The story is told of how Sir Winston Churchill, a former British Prime Minister, was once in the bathtub rehearsing a speech when his butler rushed in and asked him, “Were you speaking to me, sir?”
“No, James, I was speaking to the House of Commons,” the statesman famously replied.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest orators of the 20th Century, Churchill, it is said, used to rehearse his speeches everywhere—even in the bathroom! He was a perfectionist to the core. He rehearsed all his speeches aloud to make sure he didn’t slip on his words. He often worked long into the night at this assignment. For this reason, he was rarely lost for words. He had the right words for every occasion. His three famous speeches: ‘Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat,’ ‘We shall fight on the Beaches,’ and ‘This was their Finest Hour,’ which he gave during the Second World War, inspired a nation to victory.
But Churchill was not born an orator. He reportedly stammered as a child. He also had difficulty in pronouncing the letter “s.” He was told by a doctor that “practice and perseverance,” would enable him to remedy his impediment. He worked hard on his pronunciation and practiced several tongue-twisters until he became a great public speaker.
In fact, it is also said that he spent as much time rehearsing his ‘impromptu’ speeches as he did on his more formal speeches. He rehearsed quite often in front of a mirror to watch his facial expression, elocution and body language. It got to a point that even his Private Secretaries, who worked closely with him during the war could deduce what he meant by mere gestures!
James Earl Jones, an American actor, renowned for his unique deep voice, is another powerful orator. But he had a severe stutter that made him to refuse to speak aloud, as a child. A certain teacher at his high school, who discovered that Jones had a gift for writing poetry, helped him to overcome his speech impediment by forcing him to speak in public. The teacher also made him recite a poem in class each day until he gained self-confidence. Poor Jones must have nearly died of stage fright during these practice sessions. It is not also unlikely that he would have cursed the teacher silently for subjecting him to this ‘mental torture.’ But as they say, ‘no pain, no gain.’
Though he wanted to become a medical doctor, and had in fact, spent four years on the course, Jones discovered he was not simply cut out to be one. He dropped out of college without a degree. Seeking adventure, he joined the military where he opted for drama, which he had passion for. He spent some years in the army and after he was discharged, he attended a theatre school to polish his skills. He worked as a concierge to earn a living. He did other menial jobs including being a stage carpenter and stage manager, before he eventually became a stage actor.
Since then, he has featured in several blockbusters including Conan the Barbarian, Coming to America, and Cry, the Beloved Country. He has also featured in several voiceover roles including the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy and Mufasa in The Lion King. In addition, Jones did the well-known CNN tagline: ‘This is CNN.’ The ‘punishment’ has paid off in the long run!
While Churchill and Jones are highly rated orators in today’s world, Demosthenes, an ancient Greek orator was without equal in his era. In fact, Cicero once described him as: inter omnis unus excellat (“he stands alone among all the orators”).
But as a boy, Demosthenes was described as shy and delicate. He also had a terrible stammer. His stutter was so bad that his friends often made fun of him when he spoke. The first time he made a speech in public turned out to be a complete catastrophe. Thoroughly embarrassed at the outcome and the cruel jeers that he received from the unsympathetic Athenians who simply adored orators; he covered his head with shame and walked home dejectedly. One of the reasons he wanted to become a public speaker was to expose his corrupt guardians, who squandered his inheritance, after the death of his parents.
Just as it seemed as if the fate of the young man was sealed, an actor, who had watched him while he was speaking, took pity on him and taught him the right techniques to make his speeches more persuasive. Demosthenes learnt from the actor that one must not only read or recite speeches fluently; one must also dramatise and turn them into music in the ears of listeners. His teacher taught him that great orators once started as students, and practiced hard to become masters of the art.
Armed with this knowledge, Demosthenes worked hard until he mastered these techniques, which turned him into one of the greatest orators of the ancient world. He devoured books, wrote numerous speeches, and went to hear celebrated orators speak. After intensive study, he embarked on a most ruthless self-training programme.
