THE BLOG

What Makes a Great Speech?

05/09/2013 12:38 BST | Updated 03/11/2013 10:12 GMT

For one reason or another, I regularly find myself in Washington, D.C. Despite its institutional reputation, it's a city I've grown to rather like. The contrast between the English-style terraced Georgian houses that you see in Georgetown and the imperial layout of the National Mall area is fascinating. Whenever I go there, no matter how little time I might have, I always try to catch a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool. It's a theatrical location that always has the effect of raising the hairs on the back of one's neck. This, of course, is primarily because of its iconic place in history, especially thanks to the speech Martin Luther King gave on its steps 50 years ago this week. Observing the coverage around the anniversary, and listening again to that amazing piece of oratory got me thinking about what it takes to make a really great speech.

There have been many examples over the course of human history that we can look to for inspiration. Unfortunately, though, it's only the more recent speeches - where film or detailed records exist - that allow us to investigate anything other than the content. A great place to start when considering the art of the oratory is ancient Greece and Rome. In both cases, a culture of debate developed whereby one's ability to set out a persuasive argument was the way politics was advanced. The children of the wealthy were taught public speaking as a core part of the curriculum - a tradition that still remains in many of Britain's great public schools and elite universities.

The primary learning from these ancient times that remains relevant today is the liberal use of the tricolon device. This is the idea that when writing a speech, it's important to group your examples into threes. The most famous example probably being Julius Caesar's iconic 'Veni, vidi, vici' (I came; I saw; I conquered). Winston Churchill also used the device frequently - just look at his famous Battle of Britain speech, where he said "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." More recently, Tony Blair famously used a tricolon when talking about his Labour government's commitment to 'education, education, education'. It's the use of devices like this that make the content of great speeches 'sticky'. Without this, the speech may be well-delivered and impressive to behold in the moment, but its core message may not persist in our cultural memory.

The other technique most often deployed by speechwriters is the overt use of imagery - e.g. JFKs inaugural observation that "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." The minute that I hear this phrase, my brain conjures up an image of an actual torch being passed on from an old man to a youthful looking, energetic Kennedy. The combination of the words and image means that this statement gets imprinted onto the brain in a way that cannot be achieved by words alone.

In the case of Martin Luther King, he did this not only through the use of evocative phrases like the "red hills of Georgia" or "curvaceous slopes of California", but he also made use of actual imagery - the location itself - to imprint on people's minds. In his speech he refers to the National Mall's "hallowed spot" and there can be no doubt that the choice of location and scale of audience drove its subsequent pickup across the nation.

Imagery aside, for me the real learning from King is that to really bring people along with you, sometimes you need to go off-piste. The now iconic "I have a dream" phrase very nearly didn't get a mention - it didn't figure in the pre-prepared speech and many of his staff had actively encouraged him not to use the phrase. But as he spoke, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out to King: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!" He broke away from the text and started to talk about his dream - it was unscripted, but because it came from the heart and borrowed language from his recent sermons, he knew the content instinctively. In one, seemingly irrational moment, he unleashed a wave of emotion that swept the nation. Not bad when you consider that King was the 14th act of the day, so had to contend with a massive crowd that had been standing on the National Mall listening to other speakers for hours and hours beforehand.

Looking at King's speech and other contemporary oratory, where video or audio footage is available, there are a series of other learnings that are worthy of mention. The first is the power of the pause. Most people in my experience speak too quickly, trying to cram as much as possible into a finite period of time. Audiences only ever have a short attention span, and no matter how much content you go through, they wont take it all in. You need to consider from the start the three key points you want your audience to take away - and go no further. The second is the power of repetition. Tell people your main argument, and then tell them again in a slightly different guise. The third is the power of emotion. A great speech tends to include humor, pain, surprise - and the corresponding emotions: smiles, grimaces etc. The fourth is the use of gestures and hand movements. You don't have to go as far as an Italian, but hand movements and speech are closely linked - our brains are wired to evaluate the two together, to get an accurate understanding of meaning. The fifth observation is that the great speeches tend to be written by one or two people, not a committee.

In business and politics today, great steering groups are often convened to ensure speeches are the best that they can be. The irony is that these committees often serve instead to take the edge off of an argument and dilute the content to the point where it becomes meaningless. My final observation is that over the last decade, as the media has evolved, so our attention spans have shortened. Hour-long speeches are routinely condensed to a soundbite that flickers across the bottom of Sky News. You know this is going to happen, so why not create a speech that is a vehicle for a powerful soundbite, one that encapsulates your argument or invites the audience to dig deeper. When King tells me that he has a dream, I want to know more. I can choose between Malcolm X's "Bullet or the Ballot" with ease, without hearing his full argument. Despite telling three powerful stories from his own life, I don't think Steve Jobs really intended for his Stanford audience to take away anything other than the idea that they should "Stay hungry. Stay Foolish" In fact, in an effort to underline its importance, he even repeated it twice.

In summary, I think what's clear is that to make a good speech great, you need to have 'sticky' inviting content and you need to deliver the message with passion and charisma. The location and sense of occasion is certainly important - think JFK's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' in front of West Berlin's city hall - but if you really crack the oratory, the location can fade into the background. I doubt that many people remember that JFK's equally-iconic "We choose to go to the moon", was delivered not on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial but on a simple platform in the middle of Rice University's football field in Houston.