefits of the change you want to occur (the positive).
  • Rather then just telling the team they are behind schedule change the direction of the information flow and ask then for ideas to regain the lost time.

The message can be consistent but the variety leads to engagement, the other key element is to finish on a high – great music does not fade away, it builds to a crescendo!

Really great communicators such as, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, JFK and others all had a consistent heartfelt message they wanted to communicate in a way that would create a strong reaction in their listeners, all had very different speaking styles, but each had a real sense of rhythm and performance. Read any of their great speeches and you can see the words are carefully crafted for effect, but when you listen to the speech, the presentation adds enormous weight to the message.

Whilst you may never need to ‘fight on the landing fields’ or ‘have a dream’ to change a nation, taking the time to think through how you will present the information in your communication in a way that is engaging and memorable will help you be more effective in literally getting your message across to your audience.

Rhetorical devices
Effective communicators use a range of devices to increase the resonance of their message, some of the more common include:

1. Allusion: an indirect or casual reference to a historical or literary figure, event, or object (but the link has to be understood by the audience).

2. Antiphrasis: the use of a word opposite to its proper meaning; irony. Example: The project manager calmly yelled at his team about the importance of testing!

3. Apophasis: accentuating something by denying that it will be mentioned. Example: I won’t even mention that you misspelled the client’s name in the report.

4. Aporia: expressing doubt about an idea, conclusion, or position.

5. Aposiopesis: stopping abruptly and leaving a statement unfinished, giving the impression that the writer or speaker is unwilling or unable to continue. Example: Pat’s behaviour in the meeting made it clear to everyone that he was . . . but we won’t go there.

6. Analogy: a comparison of two things. Metaphors and similes are both types of analogy.

7. Hyperbole: using exaggeration for emphasis or effect; overstatement. Example: If you take the challenge of speaking to the team too seriously, you will surely go mad.

8. Sententia: quoting a maxim or wise saying to apply a general truth to the situation, thereby offering a single statement of general wisdom. Example: Perhaps we should all remember what Stephen King once said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

9. Pleonasm: using more words than necessary to express an idea.

10. Epizeuxis: the immediate repetition of words for emphasis. Example: The answer to that question is no, no, no, a thousand times no (used a lot by politicians…)

You don’t need to remember the names of these techniques but the concepts can help develop the effectiveness your communication in every circumstance. Formal presentations also need preparation, for more on this see WP1009 – Presentation Skills.

Developing an effective oral communication capability is a skill that requires practice and benefits from pre-planning before you start an important communication. How much time do you spend working on the data in your messages compared to the way you are going to communicate the information?

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