It must be the cliché of many an old movie.
The troops are dejected, downtrodden, bloodied, close to defeat. The commander looks across to where the enemy are regrouping: and he knows that, the next time they come, it’s all over.
So he walks out among his men, talks to them, exhorts, injects passion, instils belief. A couple of minutes later, he’s transformed these beaten and bedraggled men into world beaters – and the enemy are in for a shock.
Laurence Olivier delivered a brilliant example in the title role of the film Henry V (admittedly, with a little help from a certain W. Shakespeare), and no doubt you can think of many more examples from the world of movies.
But it’s not just a fictional device. There are numerous occasions when a speech to a group of people, or a whole country, has made a huge difference to the course of events.
Think of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in January 1961, and its idealism, determination and inspiration. “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce…” These stirring words set a seal on a whole generation. And its ringing lines “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country…” are likely to live forever.
Or Churchill’s defiant words following the defeat at Dunkirk – surely Britain’s darkest days of the Second World War. Facing alone and unfriended an implacable enemy that held most of Europe in its hand, what the nation needed then was some reason to believe in itself, to feel that things were not as hopeless as they looked. And they got it.
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans… we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
Plenty of other speeches have turned the tide in this way: by Gandhi, by Martin Luther King, by Oliver Cromwell, and many more.
Of course, we don’t all have Shakespeare for a scriptwriter, or possess King’s charismatic presence. But even in the world of business, sport or other endeavour, there’s still a place for a rousing speech.
In September 2010, when European PGA Cup team skipper Colin Montgomerie was thinking how to enthuse his players, the opening ceremony address was uppermost in his mind – inspired by other such speeches by previous captains such as Bernhard Langer and Sam Torrance.
As he put it, “My job is to make sure my team leave that opening ceremony and they are thinking to themselves: ‘Captain Monty, I think we are going to be all right in his hands.’ Bernhard gave a brilliant ambassadorial speech and we only lost one-and-a-half points on the opening day. And Sam really impressed me in 2002. He was petrified at giving his speech but he took advice and delivered it superbly.”
The point is clear. If you want to influence people – either to take action or to do something differently – a speech can be one of the best ways to motivate, to impel, to communicate and transfer your enthusiasm and commitment to them.
And it’s a funny thing. Over all the centuries, nothing has changed: people want to believe in something. Whether it’s a just war, making your corporation into the most successful in its field or beating another golf squad, people like being enlisted for a common cause. They like being part of a team that is making a real difference.
So if that’s what you want to achieve, a little rebel rousing might just help you bring that about.
By David Vickery