While talking just now about excellent public speakers, I remembered that I had heard a superb speech last year at a University of London graduation ceremony. In the USA, these ceremonies are often the occasion for great speeches from invited public figures. My experience is that this is far less often the case elsewhere in the anglophone world – the speeches tend to the routine or mundane, and outsiders are not always invited to give addresses. Perhaps this relates to the fact the American universities, alone among those in the anglophone world, still have Departments of Speech, with serious study of argumentation, rhetoric, and oratory. Since the switch from oral to written mathematics examinations at Cambridge in the 18th century our universities mostly no longer train or exercise people in public speaking skills, despite their evident value for so many careers. Moreover, writing speeches is often a form of policy formulation, as experienced speech-writers attest.
At a graduation ceremony last October in the Barbican I was fortunate to hear a superb speech by Thomas Clayton, President of the Student’s Union of King’s College London, speaking in his official capacity. The speech was original, clear, inspiring, and amusing, and was pitched just right for the audience and the occasion. Clayton himself was enthusiastic and engaged, and his speech did not sound, as many at these events do, as if he was merely going through the motions. He is evidently someone to listen out for in future.