“Grand oral” of the bac: how to draw inspiration from the masters of eloquence to succeed


Press articles are multiplying on the “great oral” , novelty of the 2021 baccalaureate. Reading them, a certain anxiety would affect the students who are preparing to take this test, but also some teachers responsible for evaluating them.

In a deeper way, the widespread fear of speaking in public is grafted onto this situation. Naomi Osaka has given an excellent illustration of this in recent days: a tennis champion victorious in four Grand Slam tournaments, a few days ago she preferred to withdraw from Roland-Garros rather than participate in the ritual of the press conference, which ‘she considered too anxiety-provoking.

A new ordeal

If you’re like Naomi, note that it is much easier to learn to speak in public, and to deal with the emotions that come with it, than to win a Grand Slam tournament. Ample resources exist on the subject: the question of sending messages that are both controlled and effective arises since man lives in societies based on law (via advocacy) and democratic (via debate).

In reality, the art of public speaking is perhaps even older, since the ability to unite the group by speaking, around common values ​​or experiences, is a fundamental skill in the social species which is the our. In these twenty-five or twenty-seven centuries of reflection, many ideas, which education in France has unfortunately too forgotten for a hundred years , must be taken up. We will propose a few here, inspired by three figures of orators from past centuries.

As a preamble, it is important to put things back to their proper dimensions. Obtaining the bac is certainly essential. But the wishes on Parcoursup , much more decisive for the rest of your studies, are made. The test is new, and it is an additional advantage for you: once you have read the framework documents made available by the Ministry of National Education, you will know about as much as your future correctors. And the arrangements for the tests due to the pandemic should reassure even more.

In reality, we can safely predict that there are only three ways to miss your grand oral:

  • Not mastering the knowledge attached to the issues you are dealing with. The problem would be related to a lack of work which could be legitimately blamed on you.
  • Offer a disjointed speech, full of hesitations and repetitions. The problem is quite easy to solve: you must, upstream, think about the order of your arguments. Do not hesitate to film yourself and to ask the opinions of relatives on the passages to be improved.
  • Finally, the main pitfall is to give the impression of a lack of motivation. Being in a form of engagement with your jury is essential: it means having good posture, and above all being open in your tone and way of speaking. The idea had been considered to call this exercise “Oral de maturity”: this is exactly what the jury will expect. You have to show that you are capable of projecting yourself into higher education and, in the longer term, into the professional world.

Let us come to some tips inspired by great ancient orators.

Thinking about the plan with Corax

Corax is not the best known of the orators or theorists that we are going to discuss, but for some Greeks at least he is the founder of the art of oratory. Rhetoric, according to this myth of origins, was born in Sicily around 465 BC, on the occasion of a great wave of lawsuits following the fall of a tyrant. In this context, a certain Corax (“the crow” in Greek) is said to have published a treatise on the art of winning trials.

Corax prescribes that all speeches must have three parts – all development must be preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion. If this idea has crossed the centuries, it is because it is not a tradition, but corresponds to the reality of human listening. The attention of the audience is maximum at the beginning, and goes up towards the end of the speech if one thought of announcing the conclusion. Corax, who is mainly interested in advocacy, also specifies that development must follow a specific plan.

For your grand oral, it’s exactly the same thing: you must prepare your introduction and your conclusion before the big day, they are as important, if not more, than in writing. You can learn them by heart if you can recite naturally, or know each block you are going to do intimately with only one or two key phrases memorized by heart. In any case, the introduction should be fluid and engaging, practice!

The development plan must also be designed upstream, the 20 minutes of preparation you have available should only be used to remind you of this plan, the dates and key figures, as well as a few sentences intended to mark the jury (what we called in Antiquity “sententia”, and which you would rather call “punchlines”).

Play the game like Demosthenes

Demosthenes for the Greeks, is the greatest orator to have ever lived. Tireless in all genres of speech, he is remembered above all for his attempts to stir up the Athenians against the threat posed to them by Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. His speeches on attacking him, known as Philippic , have been so influential that the word has come to denote a violent verbal attack on an adversary.

Yet, surprising as it may sound, all the evidence suggests that he had no natural predisposition for public speaking. A sickly child, mocked by others, suffering from stammering, short of breath, he defeats the idea that the talent of the speaker is an innate gift.

Many stories and anecdotes illustrate the fact that Demosthenes becomes the greatest orator of all time by the sheer force of his work: he digs a cellar under his house to train without being heard and works his diction by declaiming with pebbles in the mouth.

His beginnings, however, are difficult. Plutarch, the historian who tells us the most about his life, says that one day when he had been whistled down on the Agora, he returned home with a heavy heart and a downcast soul through the streets of Athens. . It is in this sad state that one of his friends, the actor Andronicus, meets him; he takes him home, listens to his problem – Demosthenes feels that no one listens to him when he speaks, and the actor asks him to recite a small extract.

For Andronicus, the key to the problem is obvious: Demosthenes recites, but does not act out his text. He does not seize the words which remain foreign to him, he does not interpret them. Thanks to the revelation of Andronicus, who guides him, the oratory career of Demosthenes is finally launched.

Subsequently, when asked what is the most important part of the art of the speaker, Demosthenes answers “the action” . He understood that one can have the most judicious reasoning, the most skilful pen, but that if one does not control the game, nobody will really want to listen to you.

There are many dimensions to work on in this area, but when it comes to the grand oral, if you are convinced by what you are saying, if you project your voice well, if you support the word by the gesture, it will already be good.

Work on style like Quintilian

Quintilian , in the 1st  century AD, is the last great Roman theorist of the art of oratory. His treatise, The Oratory Institution , is at the same time a sum of the knowledge of Antiquity on rhetoric and the first work of “modern” pedagogy. One of the elements to which Quintilian is most attached is the work of style, or “elocutio”. It should correspond to what is appropriate in the circumstances, what the Latins call the “aptum”.

For the great oral, obviously, the language used must be appropriate. The vocabulary must be precise, and therefore rich without unnecessary frills. If you are unsure of which register or level of language to use, imagine that you are a teacher and that you are speaking in front of students. Would your teachers use this or that formula? If the vocabulary or diction you are going to use are not familiar to you, tell yourself that a new side of yourself is emerging. This facet is the orator; it does not erase the others, but completes them and draws them towards the light.

If you are not used to speaking, choose short sentences; in any case, you need to know how the sentence is going to end before you start it. To do this, do not hesitate to take breaks. They can mark the transition between different parts; they can also be used to find you in your notes, to check that you have not forgotten anything. If you are not uncomfortable, a silence of a few seconds where you compile your cards will seem quite natural to your listeners, even if it will seem very long to you (experiment before the exam).

Quintilien insists in The Oratory Institution on the idea of ​​benevolence, that which the teacher must have for his pupils, but also, one might add, that which must live in the pupil. To be an orator, in fact, is not only to speak well for Quintilian and his teacher Cicero; it is placing reason and dialogue above all else, and striving to embody human qualities to the highest degree.

Students of the 2021 class, you will have had little time to become speakers; let’s hope that the following waves try it from middle school. But take this trial as an opportunity to sow a seed; it will only ask to push when we meet you in three months on the benches of the university, and well beyond.

Author Bio: Guillaume Simiand is an Associate Professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne