Give a Great Speech
Even a simple presentation can go better if you follow the advice of history’s greatest orator.
BY JAY HEINRICHS
(Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine. Copyright by Jay Heinrichs. Please ask permission before duplicating this article or adapting it to another medium.)
Ladies and gentlemen, something must be done about the state of oratory in this country. Most of our political discourse, our professors’ lectures, even our PowerPoint presentations are…well, boring. What happened to the day when Daniel Webster held crowds of 50,000 spellbound for two hours at a time?
Okay, some motivational speakers can command $150,000 a pop. But we don’t choose our speakers for their speech-making abilities. We choose them because they used to throw a mean football or once ran a gigantic corporation or nation.
Then there are the rest of us. At this very moment, some poor shmoe is mumbling a speech into a microphone, his eyes fixed on a script. Or some has-been is standing in the half-dark of an auditorium, gripping the remote as if his life depended on it, terrified that his slides are out of order or the video clips won’t work. And you know that statistic about more Americans less afraid of spiders than of giving a talk? It’s true. I happen to be one of them.
Still, despite the terror I feel at having an audience’s eyes upon me, I’ve delivered numerous talks and lived to tell about them. I’m no Webster, but I can speak without notes, get my point across, and keep most of an audience awake until I’m done.
I owe a lot of much of my newfound skill to a man named Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was the greatest speaker who ever lived—according to himself, at least, and he was extremely persuasive. Even more important, he wrote a couple of guides to oratory that survive to this day. Our nation’s founders were crazy about “Tully,” as they called him fondly. You couldn’t get into a decent college in those days without being able to recite several of his speeches. In Latin. They used his tips for delivering a speech. If it weren’t for their eloquence, we might not have the sort of open, accountable government we enjoy today. We can use some of that sort of reasonable speech these days; our republic may depend on it.
So let’s get started. The techniques here work just as well for a business meeting as for a town meeting, for a wedding speech as well as an address to thousands.
1. It’s all about them.
You can only persuade people if you work off whatever the audience shares with you. So jot down what you want to accomplish with your speech. Write it in one column of a notebook. Then, in the next column, write down what you think your audience values most. Draw arrows from the points in the left column that get the most support from the commonplaces in the right column.
Suppose your old high school honors you with an invitation to deliver the commencement address. After a momentary fainting spell, you set your goal: to distract a sweating horde of adolescents so much that they look up from their Game Boys once in a while—a big accomplishment indeed. Do you actually have message as well. Okay, but the only way they’re going to hear it is if you pitch it in terms of what the audience values. And what do they value? Being entertained, dude. In very short doses. They also believe in certain ideals, to a surprising degree. So you can entertain them, or you can appeal to their idealistic and egotistical desire to change the world. The worst commencement speeches attempt to convey an old guy’s hard-won wisdom. Most youth don’t value this. For at least the past 2,000 years (Cicero himself mentions this), young people have been smarter and known far, far more than their elders. Got something to say? Work off their ideals or their need to be entertained or, ideally, both. Ancient teachers of oratory called this device a “commonplace.”
2. Character, then logic, then emotion.
In the beginning of your speech, establish your character—the persona you want to convey to your audience. Nice guy? Big-shot authority? Comedian? Empathetic relative? Character persuades more than logic. People will agree more with someone they trust than with bomb-proof logic. (No less a logician than the philosopher Aristotle said this.) This is the main purpose of your introduction and anecdotes: not to make your point, but to make you: to portray a likeable, trustworthy image.
If the first part works, the middle of your speech is safe for logic. Make your main point here. State it briefly, and attach it to your audience’s values. Suppose your main point to the high schoolers is carpe diem. How do you attach that to the audience’s own values? Do tell them to seize the day because life is short, because youth fades like the lilies of the field? Oh, please. Every high schooler knows perfectly well that youth lasts forever. You might as well be speaking in Latin. Instead, you might appeal to their natural impatience, their having suffered the bonds of family and parental restrictions. Don’t tell them to seize the day because life is short. Tell them to seize the day because they now own it. It’s your world, you say. Use it wisely. Say this with conviction, and in the right style, and you’ll have those kids on their feet.
Which leads me to the last part. End with emotion—just a little emotion if it’s a small audience, and a big dose of passion if it’s a big one. You can’t bring the kids to their feet by speaking quietly. “Who owns the world now? You do. Who can change it? You can. Who has the power? I’m asking you, WHO HAS THE POWER? YOU DO. YOU HAVE THE POWER.”
Wow. I’m giving myself chills here.
