Today is a special day in the world of public speaking and communication. Today is the 89th anniversary of the death of William Bourke Cockran, who in my estimation may be one of the greatest speakers of all time. Who is William Bourke Cockran, and how can I make such a bold statement, having never witnessed him speak, as he passed away well before speeches were recorded on video?
I have been fascinated by the ability of an individual to influence through spoken word since I was a young boy. I am often asked what orator has had the biggest impact on me, and my oratorical role model is Sir Winston Churchill. And who was Churchill’s oratorical role model?
William Bourke Cockran, a Congressman from New York City in the early 1900s was described in his day as the greatest orator in the land. He also served as a role model, and the oratorical role model, for a young Winston Churchill. It was not just Churchill who held Cockran in such high regard as an orator – it was the vast majority of his peers. The sad fact is that William Bourke Cockran might be the greatest speaker who no one knows about. Books are few and far between, with my favorite being Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and his American Mentor, written by Michael McMenamin and Curt Zoller. There are not many internet resources dedicated to Cockran, and even his Wikipedia entry is lacking.
Congressman Cockran was noted for his ability to move colleagues and constituents to support causes or even change positions due his magnificent oratory. Churchill once wrote to Cockran, about Cockran, “…there are few more fascinating experiences than to watch a great mass of people under the wand of a magician….”
Finding information might be difficult, but there are clear lessons that young Churchill and many other leaders took away from Cockran. Here are a few, some taken from books, comments from Cockran’s congressional colleagues, and my choice as the the best essay about his public speaking strengths, written by Professor Brian Leggett:
1. Rhythm – Every speech should have a rhythm, although most don’t. Cockran was known for his rhythmic speeches, and many noticed, including Churchill;
2. Presence – Cockran knew the power of presence and using both his body, gestures and his voice to captivate and move (so can you – no matter your body type, height, weight, voice, you can use your best qualities to your advantage, and EVERYBODY has natural strengths – it is just a matter of finding them;)
3. Conversational language – Every presentation is a conversation, verbally and non-verbally;
4. Power of Delivery;
5. Subject Matter Expertise - Cockran was known not only for his oratorical skill, but for his mastery of the subject upon which he spoke;
Congressman Charles O’Brien (D-NJ), at Cockran’s Memorial Service:
“Much has been said and written about his ability as an orator. For ages to come his will be the standard upon which men of similar genius will be judged. In all history of the world, no man has surpassed and few have equaled him.”