In just a few hours, President Obama will deliver his seventh State of the Union address—facing a Congress controlled by the opposition and a country that is as skeptical as it’s ever been of him. Is he an unpopular lame duck? Or can he give a speech that could set the tone for a presidential rebound?
It turns out that the keys to a fantastic speech are pretty much universal, whether you’re giving a wedding toast, a TED talk, or an important address to an audience of thousands. You want your words to resonate, so here are nine keys to getting an audience on your side and delivering, from some of the best public speakers in history.
Many advisors will tell you to open a speech with a joke, but that’s not always good advice, especially if your persona or the subject of your speech doesn’t readily lend itself to humor. It’s far more important to strive for authenticity, and connection. This is why President George W. Bush’s short speech in 2001 at Ground Zero resonated in a way his prepared remarks never could. Also, have you watched the beautiful speech that Malala Yousafzai gave at the United Nations two years ago? Pitch perfect.
Choose phrases carefully
A speech is prose, but a great speech is marked by moments of poetry. Think of Martin Luther King, whose “I Have a Dream” speech includes that phrase in nine succinct paragraphs. Sir Winston Churchill didn’t just ask his countrymen to battle the Germans,he exhorted them to “fight them on the beaches … [and] fight them on the landing grounds…” Ronald Reagan was a master of this tactic too, from the memorable “Shining City on a Hill” speech to the one he gave about the Berlin Wall. Make your speech more memorable by mastering language tools like alliteration, cadence, rhythm, repetition, and rhyme.
Keep it short
President Bill Clinton was first introduced to most of America at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, where he gave an interminable, 33-minute grind that showed none of his later rhetorical flourish. His biggest applause line? “In conclusion.” He should have taken a lesson from Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address ran only 270 words. For reference, this article is about three times as long. The best speeches leave audiences thinking, “I’d like to hear more.” So don’t tell them you’ll “be brief,” just do it.
Rewrite—and then rewrite some more
A great speech is never quite done until it’s delivered. Take a look, here, at the final typed draft of President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Had he not reworked it just before delivery, we’d quote it now as calling December 7, “a date that will go down in world history.” Remember, anything decent that’s ever been published has gone through numerous rewrites. If you haven’t read this slightly profane quote by Ernest Hemingway about first drafts, do so now and take it to heart.
Early in his political career, Churchill began speeches by saying absolutely nothing, sometimes for long, agonizing minutes. His audiences would worry he might be petrified, unable to continue, or ready to faint from stage fright. Thus when he finally spoke, the room was on Churchill’s side and relieved, at least, not to watch an embarrassing meltdown. Don’t forget that a speech is about you as much as your ideas. Find a way to get the audience rooting for you, even if they don’t agree with what you have to say.
Be a storyteller
Great stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has compelling characters, a challenging plot, and worthy themes. The best ones connect with some larger message. A decade ago, when he was just a Senate candidate, Obama knew all of this. His first speech of national prominence, given at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, was a masterful intertwining of his personal life story with the story of America. So go ahead, take your audience on a narrative journey. Just make sure it knows you have a roadmap.
In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the graduation speech at Stanford University, and delivered one of the best commencement addresses of all time. He employed many of the best practices we’ve already seen, and set the tone from the beginning, promising his audience:
“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”
Practice, practice, practice
Experts advise practicing important speeches in sections, although it’s even better to practice before an audience, if you can. As a former trial and appellate attorney for the U.S. Government, I learned that smart lawyers practice arguing repeatedly in front of colleagues, before they go to court (a technique known as, mooting). Political candidates and champion debaters go through rounds of rough-and-tumble dress rehearsals in order to give their final performances a better shot at success as well.
Learn from the masters
No matter how good your speech is, I can guarantee this: Someone else has done it before. And probably better. So, why not make it part of your preparation to read and watch five or 10 of the most remarkable speeches in history? If you need help getting started, consider the most popular TED Talks or even some of the best (and worst) Academy Award acceptance speeches. Also check here, here, and here for more inspiration.
(This article is adapted from a column I wrote for Inc.com.)
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