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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…)

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