What Makes an Inspiring, Engaging Modern Speech?
It’s an election year and everywhere people are promising to inspire, engage, connect, reconnect, mobilise, build, and more. But how? If you lead anything – a team, a business, a political party, possibly even a country – what can you do to be a little more JFK and a little less… everyone else?
The first point should be obvious: have something clear, appealing and compelling to offer. It really is about the product. That has to be the first consideration. If the product is wrong, or unclear and ambiguous, then you may still be able to find a market, but it will be much harder to sell and even harder to keep commitment.
Beyond this fundamental point great speakers have several useful tools and techniques that work as well today, in the digital age, as they ever have. In fact, it can be said that technology goes a long way to support, develop and amplify emotional connections.
I believe that communication is at a premium for several reasons. First, words are amplified through modern technology, spreading further, faster. They are more immediate and influential than ever, and the risks are greater too. When UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown used the phrase “British jobs for British workers” in 2009 the meaning behind this vague phrase took on a life of its own, and before he could more accurately convey his desired meaning he was facing a storm of criticism and confusion.
This leads to the second point: communication matters because it is a more complex language than ever before; in particular, words and images need to communicate in more contexts and cultures than ever before. Crucially, the way words are used and the results they achieve remain vital for progress and success. This applies anywhere, in any language. They show leadership: influencing, engaging, encouraging and mobilising people.
So, how can we be better speakers? Several thoughts may help.
Give of yourself, be personal, and show your passion. This helps you to build rapport and trust and give your audience confidence in your words. Simply put, it means help your listeners get to know you, for example, by giving personal insights into your own life.
There are several notable examples: Barack Obama often refers to his wife and children; Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech mentions his children in one of the most famous lines of the 20th century: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Sebastian Coe opened his presentation in Singapore for London’s application to host the 2012 Olympics with a very personal, engaging story: “I stand here today because of the inspiration of the Olympic Movement. When I was 12 … I was marched into a large school hall with my classmates. We sat in front of an ancient, black and white TV and watched grainy pictures from the Mexico Olympic Games. Two athletes from our home town were competing. John Sherwood won a bronze medal in the 400m hurdles. His wife Sheila just narrowly missed gold in the long jump. That day a window to a new world opened for me. By the time I was back in my classroom, I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be.”
‘Own’ the speech, believe your words. This matters for several reasons. First, because people value genuineness and ‘authenticity’, and people are so used to hearing speeches they have gotten much better at sensing when people are not genuine (unlike, for example, 100 years ago).
Show empathy, understand your audience and appeal to their values. Who are your constituents? What do they think or want? How are they likely to respond? What do you want from them and how can you get this? For example, Winston Churchill understood that people wanted a confident, defiant, resolute leader, and a sense of clarity and purpose.
Be honest and fair; people respond well to universal values. Honesty, reasonableness, courage: typically, we want them for ourselves and we value them in others. So, when you speak show that you are a decent member of the human race.
Great speeches inspire by being personal, bold, ambitious and attractive. Not mediocre, impersonal or confusing.
Master the essentials. Other simple tips can help even if you don’t have a life-affirming cause or pulpit. In particular:
- Prepare – don’t assume it is easy and don’t take your audience for granted. Understand them.
- Be yourself and try to relax. If you relax, so will your audience; if you are fretful, fearful or distracted that is how they will be.
- Give your speech a clear theme or message.
- Provide illustrations and examples.
- Pause – give your audience time to think.
- If appropriate, ask your audience to do something or think about something – how can we…? Why don’t we…? What will you do to…?
- Above all, be yourself; remember that authenticity and sincerity matter.
Avoid the pitfalls awaiting even the most experienced speakers. These include malapropisms. I am not sure that the 43rd President of the USA really meant it when he said: “Anyone engaging in illegal financial transactions will be caught and persecuted.”
In addition, failing to get your sentence structure right is surprisingly common. Again, in the words of the speechwriter’s friend, George W Bush: “I remember meeting the mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office.” A situation suggesting a spectacular lapse in security at the Oval Office.
Also vitally important is avoiding clichés like the plague, and avoiding jargon. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown once referred in a speech to “post neo-classical endogenous growth zones,” a concept that confused even the most expert commentators.
Remember the speechwriters’ craft and techniques (JFK and his speechwriter Ted Sorenson cornered the market on many of these techniques):
Alliteration, used to reinforce points and to provide interesting, bite-sized highlights for the media.
Anastrophe, when a speaker departs from normal word order for the sake of emphasis. For example Abraham Lincoln’s: ‘Four score and seven years ago’ or Kennedy’s ‘This much we pledge, and more’.
Chiasmus (the reversible raincoat) is another useful technique where the words in one phrase or clause are reversed in the next. For example, from Kennedy’s inaugural address: ‘And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ Later, Jesse Jackson said: ‘But just because you’re born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you, and you can rise above it if your mind is made up’.
Strong metaphors, for example: ‘The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans’.
Parallelisms, this is a balanced, rhythmic sentence that makes its point by being persistent – often using successive words or phrases with the same or similar grammatical structure. Again, Kennedy’s inaugural provides a great example: ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’
A symploce, repeating the first and last word or words in successive sentences. For example, when Kennedy spoke at the Berlin Wall in June 1963 he said: ‘There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.’
A final thought: invariably the best, most engaging communicators show the best possible version of themselves: their values and instincts shine through. One reason Barack Obama is so popular is because he appeals to our emotions and aspirations with his personality, powerfully conveyed through his words. That is surely a valuable attribute for any leader.
So, which speaker do you find the most impressive – and why?