The power of a passionate speech to inspire change is nowhere more clearly seen than in those who are trying to transform an entire society. Here, I will be looking at two great speeches from the American civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King was perhaps the most prominent leader of the movement. He won the Nobel peace prize in 1964, and his most comprehensive statement of his mission is his brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail. His most famous speech is undoubtedly his “I have a dream” oration, delivered in 1963 to a crowd of over 200,000 at a march on Washington.
Malcolm X was also an activist for the rights of African-Americans, arguing passionately for black nationalism – that black Americans should form their own independent nation. In 1964, he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet” to a Methodist church in Ohio.
Both men were brilliant speakers, and if you haven’t listened to these speeches then I’d recommend it before reading on. Audio of the speeches can be found on the Wikipedia pages.
What can a scientist learn from these men? I draw three lessons.
1. Be memorable
Familiarise yourself with this convenient list of rhetorical terms. These are all ways to imprint your message on the minds of your audience. You will hear many of them in the speeches of King and Malcolm X. Here are some examples:
Martin Luther King: (Here’s the audio) There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
Malcolm X: Take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side. Let the world know how bloody [Uncle Sam’s] hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet. Let him know that it must be the ballot or the bullet.
There are plenty of other examples – Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech is anexcellent illustration. The repetition, or more generally the patterns in these rhetorical devices make it easier for the audience to remember the point being made. They become slogans, and when the rest of the speech is forgotten, they remain imprinted on the mind of the listener. The moral is simple: if you have something important to say, say it more than once. Say it in several different ways. Say it simply. Say it in a way that is easy to memorise.
It doesn’t have to be repetition. A clever turn of phrase, or a vivid image can stick in the mind just as easily. King makes use of classic American imagery and allusions: “five score years ago”, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, “all men are created equal”, “My country ’tis of thee”. Malcolm X discusses the need for African-American’s to go into business and control their own economy, so that they don’t have to beg “some cracker” for a job:
(Here’s the audio) Anytime you have to rely upon your enemy for a job, you’re in bad shape. He is your enemy. You wouldn’t be in this country if some enemy hadn’t kidnapped you and brought you here. On the other hand, some of you think you came here on the Mayflower.
The imagery in that last sentence is staggeringly brilliant. The arrival of the pilgrims in Plymouth Harbour is an icon of American history, and the name of the ship, the Mayflower, would be known to every school student. It is symbolic of American freedom, the American dream, a voyage to find a new start. Martin Luther King is trying to find room in this American dream for African-Americans. Malcolm X mocks this idea – we didn’t come here on the Mayflower. We came on the brutal slave ships. This “American history” is not our history, and we cannot write ourselves in after the fact. All of these ideas are condensed into one unforgettable image. No one in the crowd would be able to look at the Mayflower in the same way again.
Get to the point, and make your point memorable.
2. Tension and Release
Part of the reason why these speeches are such compulsive listening is their lucid and urgent statement of the problem at hand, followed by a clear vision for moving forward. This tension and release is the basis of all good storytelling, as it makes the listener long to hear what is said next. All of King’s and Malcolm X’s remarks are placed in the context of the problem and its solution. These themes give their speeches coherence.
King creates tension in the contradiction between the American dream of freedom and justice, and the reality of injustice for black Americans. King refuses to believe that this dream is unrealisable, and so sets out his vision of an America united. His solution is non-violent: “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive”.
Malcolm X gives a very clear account of the link between the poverty of black America and the lack of control of the economy: “the white man has got all our stores in the community tied up; so that though we spend [our money] in the community, at sundown the man who runs the store takes it over across town somewhere”. His solution is Black Nationalism: an independent black nation, established using violence if necessary. “Revolutions are bloody. Oh yes they are. There’s never been a bloodless revolution, or a non-violent revolution. That doesn’t happen even in Hollywood.”
Scientists, too, can create the tension of an unsolved problem. Consider this quote from Ed Hinds: “Those of us engaged in scientific research generally do it because … Nature is the biggest and most complicated jumbo holiday crossword puzzle you have ever seen.” Scientists love a good conundrum, and the more intriguing the problem, the more a clever solution is appreciated. So build the tension: show us the clues and hints, the mysteries and paradoxes, the failure of other solutions. Show us the right questions to ask, and then show us your answers. It is in this context that your work will be most fully understood and appreciated.
Too often, I have seen theoreticians give talks that amount to “I did this, this and this”. The audience is left wondering: Why did you do that? It’s like watching gymnastics at the Olympics – I can see what they’ve done, but was it any good? Observers, too, commit a similar error: they describe their observations, and then show plot after plot of “this vs. that”. They are just facts with no context, like being told that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is “42”. We wonder: why would I want to know that? What does it really mean? Is it expected or surprising?
So create some tension. It makes us want to know what you’ve done.
3. Us and Them
These two speeches are fascinating when taken together because they are, to some extent, in opposition. It’s not just that there is a problem, and they have a solution. It’s that their solution is superior to others. King speaks against those who would turn to violence:
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
Malcolm X responds directly to the march on Washington where King gave his “I have a dream” speech:
What can the white man use now to fool us? After he put on that march on Washington, and you see all through that now. He tricked you, had you marching down to Washington, had you marching back and forth between the feet of a dead man named Lincoln and another dead man named George Washington, singing “We Shall Overcome.” He made a chump out of you. He made a fool out of you. He made you think you were going somewhere but you were going nowhere … What you and I are for is freedom. Only you think that integration will get you freedom; I think separation will get me freedom. We’ve both got the same objective. We’ve just got different ways of getting at it.
Both King and Malcolm X are mindful of the fact that their ideas are not the only ones on the market, and address their competitors directly.
Science moves forward by using observation and experimentation to decide between competing models. This opposition of ideas has created some science’s greatest moments: Newtonian gravity vs. General Relativity and the 1919 eclipse, Big Bang vs. Steady State cosmology and the cosmic microwave background, etc.
The tension between competing models is always of interest to scientists. Any talk that can address this tension will be much more interesting that one that just presents one side of the story. In astronomy there are oodles of telescopes, instruments, surveys, methods, simulations, numerical codes, models … why should I pay attention to yours rather than all the others? Do your observations fill a gap in our knowledge, or has it all been done before? Have you produced a new theoretical insight, or are you just throwing a computer at the problem and hoping for the best? These are the questions that your audience want answers to!
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