Perhaps the most effective speech in all politics (fictional or real) remains Marc Antony’s words at the funeral of Julius Caesar. Why were Shakespeare’s words in Antony’s mouth so effective? And can they still guide successful public affairs? Of course they can.
- First, Antony faced a situation where the public sentiment was strongly against him.
The underlying suspicion of means and motives set an impossible barrier to overcome.
- Second, Antony faced a situation where the speaker who preceded him (Brutus) possessed
great public esteem. After all, he had just slayed a dictator. He made the case that the people were saved by his actions.
- Third, Antony faced a situation where he was aligned with the slain dictator. Many in the audience would view his comments as an apology for backing the wrong leader.
Facing impossible odds, Antony moved away from any personal attack on Brutus. By the same token,
the words he used orchestrated the most effective personal attack in recorded political speech. Antony set the stage in his opening comments, noting that he had not come to praise Caesar but to participate in the funeral service, and that Brutus was an honorable man in allowing Antony to participate.
For all readers of this blog, please note the careful framing: Antony did not conduct a head-on attack. He simply set out the terms of his speech. Each time he gave an example, he did it to compare and contrast Caesar’s actions to the claims of Brutus about Caesar. He closed each comparison with the affirmation of Brutus as an honorable man.
The final effect? Even as he affirmed Brutus, Antony built a case against Brutus as a liar and a manipulator who cannot be trusted.
The lessons I have gained from this speech and a life in politics is to be smart when you run into
a well-entrenched opponent who appears to be riding a public wave of popularity. When you are in the minority, as was Antony, you must compare and contrast your opponents’ words with the consequences of their behavior.
The American people are rugged individualists and we want to find out a person’s character for
ourselves. They don’t want to be told who or what is bad. When your first approach is to attack your opponents, you give your opponents an opportunity to bolster their standing with supporters: Your
listeners are uncomfortable with attacks and may find comfort in their known leaders.
Instead, take the lead from Shakespeare’s Antony: When faced with opposition that has taken the
“high moral ground,” find a way to reverse the posture. Identify the negative people consequences of the opponents’ objective. Then pound away at the negative consequences.
Taking this approach gives the individuals you address the facts to independently arrive at a
different conclusion. Let facts and your courtesy be the secret ingredients in winning when faced with impossible political odds.