On my first trip to London in 1996, on a whim from a blurb in some guidebook, I checked out Speakers corner @ Hyde Park. I just could not believe the blurb: a place where anyone could stand up on a box, preach or rant to their hearts desire, and throngs of people would come to listen, all for free.

Inconceivable!

In NYC, we had a name for public speakers – crazies. We’d ignore them, or as a gang of kids, terrorize them. As adults, who has the time to stop and listen? The notion was absurd, and in my then fully charged American arrogance I figured if such a form of free speech were possible, surely I’d have seen it before in America.

So I went to see for myself – It was true and it blew me away.

  1. It’s self-organized. Anyone can stand anywhere and start going.
  2. People get interactive. There’s lots of yelling and heckling.
  3. It’s mostly peaceful. No one is forced to speak or listen.
  4. Some of the speakers are amazing. They own their crowds without microphones, podiums, powerpoint – just them and their voices.

Many speakers were political or religious, but many weren’t. Some were pros who seemed to be regulars at the corner, but many were just working people interested in debate. The experience redefined what a public speaker meant. It’s one thing to speak at a conference or in an office where there are rules of conduct, but entirely another to speak where no one has any obligation to even listen to you.

I can’t say what goes on at the corner is a good way to debate issues, but it sure is an experience and any thinking person can’t observe what goes on there without some kind of opinion.

I’ve been thinking more about speaker’s corner lately for two reasons. First I now make a living as a public speaker, but also because of the rise of informal presenting, from un-conferences, Pecha-Kucha, and 99 second or 60 second university talks.

Here are a few videos that capture something of the experience;

  • Speaker’s corner / mad world. The best video of the bunch. It takes a sad view of the corner, but it does the best job of capturing the variety of speakers, formats and confrontations.
  • A debate about oil, no doubt a popular one these days. Watch the first speaker lose control to a better speaker in the crowd.
  • Race, drugs and politics. An excellent speaker who has his crowd captivated, heckle-free, for nearly 10 minutes. Wow.

The question I’ll ask you is the same one I ask myself:

  • Would you have the guts to speak at speaker’s corner? (I chickened out in ’96)
  • If yes, what would you speak about?
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2 Responses to “Learning from London’s speakers’ corner”

  1. John Lusk |

    Your posting on the Speaker’s Corner in London came as an incredibly pleasant surprise this morning. When I was 11, my parents took me there during our first trip to London. I remember looking at the different speakers in awe wondering how they could muster the courage to face so many different strangers, oftentimes competing for audiences and awareness. It was an envigorating experience and one that I recalled on a number of occasions as I began entering the public speaking realm in the early 2000s. You’re right, it’s probably not the best venue for debate, but the character, color and excitement with that Corner are truly remarkable. Thanks for sharing…its brought back some nice memories.

    John Lusk
    WhitePages.com

    Reply
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