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Public Speaking: How To Write A Timeless Speech

Can you see it?

It’s halfway down the brown strand of light on the right of the photo.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us”.

speech writing scotland pale dot public speaking.

17 years ago today, astronomer Carl Sagan requested the Voyager 1 spacecraft turn around.

It took one last photo of the Earth before it left the Solar System.

The photo of Earth, stranded in vast loneliness of space, has come to signify for many people our vulnerability.

It was beautifully articulated by Sagan himself in a speech he gave to Cornell University in 1994.

He shared his perspective on the deeper meanings of the photo.

15 years to the day after the photograph was taken, three colleagues in the American midwest launched the video-sharing site YouTube.

The two feats combine here to allow you to hear a version of Sagan’s public speaking in its full glory.

It made me think – what makes a truly great speech?

How do you turn a dull presentation into stirring oratory when speaking in public?

Here are some key themes that made Sagan’s speech memorable – and that will help you too.

Introducing anaphora in your speech

Anaphora (noun): the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.

speech writing scotland winston churchill public speaking.

Sir Winston Churchill

As Winston Churchill stood in Westminster Hall in June 1940 to give his speech, Britain stood on the verge of what became known as the Battle of France.

Over the next five weeks, half a million soldiers would die on both sides, and nearly four times that number of allied soldiers would be captured.

Churchill’s speech used repetition of that famous phrase:

We shall fight on the beaches”

We shall fight on the landing grounds”

We shall fight in the fields and on the streets”

Anaphora serves like a drumbeat, giving the speech a pulse.

You anticipate it coming, and celebrate its arrival with a rush of adrenaline and hairs standing on their ends.

It serves to rouse and to galvanise an audience towards a common goal.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us”.

Repetition of key words and phrases

speech writing scotland barack obama public speaking.

Barack Obama

If ever anyone knew the power of a good speech, it was Barack Obama.

Looking carefully at his acceptance speech in Grant Park, Chicago in 2008, you see the repetition of the words “yes we can” at the end of six of the final paragraphs.

Echoing his campaign slogan, the words served as a reminder of the belief in change stirred up amongst a large proportion of Americans.

Four years later, as he gave a more cautious address, he repeated the phrase “our journey is not yet complete” three times.

Many have written about the fundamental differences in the way, in which Obama and President Donald Trump speak publicly.

We’ve written plenty about it here.

However, you see the same techniques in much of Trump’s 2017 Inauguration speech, too.

Trump chose smaller, shorter, simpler words during his public speaking.

He talked of “you” 12 times and “your” 11 times.

He talked of “I” just three times, always relating it back to making America great again:

“The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans”

“I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never ever let you down”.

His repetition of small, simple words helped to paint himself as the ordinary guy.

Knowing your audience and how to relate to them is vital in making a great speech.

Conjuring angels and demons

speech writing scotland martin luther king public speaking.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King is often considered to have given the greatest speech of all time.

His “I have a Dream” address in Washington, D.C. in August 1963 promised millions of Americans a new way of living together in harmony.

He uses every tactic listed here scientifically and relentlessly.

Of all of these, the most significant is his conjuring of angels and demons.

The contrasts he draws between good and evil, love and hate.

Every good story needs a hero and a villain, and King Jr. gave us them in spades:

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”

He created contrasts out of the very soil of America itself:

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted”

“every hill and mountain shall be made low”

“the rough places will be made plain”

“the crooked places will be made straight”

Sagan drew his angels and demons from

“every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant”.

At every stage we’re reminded that this is a struggle, a cause worth fighting for.

And that sets the groundwork for the rousing finish (more on that later).

A place in history

speech writing scotland public speaking carl sagan.

Carl Sagan

“In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves”.

Sagan knew that his time on Earth was limited.

He died of cancer just two years after making this speech.

He was also acutely aware of the Earth’s fragility, a major theme in his You are Here speech.

Other great speeches demonstrate their place in history acutely.

“If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour”.

“Four score and seven years ago”

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”

Poets call them allusions: references to historical texts or events.

In defining its own place in history, a speech has the effect of making the audience feel vital.

They are living in the moment.

And the time to act is now.

The Crescendo: the final drumbeat of your speech

speech writing scotland man putting boots on call to arms.

At the end of every great speech is a final drumbeat.

It serves as a Call to Arms – it brings prose where before there was poetry.

It tells the audience “go forth and deliver these words”.

It’s the mark of a great orator to be able to finish with a memorable crescendo.

“Ich bin ein Berliner”

– John F Kennedy, 1963

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

– President Ronald Reagan, 1987

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last”

-Martin Luther King Jr, 1963

Interestingly, it’s one thing Sagan’s speech shies away from, the final knock-out blow.

Sagan talks of

“the only home we’ve ever known”

speech writing scotland the only home we've ever known.

In doing so, he creates a moment of poignancy.

Rather than rallying, we reflect.

Doing so underscores his point about fragility, preciousness, vulnerability, weakness.

It’s a muted crescendo – and it works beautifully.

Next month, I’ll revisit great speeches, and look at the side that often goes unnoticed.

The delivery.

In the meantime, enjoy your precious time on the dot.

Make it memorable.

Andrew McFarlan is Managing Director of Glasgow-based media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications.

You can view his profile here.


Photo credit: kmkeshavBiblioArchives / LibraryArchivescfishyMike Licht, NotionsCapital.comPere Coba

13th February 2017 Featured in: Blog By:

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