Some people think of a speech as being an end result. How often have you said, that this or that person ‘gave a great speech.’ What that really says is that the speech was not successful. If the speech did not motivate you to do something, it fails.
We were thinking of this when writing recently about political stump speeches. These speeches have changed over the years as they have moved from the ‘vote for me’ talks delivered from a stump, the back of a train, a stage in a park or in a local arena. Today these speeches are beating the drum to refresh the effort by already committed workers.
To understand great speeches, you need to analyze speeches such as Shakespeare’s recreation of Marc Anthony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, Winston Churchill’s classic Some chicken; some neck! speech to the Canadian parliament and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s momentous I have a dream. They were not just rich in their use of the English language, nor just adept at alliterative rhetoric. They were built on what writers refer to as power phrases and are brought to repeated and all-consuming climaxes with an unerring sense of timing.
A great speech is structured. It is not something that is done off the cuff. Words have to be carefully placed within the sentence to reach the listeners’ ears in the right sequence. Words that are weak or weaseled are wasted words.
A great speech is an epic journey that travels from mountain top to mountain top. It is interrupted repeatedly by planned, anticipated audience reaction. It is structured for the audience to voice and indicate approval. The speaker’s pauses are part of the planning. Each round of applause builds on the previous. It rises to a crescendo of approval.
And that is all in the timing. Timing is a critical factor, not in the length of a speech, but in its delivery. Like the great comedians, great speakers know that the crucial pause is what can make the difference between polite agreement and an ovation.
The hardest thing to teach a person who aspires to be a good, if not great, public speaker is to read the audience. It can be as simple as; are they looking at their watches? Are they nodding in agreement? Are they looking bored? Are they looking around to see how others are reacting? Can you see puzzlement and segue in an ad-libbed clarification? You have to think of a speech as a conversation and always be ready to adjust your remarks to fit the needs of your audience.
There are some darn good speakers today. President Obama of the U.S. comes immediately to mind. What is probably missing is great speech writers.
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