Former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin hated public speaking and blamed its overwhelming force and power for the spilling of so much blood throughout history. He believed that “to tell the truth needed no art.”
That’s artfully put, but not only does a speaker have to want to tell the truth, an audience has to want to hear it.
Simply put: Great speeches are passionate and authoritative voices of the truth; they never read like excerpts from “The World Almanac.”
If they did, nobody would listen.
To achieve that authority, renowned speakers utilized a wide range of both rhetorical and oratorical traits. Some of those traits are inherent, but others are available to any public speaker, whether in a modest business presentation or an important professional speech with a great deal at stake.
Here are a few lessons we can take from some of the greatest orators in history.
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
As Prime Minister of England during World War II, Churchill’s most electrifying speeches were broadcast over the radio to a nation at war. He spent weeks crafting them with a rhetorical precision that is virtually nonexistent today.
His favorite tactic, which he relied on again and again, was to appeal to history. He placed his most important points and ideas in a historical context, using allusions or direct references to the past and to the future, giving his message an intoxicating and inspirational timelessness.
Lesson: Position your goals within a grand context.
Few professional speaking engagements will lend themselves to contextualization on the level that Churchill’s did. Nonetheless, it can serve as a reminder to make certain you raise the stakes appropriately when you speak.
The fate of our civilization doesn’t depend on your firm’s fourth-quarter results, but if jobs and livelihoods do, make the most of it in your speech.
(Following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger) “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”
Reagan earned the nickname “The Great Communicator” because of the disarming effectiveness of his tone. He drew listeners in and won them over with a personable style that felt conversational but paternal, informal but authoritative, and always vigilant in its aims.
Lesson: Be affable, but have a backbone.
To some extent, because it is a matter of tone, Reagan’s affable style is beyond the capacity to borrow or mimic. You should strive to employ a more relaxed tone and avoid the stiffness of a prepared text.
But prepare you must. Write out your speech as you normally would. Because what we write is often at odds with how it will sound when spoken, practice your speech extensively, but without fear of wandering from the written material.
As your familiarity with the material grows, your tone will relax into something more conversational while your actual grasp of the speech-and consequently your authority in delivering it-improves.
Martin Luther King Jr.
” … we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'”
Whether he spoke from a pulpit or a podium, King sermonized and mesmerized, infusing even the most mundane words with a seemingly spiritual origin.
He also used easily recognized allusions to well-known sources. By attaching his new and radical ideas to old and well-established ones, he gave them an unimpeachable prestige and authority.
Lesson: Align your words with a tradition.
Sermonizing like a Baptist preacher or alluding to the Old Testament may not go over well in a PowerPoint presentation, but making appropriate allusions to past successes or visionary goals can convince your audience of both your credibility and of the feasibility of your aims.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
“… America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by forces of the Empire of Japan… the United States was at peace … Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong, Japanese forces attacked Guam, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands…”
Roosevelt’s 12 years in the Oval Office coincided with some of the country’s most tumultuous times, thus affording him more than a few occasions for great speeches. The best-known of these was the “Day of Infamy Speech,” delivered the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Utilizing the active and passive voices of verbs, he portrayed Japan as an unprovoked aggressor that attacked the passive, innocent and peace-loving people of the United States.
Lesson: Structure your phrasing strategically.
There are literally hundreds of rhetorical devices at your disposal, and voicing your verbs properly is one of the easiest ways to use this tip. It is also one of the easiest to neglect, especially if you don’t do much formal writing.
The passive voice weighs down most trade manuals and tech books; many seem convinced that it sounds more professional, but this is the sound of detachment and laziness.
Check your speeches for “was” and “has,” then try repositioning the words so that your meaning hasn’t changed but the verb is now active (e.g. “doing” versus “done”).
John F. Kennedy
” … let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
Kennedy was a good public speaker, but his speeches are remembered largely for their memorable content.
In 1960, he debated Richard Nixon in the first presidential debates ever broadcast on TV. People who heard the debate on the radio are said to have felt Nixon won. People who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won, in part because Nixon looked pale and unshaven while Kennedy looked young and sharp.
Lesson: Don’t neglect self-presentation.
Your audience shouldn’t ask themselves why you couldn’t bother to comb your hair, whether you are healthy enough to make it through your speech, or why you chose to wear the flashiest outfit you own.
How you present yourself should quietly impress your audience, without overshadowing you or the points you’re trying to make.
Not for a moment am I endorsing Hitler, his ideologies, or the indescribable horrors he inflicted on the world, but the man knew how to get his message across to an audience, as unthinkable as that message was.
It is important we understand his methods so we can recognize the next madman like him who comes along.
Nothing contributed to Hitler’s rise to power more than his oratorical skills. Delivered like sticks of dynamite, his speeches persuaded millions to get behind him and his causes. As a result, he is considered by many to be the most effective public speaker of the 20th century.
Lesson: Blend passion and authority.
In retrospect, watching clips of Hitler speaking might make you wonder why his audience didn’t notice what you’re noticing: He’s more than a nut job; he’s demented and clownish. This is not the impression you want to make with your audience, but it wasn’t his, either. The man left his listeners spellbound.
Say it like you mean it
Momentous occasions and turbulent times have generally proved to be the most fertile soil for good speakers to become unforgettable. Whatever your reason for standing up in front of an audience, you can make your words far more memorable if you take a page from the playbooks of great orators.
Ross Bonander is a freelance writer based in central Texas whose work has been published by Harper, Forbes and AOL. He has written extensively for AskMen, the world’s largest lifestyle site for men with 15 million readers per month. A graduate of UCLA, Bonander is a senior writer for Deep Dive Media, an emerging media company focusing on patient-empowered health care.
This article first ran on Ragan.com in April 2011.