It is said that he converted one of the cellars of his house into a study, where he practiced his voice and gestures without distraction. He locked himself in this strange environment for three months, while doing a ‘workout’ on his speech. He also shaved one side of his head to prevent him from stepping out of the house out of shame until he completed the task at hand.
He strengthened his voice by putting pebbles in his mouth and trying to speak above the roar of the angry waves dashing at rocks at the seashore. He also used a large mirror to monitor his progress at home. When he finally ‘spoke’ at the age of 18, Athenians were ready to listen to him. His countrymen were so impressed with his oratorical prowess that they made him one of the 10 official orators of the city. His enemies came to fear his fiery speeches. He terrorised King Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great, with his diatribes, which later became known as the ‘The Philippics,’ during their conquest and occupation of Greece.
Churchill, Jones and Demosthenes had something in common; they all overcame perceived speech impediments through constant practice to become great orators, whose voices sounded like honey in the ears of their listeners.
Perhaps, one of the key lessons we can learn from them is the truth in the common saying: practice makes perfect.
Everybody laughs at the Senator whenever he drives past in his car, an old blue 505 Peugeot that chugs around town belching dense black smoke.
The traffic authorities seem to have taken no notice of the car so far, but the kids in the neighbourhood have.
The tykes take impish delight in screaming after him each time he visits Ajegunle, a slum in Lagos where an old uncle lives:
“Help-me-push-am! “Help-me-push-am!!” “Help-me-push-am!!!”
Help-me-push-am has become the Senator’s nickname.
His extended family members and close friends have tried without much success to persuade him to buy a car befitting for someone of his standing in society, to free them from this shame.
One of his more embarrassed relatives, a successful importer of shrimps from the Far East had even offered him the key of a brand new Toyota Carina once, but he politely turned down their kind gestures.
It beats the imagination of those who meet him for the first time, why someone who has wined and dined with the cream of society, could cultivate such Spartan habits.
They called him names behind his back and sometimes right to his face:
“He must have hidden the money he made somewhere in Ghana!”
“I wonder why M.O.T has not arrested him yet…You know these government policies… hot at first then, they become cold…”
They tease him.
He has become a laughing stock. But he bears all these sarcastic remarks with equanimity.
Senator Segun Latunji is a middle-aged slightly balding man of average height. He is married and has three kids who live abroad with their mother. He is an enigma to many, who could not understand why a former Senator of the Federal Republic should be living in penury after his retirement.
His community openly withdrew support for him even before he declared his intention of running for a Second Term and many of his colleagues in the Senate were only too happy that he did not return because he had subjected them to severe mental torture when he held the exalted position of Chairman of the Senate Committee on Financial Matters.
The officials of the law eventually caught up with him when his jalopy acted up again last week somewhere around Marina. They swooped on him at once like vultures.
Those traffic management people simply towed away the offending vehicle because he had infuriated them by refusing to part with the N5, 000 they demanded from him.
When he joined them at their office later, Latunji asked to see the officer-in-charge. One of the four officials on duty that fateful day, who sported a straggling moustache, regarded the poor Senator as if he were something the cat had dragged in and growled at him.
“Yes, yes, what do you want to see our Oga for, and who are you by the way?” he barked, certain the Senator was another one of those sanctimonious folks. They all compromise in the end!
Sure enough, they forced the Senator to part with some money. But that was the beginning of their troubles. Little did they know that the N5, 000 notes he handed over to them after he had ensured that they gave him a receipt, were cleverly marked.
Just moments after he had paid the fine, three plain-clothes policemen walked in with a warrant of arrest for the flustered traffic officials, whom they caught red-handed.
It was then that they knew they were in big trouble. The victim flashed an ID card at them bearing the name Senator Segun Latunji, Transparency International.
Author’s note: The Senator’s Car won the Commonwealth Award for Short Stories in 2004