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Public speaking taught me that if you speak effectively, people will listen. That’s intoxicating

Rory Bremner

Impressionist and comedian

The Power of speech

Rory Bremner is perhaps our best-known satirical impersonator. From presidents to prime ministers, film stars to footballers, no one is safe from his rapier wit, which encourages us to question as well as to laugh. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by what’s going on in the news,’ he says. ‘By understanding the arguments and then presenting them in a way in which people might not have thought of before – holding them up and saying, “I think this is a bit weird, don’t you?”, I can use satire to engage people in politics. It’s a very powerful medium.’

Surprisingly perhaps, Rory puts his ability to use humour and to think quickly on his feet down to the skills he learned in the ESU’s Public Speaking Competition which he won in 1979. Under the gaze of the judges – journalist and broadcaster Alastair Burnet and actor and director Derek Jacobi – Rory’s teammates acted as chairman and speaker, while Rory gave the vote of thanks. ‘I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh and copying people’s style and rhythm, but public speaking is different because you’re speaking as yourself,’ he says. ‘It’s not just how you say things; you have to have some content – you have to think about it.’

Through listening carefully to what had been said in the speeches, and through using humour to engage with his audience, Rory learnt the power of public speaking.

‘Public speaking teaches you that if you speak effectively, people will listen to you,’ he says. ‘They won’t walk away, they won’t be bored. You’ll engage them and hold their attention, and you’ll persuade them. That’s intoxicating.’

After leaving school, Rory enjoyed early success as an impersonator on the comedy circuit, performing alongside the likes of Julian Clary and Harry Enfield, and then at the Edinburgh fringe where Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson were all starting out. It wasn’t long though, before he wanted to do more than just make people laugh, and he turned to politics and satire, ‘making sense of things before you make nonsense of them,’ he says.

‘Rhetoric and oratory go back centuries,’ he says. ‘Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Right now, we may be living in a very instant age, an age of social media and Twitter, but that ability of one individual to sway another, to move them or to make them laugh is still incredibly powerful, and it still has real meaning.’

Though he rues the lack of truly inspirational orators around today, citing Barack Obama as perhaps the best contemporary example, he is heartened by the way young people are beginning to engage, particularly in the Scottish Referendum of 2014. ‘It’s about a generation finding its voice,’ he says. ‘Politics is no longer the preserve of politicians. If you have something to say you’re encouraged to say it. It’s about expression, it’s about the power of speech and of ideas and there’s something really exciting about that.’

Do you believe in the power of speech?

If, like Rory, you believe in the transformative power of speech, please consider supporting our work. Our programmes improve young people’s oracy skills, enhancing social mobility and enabling them to take an active part in society and to achieve their full potential.

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