The speeches of great political leaders mark some of the great turning points of history. Perhaps the best examples are the stirring speeches of Winston Churchill, which were a great inspiration to Britain during the second world war:
… if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.”
Scientists rarely (if ever) need to be this dramatic. However, there are a number of lessons that we can learn from the great speeches of political leaders.
1. Be brief
On November 19, 1963, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration at a ceremony to dedicate a new cemetery to bury the victims of the American civil war. Everett was a politician and a famed orator, and his speech was well received. After the speech had finished and a hymn had been sung, President Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver a brief dedication.
Lincoln’s two-minute “Gettysburg Address” is one of the greatest speeches of all time, memorised by generations of American students and carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Everett himself commented to Lincoln: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
The lesson here is straightforward: Be sincere; be brief; be seated (F.D.Roosevelt). Never, ever go overtime. Audiences always appreciate an early finisher, and there are few things more annoying than someone who goes overtime.
More importantly, throughout your talk you must give the audience the impression that you will not delay them longer than necessary. We’ve all experienced that speaker who, having started, gives the impression that they may speak for all eternity. They take forever to get started. Three-quarters into their allotted time they’ve only just reached point two on their outline. They waste time through ums and ahhs, strange pauses, diversions and detours, one more “amusing” personal anecdote, getting lost in their own material, “I’m not sure why that slide is there”, complete ignorance of how to operate their own laptop, overexplaining minor details, needing four attempts to get a sentence out, unfalteringly ignoring the chairperson’s attempts to give the two-minute warning.
All this sends the message that the speaker thinks that the audience has the privilege of listening to him/her. This is the wrong attitude. It is arrogant to presume upon your audience’s patience; they will most likely resent you for it. Your audience has generously given you their time and attention.
2. Talk slowly, clearly and deliberately
The Greek orator Demosthenes (384–322 BC) practiced speechmaking by writing his speeches a dozen times, talking with a mouthful of pebbles, and making speeches on the seashore to practice projecting his voice over the sound of the waves. One of the best modern examples is Ronald Reagan. You can find a recording of his “Tear down this wall” speech here. His perfect enunciation gives his voice a calming yet commanding quality. He is never quiet or rushed, and he never runs his words together, even when he increases his pace to add a sense of urgency. He is, of course, reading from a pre-prepared script, but his voice retains its natural, conversational pacing, emphasis, rhythm and pitch. (He could also write and deliver a joke: this quip all but won him the 1984 presidential election.)
Reagan is in control. He knows what he is trying to say and how to say it. He is easy to listen to because the audience does not need to strain to hear or understand.
We’ve all experienced speakers who talk too fast. Unfortunately, some of the worst offenders (in my experience) seem to be those for whom English is a second language. I remember a seminar on a subject I was quite interested in. The speaker’s Indian accent, a high-pitched voice and a very rapid delivery made the talk a painful experience. I had to listen very hard to understand anything, picking up the occasional word here and there. Her sentences were poorly constructed; you were forced to proof-listen. Human beings just can’t listen like this for 20 minutes. It’s tiring and frustrating, and eventually I just tuned out. And because the torrent of words was so relentless, there was nothing to recapture my attention.
It is also important to speak deliberately. You’ve no doubt listened to speakers for whom the words that come out of their mouth seem to be of little consequence. The slides are there, the paper is written, the words are just an accident. Their thoughts are racing ahead, and as their mouth tries to catch up they rush their words, talk in sentence fragments, stop and start and stutter, lose their train of thought, mutter to themselves, etc. Pay attention to your choice of words and the construction of your sentences. Don’t make your audience do your editing for you!
The moral is simple: be easy to listen to.
3. The power of words
Here are some quotes to get you thinking.
By words the mind is winged. Aristophanes
Language is called the garment of thought: however, it should rather be, language is the flesh-garment, the body, of thought. Thomas Carlyle
Language is not merely a means of expression and communication; it is an instrument of experiencing, thinking, and feeling … Words and idioms are as indispensable to our thoughts and experiences as are colors and tints to a painting. William Chomsky
He who wants to persuade should put his trust, not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. Joseph Conrad
Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. Rudyard Kipling
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain
Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”C.S.Lewis – Til We Have Faces*
The point is clear. Master the English language. Much of the persuasive power of statesmen and women is their command of words. To be clear and concise, erudite and accessible, to make new things familiar and familiar things new, to be insightful, to be direct – while the rest of the conference cures insomnia – will make you stand out from the crowd. So expand your vocabulary, learn a new word a day, get a good dictionary and look up words you don’t know, read the great authors, pay attention to your grammar, study rhetorical devices, listen to Radio 4 …
* I can’t help but finish the quotation, from which the book takes it’s title:
that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
More in this series:
Public Speaking for Scientists:
- 1: Introduction
- 2: How Comedians Do It
- 2a: Jokes
- 3: How Political Leaders Do It
- 4: How Social Activists Do It
- 5: How Preachers Do It
- 6: How Educators (should) Do It
- 7: Powerpoint