Today I took over in Speech class for our dearly departed teacher who has returned back to the United States, and it just so happens that he left the speech class at the beginning of one of my favorite speeches, the “stir to action speech.” As our speaking class uses the old Spokesman’s Club manuals, with the amusing Basil Wolverton drawings, which I have commented on before , the general content of the advice and teaching given to these young men and women who are learning public speaking ought to be at least somewhat familiar to many readers who share my religious background.
What I wanted to communicate to my students is a few related points that are of more general interest than to my students alone. First, I wanted them to know that a stir to action speech was about more than mere intellectual instruction, but about passion and conviction. I hope I was clear (it is sometimes hard to be sure) that there has to be a heart to heart connection between the speaker and the audience that springs from personal experience and commitment on the speaker, and that inspires those who listen to the speech to do more than simply nod their head in agreement and promptly forget what they hear but rather to act upon the message and change their ways. For me the stir to action speech is one of the most exciting to give, because one feels the same sort of passion and enthusiasm that one wants to convey to others. I imagine that this sort of rush is also one of the main appeals of politics.
After all, we tend to see the stir to action speech in action largely in a political arena. Any time we ask people to change and seek to encourage and motivate them to do so, we are taking upon ourselves a political task of seeking to influence people in a particular direction. Most of us are not always conscious of the political implications of stirring people to action, but it is something that always remains in my mind. This is especially true when one examines the sort of speeches that stir people to action. For example, one can look in history and look at orations by such famous speakers as Isocrates and Demosthanes and Cicero and Marcus Antonius (better known to us as Mark Anthony). One can look much more recently in history and see Hitler’s speeches (clearly stirring people to evil actions) and the speech of Ronald Reagan where he called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall, which stirred people to such positive action, action that I remember seeing as a child on the television.
The action that people can be stirred to is either good or evil. We have to remember this. Because a stir to action speech functions essentially on an emotional level, it is of the utmost importance that someone seeking to stir others to action have both good motives and good proposals, or else the action that others will be stirred to is going to be faulty. Both character and competence matter a great deal when it comes to stirring others to action, because good motives without accurate knowledge will lead to bad results, and bad motives will not lead to anywhere worthwhile or beneficial. We forget this at our peril, even as we must openly admit that our knowledge of the motivations and character of others is incomplete.
And while I was very intent on making it plain that the stir to action speech depends on personal conviction from deep inside, I was also at some pains to help relieve some of the stress that they felt. I imagine that people who are just learning how to speak English may feel a bit insecure about their abilities when they are being graded by those who speak often and well. But in contrast to a great many of the old Spokesman’s and Graduate club speeches I saw as a boy, my interest is not to embarrass or humiliate, but to encourage whatever talents and abilities in speaking my students possess. And from what I have heard, a great many of them can speak well. It is my hope that they can find a subject they care passionately about and speak on it. I am thinking of my own speech topic myself to show them how it is done, but I am still wondering what topic I should pick as well, knowing how personal it is likely to be.