Speech of the Month, April 2019 - Fr Martin Magill

The public speaking lesson we can all learn from Fr Martin McGill's homily

Speech of the Month, April 2019 - Fr Martin Magill

This month I won’t be picking out lessons we can learn from an entire speech, because I haven’t seen the speech I’ll be talking about in its entirety, but I am going to look at a moment within a speech that was so powerful and affecting that a gathering of mourners just had to rise to their feet and applaud. I am, of course, talking about Fr Martin Magill’s homily during Lyra McKee’s funeral. 

A little background about the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time of the address might help you understand why Fr Magill's words caused the stir they did. Basically, Northern Ireland has not had a government for over two years. This is because Sinn Fein and the DUP disagree on several issues – same sex marriage, investigations into the killings during the Troubles, a law to give official status to the Irish language etc. And because there’s been no government at the time of Brexit discussions and talks about the Irish boarder, well, the people of Northern Ireland feel frustrated with the people who pick up a salary to represent them politically, but simply don’t.  

Days after the killing of journalist, Lyra McKee, there was a vigil at the Creggan estate in Derry which Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, and Mary Lou MacDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, attended. So during his funeral address, Fr Magill commended the leaders for standing together in memory of Lyra and in defiance of terrorism. But when he followed that by saying, “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?” he received a spontaneous round of applause followed by a standing ovation. If you haven’t seen this moment, have a look at it now. In fact, watch it twice. 

I defy anyone not to smile mischievously at the moment when it’s clear the politicians have sensed the powerful, creeping sentiment in the room; that Fr Magill, a man of the cloth, has voiced an anger that’s chimed with everyone else in the church and they’re going to back their man for having had the balls to do it. There’s a nervousness in the NI leaders; if they join in and stand with the congregation then are they publicly admitting that their behaviour and efforts haven’t been good enough? Would this be a bad political move? But eventually, Mary Lou MacDonald cracks to pressure to conform or simply wants do the decent thing and she turns to her college, Michelle O’Neill, and gives her the nod to get on her feet and then, probably feeling the pressure all the more – ‘if they’re doing it, it might look bad if I don’t’ – Arlene Foster follows suit. 

In interviews after the funeral, Fr Magill has spoken of his surprise at the mourners’ reaction. But should he have been? No. Unwittingly he’d seized a brilliant rhetorical opportunity. He’d dared to address the elephant in the room and because we don’t expect religious figures to speak with such fervour, his boldness was all the more impactful. 

Confront the elephant in the room

So the key lesson we can all learn from Fr Magill’s speech is to dare to confront the elephant in the room. If you are making a speech and you know the bulk of your audience feels disgruntled about something; they’re whispering about it but, maybe due to fear, weariness or hopelessness, they’re not actually talking openly about it, then choose to be the person that does. Even if you can’t give a clear plan of how to solve the disgruntlement, the fact you’ve dared to name it will bring relief, and your audience will respect you for that alone. 

This is something David Cameron did brilliantly in his leadership bid speech in 2005. He told the Tory party why it wasn’t electable – something members knew was true but didn’t really want to face up to – and then he told the party faithful why he was the man to make the Tories electable again. Because of the power of this speech and his decision to confront the elephant in the room, Cameron was voted in as leader. 

But how can you know that what you sense people are feeling is right? Well you can eavesdrop around the water cooler but the best way is to speak to a cross-section and appeal to them for honesty. You want to hear the truth, not what they think you want to hear. If more senior management would do this, they’d find it a lot easier to persuade and lead their teams. 

Handling unexpected applause

In an interview with Mishal Husain, Fr Magill said he didn't know what to do once the unexpected clapping and ovation happened. But he did the right thing. He didn't try to interrupt the sudden feeling that needed to be expressed in the room. Rather, he waited it out, let it peak and subside naturally, and then he repeated the line that had promped the applause again so he was able to finish his sentence and his speech retained its flow. This is something we all should do when we're lucky enough for our audience to applaud or laugh loudly. Heckling and boo-ing, however, need to be handled differently. 

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