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Storytelling

Lessons From The Greatest Speeches In History

Boiled Down
  • The most effective messages are short and simple, so they can be easily absorbed by a broad audience.
  • It’s important to be true to yourself, and appropriate to your setting and audience. Not everybody can be Obama! Find the most suitable, authentic way of telling your own story.
  • Choosing your words carefully is key to achieving change and persuading people to adopt your point of view. Passion is important, but so is the ability to express yourself in a way that can’t be discredited.

At a special event commemorating the 15th anniversary of Intelligence Squared, two political speechwriters took to the stage to discuss the power of words. Cody Keenan was a speechwriter for Barack Obama during his eight-year tenure in the White House, and Philip Collins was chief speechwriter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. During a panel chaired by BBC presenter Emily Maitlis, a number of seminal works of rhetoric were brought to life, in readings by acclaimed actors Jeremy Irons, Carey Mulligan, Simon Russell Beale and Jade Anouka.

Whether you’re a politician, a brand or a marketer, here are five lessons to be taken from some of the greatest orators and speechwriters in history.

The status quo doesn’t lend itself to great rhetoric

“The speeches that really last are the ones that tell the story of progress and victory,” says Collins. “All the great speeches, collectively, were made at moments of great importance, where some sort of injustice was named, and something better happened on the other side.” Keenan cites Churchill’s “finest hour” speech as an example of this. “What gives it its gravity is that the peril is real,” he says.  “The country is on the threshold of real disaster and collapse.”

You’re more likely to provoke a response from your audience by calling for things to change than you are by calling for them to stay the same. “Some of the best speeches in history were given by agitators and rabble-rousers; or at least that’s what we call them, when really all that they’re doing is holding up a mirror to society, and what we see is uncomfortable,” says Keenan. “Some of the greatest speeches in women’s rights, civil rights, labour rights, embrace that discomfort.”

The right words can break through bias

There’s a whole plethora of reasons why there are so few female speeches in the annals of history. And when a woman does speak, often it is about her gender. Carey Mulligan performs two such speeches, beginning with one in which Queen Elizabeth I famously assures her troops on the eve of engaging the Spanish Armada that she has “the heart and stomach of a king.” “Elizabeth knew if the battle were lost, it would be attributed to her gender,” says Collins. “And so she did what you should always do; she addresses that head on, to great ovation.”

The second speech is from suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, in which she meticulously outlines how the laws that men have made do not serve the needs of women. “She doesn’t dwell for long on the sheer injustice that women have been denied the vote,” says Collins. “She moves on quite quickly to say the consequences of women not having the vote are themselves iniquitous, and she makes that case in a very painstaking way. Suffragettes were renowned for their violent methods. This is someone who has just come out of prison, the authorities are watching her very closely, and so she makes a very deliberate, downbeat, consciously rational argument.” By putting her ideas forward in a logical, non-“hysterical” manner, and prefacing her argument with a disclaimer that suffragettes do not wish to be like men, Pankhurst also anticipates and quashes any counter-arguments, and subverts the expectations of her detractors.

Context and authenticity are crucial

Time and place play a huge role in how Collins crafts a speech. “Look at JFK’s speech about going to the moon; it’s audacious and optimistic,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing we just don’t get any more in our speeches.” Part of that is due to the passage of time and the more technologically savvy age in which we live, and part of it is due to the fact that JFK’s optimism was very much part of the American character, which differs from British sensibilities, to say the least.

“You can risk that grand style when you’re writing for the President of the United States,” says Collins. “I’ve been inundated with requests from British politicians who want me to turn them into Barack Obama. And I always say to them; let me count the ways in which you are not Barack Obama! It’s nothing to do with them — it’s to do with the context…You’ve got to be appropriate to your setting. To use Cicero’s word, you must be decorous.”

Believe every word you say

And just as a British politician attempting to mimic the style of Obama or Kennedy would undoubtedly cause dissonance, so too would a speech delivered without the utmost strength of conviction.

“You have to communicate a sense that you really believe it,” says Collins. “An audience will sense something inauthentic or contrived. Speech is, by its nature, a contrived event, but you have to project a sense of character and belief.”

However, he admits that in the past he has produced content he didn’t agree with, and was surprised to find that his arguments became increasingly sophisticated when writing an opposing view, because he was able to accurately predict what the counter-arguments would be — much in the same way that Emmeline Pankhurst was able to anticipate and shut down criticism in her speech. In fact, a case could be made that exploring a viewpoint with which you vehemently disagree is a worthwhile exercise; a way of exploring and addressing problems that other people may have with your values or the way you conduct yourself.

The shorter, and simpler, the better

Brevity is the soul of wit when it comes to writing a great speech. “Anyone can write a long speech,” says Keenan, “short speeches take a lot longer!”

“Poetic elevation comes from compression, like diamonds,” says Collins. The Gettysburg Address is a prime historic example of a speech’s impact stemming from its relatively brief duration (242 words of “compressed beauty” as Collins puts it) and also its pared down language. “Lincoln’s plain style reinvented rhetoric,” says Collins. “At the time, people thought it was far too prosaic. But it has become the standard for American rhetoric.”

While Lincoln’s peers might have been surprised by such simplistic language, it makes absolute sense to use words of one syllable when speaking to a democracy of thousands, even millions of people. “When you’re addressing a population that isn’t evenly educated, you have to be more demotic and use a smaller vocabulary,” says Keenan. “Inevitably it alters the way you speak.”

One of the reasons so many politicians speak in repetitive sound-bites, Collins explains, is because they’re never sure which parts of their speech are going to be edited into a news package, and they want to ensure their main point gets across.

“If I’m only going to get six seconds on the news, I want it to be the right six seconds,” he says. “If Shakespeare were only going to get six seconds, he’d probably want the ‘to be or not to be’ bit. That would be on his press release!”

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