3. Fit your audience.
We moderns want to stand out from the crowd; but great oratory requires fitting in. The original Latin term for this is decorum. We’re not talking Emily Post here, but rather the ability to meet the audience’s expectations of a leader. That doesn’t mean giving a commencement speech with your shirt hanging out and your hair dyed green. When I see parents dressing like their teenaged children, I want to shoot them and put them out of their kids’ misery. Instead, dress and behave the way your audience thinks a leader should. How?
Make them believe you know what you’re talking about. Speak confidently and with a full command of the facts. Apply your knowledge to the specific question.
Make them think you share their values.
Convince them that what you say is in their interest, not yours. If high schoolers think you’re just trying to get them to behave themselves—or, worse, to act like their parents—you’ll lose them. Explain why your point is good for them, not good for you.
Aristotle called these traits of oratorical leadership “practical wisdom,” “virtue,” and “disinterested good will.” Use all three, and you’ll have your audience eating out of your hand.
4. Apply a style filter.
Cicero listed five “virtues” of style. Use them as a checklist when you write your speech.
Proper language: Is your prose just grammatical enough for the audience?
Clarity : Would the least informed member of the audience understand it?
Vividness : Do your anecdotes and examples employ all the readers’ senses?
Decorum : Do the words fit the audience? Are there any anachronisms, sexist terms, or PC language that might mark you as an outsider? Remember, what may be properly sensitive language for one audience may sound politically correct to another.
Ornament : Does your speech sound good when you read it aloud?
5. Use PowerPoint as your memory.
The ancients had wild ideas about memory, employing pornography, classical architecture, primitive semiotics, abusive classroom techniques, and exercises that orators continued throughout their lives. It went like this: every rhetoric student would construct an imaginary house or scene in his head, with empty spaces to fill with ideas. It might take years to create a personal memory house or landscape, but each was supposed to last a lifetime.
The student then created his own mental images to fill each space. Each image would stand for a concept, an ideal or commonplace, or a figure of speech. Imagine an indoor shopping mall with stores that hold figures of speech, commonplaces, particular concepts, and argument strategies. Some never change their merchandise, while others can store ideas that can serve a particular speech.
Even if he didn’t have to give a speech, a Roman gentleman was supposed to walk through his “memory villas” at least once a way, visiting each section and imprinting the images in his head. Then, when he did have to speak, the Roman could simply walk through the villa and visit the sections he needed. Instead of memorizing an outline and phrases, the way we might, he only had to remember the route for that particular speech, along with a few new images—stored in the appropriate places— that spoke to the particular issue.
Strange as this may seem to us today, we have parallels to this architectural memory. Take PowerPoint: each slide often contains an image—a picture, chart or graph—that conveys a particular concept. By looking at the slide along with the audience, the speaker can remember what to say. If you had the time and the inclination, you might experiment by combining PowerPoint with the ancient memory technique.
Write down all your thoughts. Now put each thought on a PowerPoint slide. Find or create a graphic for each slide. Print the slides in thumbnail view and cut them out with scissors. Now create a kind of board game, like Snakes and Ladders, where you follow a path through a kind of landscape and encounter each slide. Place the slides in the order you want along the path, beginning with the introduction and finishing with the conclusion. Stare at your “board game” for an hour or two, focusing on the
pictures (you won’t be able to read the type anyway). Could you give the speech without notes or slides? That’s what the Romans did.
6. Speak up.
If you’re nervous, focus on speaking loudly. (Make sure the microphone is tune in advance). Your voice will automatically take on a confident tone and rhythm.
On the other hand, if you have your jitters under control, try a time-honored volume-control technique: begin your speech in a normal, conversational tone. Speak a bit more loudly when you get to the anecdotal parts. Then, near the end, turn up your voice full volume. That way your tone follows your outline: expressing your character, delivering your argument, and getting emotional at the end.
7. Gesture with your eyes.
Cicero said that the eyes are “the window to the soul.” They make the most eloquent gestures of all. Think about those soulful orbs, and your facial expressions will follow. This works even before a large audience that can’t actually see your eyes; for one thing, doing the windows-to-the-soul thing makes you less likely to do silly gestures with your hands or wave your arms around.
Watch an old speech by the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, and you’ll see what I mean: it’s all in the eyes. He hardly used his hands at all.
8. Remember ol’ Cicero.
Once, during an important trial in the Roman Forum, he stopped, frozen with stage fright. And then he ran away. The greatest orator in history, the man brave enough to try to defend the Republic against the emperor Julius Caesar, ran away. However embarrassing it was to him personally, he did the rest of us an enormous favor. Ever since, the you and I can calm our butterflies with this knowledge: it once happened to the best of us.
Jay Heinrichs is editorial director of Spirit and author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.