“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”
SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL
Would you like to be seen as charismatic and impressive? Most business leaders would. Especially in the context of speaking at an industry conference, investors meeting, or a ‘town hall’ session to motivate and inspire employees, or even just to their own team! If so, you are probably curious about how really powerful presenters got to be that way, and what they do to keep audiences enthralled.
Of course, there are a number of elements to being a great communicator. Not least among them are having a powerful message and using compelling body language, and there are also some key rhetorical devices used in any high-impact speech that mark the speaker out as a ‘master presenter.’ So, learning this art takes time and effort, and a commitment to practise. But, can we learn to present like one of the greats (like Barak Obama perhaps?)… Well… to borrow his slogan from the 2008 presidential campaign… Yes we can…
First things first. A top-quality presentation requires top-quality content. No business person is going to be impressed by fluff and waffle, no matter how ‘eloquently’ it’s put over. A great speech needs a clear goal that’s clearly stated. It needs a logical flow, with good quality data, introduced at the right points in the talk, to underline and support the arguments being put forward. It needs enough ‘killer statistics’ to catch the imagination and be convincing, but not so many as to dull the senses, or cause a feeling of being overwhelmed. It needs to be relevant to the intended audience and take their needs, wants and desires (and sometimes prejudices) into account. Also, it needs to end with a clear, concrete and compelling ‘call to action’; so that people know exactly what they should do as a result of listening to the talk.
A presenter who stands as still as a statue, while mumbling their way through their talk, is unlikely to capture the interest of the audience. People want and expect an appropriate level of emotion, energy and animation from their speakers. Not too much animation; that’s as distracting as too little, and not too much energy or emotion, which gives the sense of being out of control (or maybe even unhinged), but just the right amount of projection in the voice, with appropriate variation of pace and power. Most importantly, well placed pauses for dramatic effect, which conveys a sense of gravitas and purpose.
In her HBR article, “When you pitch an idea, gestures matter more than words”, Nicole Torres, discusses research that shows that using gestures to explain an idea to potential investors made more impact on them than metaphors or stories. In particular, the use of one or two, thoughtfully chosen, ‘Symbolic Gestures’ made a big impact on the audience. Symbolic Gestures being those that convey information. For example, sweeping your hands out wide to describe a growing market.
And ‘Power Gestures’ can be used to convey a sense of ‘authority’ and to empathise key points e.g. many politicians use a ‘two handed, chopping motion’ for emphasising key ideas.
Rhetoric – the art of persuasive speaking – that comes down to us from the ancient Greeks, highlights a number of techniques for capturing an audience’s attention. These techniques that were first described in the 4th Century BCE, give speech a ‘musical quality’ that makes it easy for people to understand and remember what’s been said. A psychological phenomenon known as ‘Processing Fluency’.
One important rhetorical technique is the art of the ‘triad‘ – saying things in groups of three. This could be three descriptive words, three examples, or three reasons for doing something. For example, the well-known phrase; “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence is a triad.
Whatever the content, structuring the content in three’s, makes it more compelling. For example, President Obama in his second inauguration speech in January 2013 used seventeen obvious triads; including one in each of his first three paragraphs. Some of them are highlighted below: the triads are numbered (1), (2) & (3) so you can clearly see where they occur in the text.
…It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.
For our journey is not complete until our (1) wives, our (2) mothers, and (3) daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
Our journey is not complete until all our children, from (1) the streets of Detroit to the (2) hills of Appalachia to the (3) quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are (1) cared for, and (2) cherished, and (3) always safe from harm…
Another device from the classical Greek art of rhetoric is ‘anaphora‘ – the repetition of the same word (or words) at the beginning of successive clauses. This effect is used to create themes and structures, and also clump ideas into their most compelling forms.
Perhaps the most famous example of anaphora is the 1963 speech by Martin Luther King Jnr where he used anaphora when he repeated the phrase; “I have a dream…” eight times in successive sentences.
If you look at the above excerpt from Obama’s February 2013 Inaugural address again you will notice the recurring phrase, “Our journey is not complete…” and in the full text this is used five times in a row.
And it’s a device also used extensively in literature, as in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
The same words repeated at the end of successive sentences or clauses is called ‘epiphora’ and here (just to show how ubiquitous these techniques are) is an example for the song Single Ladies by Beyoncé…
‘Cause if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it
if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it’
Or from the world of politics here is Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, speaking about FEMA Chief Michael Brown, September 6, 2005…
“Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don’t give me the same idiot.”
Of course, it’s entirely possible to combine techniques, as in this example which uses both a triad and epiphora… and is attributed (probably spuriously) to the impresario PT Barnum…
“You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
‘Thematic Patterns‘ – key words repeated throughout the speech are another highly effective form of reinforcement that great orators use extensively.
For example, in the “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jnr repeats the theme word, ‘freedom’, twenty times.
In both his inauguration speeches President Obama sought to get across the theme that solving America’s problems would be a collective effort. In his second inauguration speech he got this across by the use of the word ‘we’ (used sixty-eight times, compared to only four uses of the word ‘I’.)
‘Antithesis’ – using two contrasting ideas placed side by side – is a very powerful attention-grabbing technique. An example of antithesis would be Patrick Henry’s famous quotation from his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775; “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Other well-known examples of antithesis include:
“We must indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin 1776
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F Kennedy, inaugural address 1961
This ancient technique’s effectiveness stems from the way the human brain evaluates things. We need a contrast to really judge whether an item, idea or company is as good as it says it is. This is why organisations put out tenders for new suppliers. They look for a number of people to reply, in order to contrast the offerings against each other to find the best, or most suitable offer. In fact, our evaluations on very basic things are based on this principle. If asked what temperature you are right now, what would you say? If you said “cold”, you would be comparing the current temperature to a time when you felt it was “warmer” and contrasting it with the temperature now.
And, as this example for the writer Jack London (quoted by his literary executor, Irving Shepard, in an introduction to a 1956 collection of London’s stories) demonstrates, it’s also possible to string a whole series of antithesis statements together to great effect…
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
So, you now have some key techniques. Challenge yourself to develop your presenting e.g. start by including a triad or two in your talks and then start to add in some of the other techniques.
The Lost Art of the Great Speech by Richard Dowis (Available on Amazon…)
Article: try reading this HBR Article highlighting the effectiveness of gestures as an influencing strategy
Watch… this 18-minute talk by Simon Lancaster on how to write a great speech, using rhetorical techniques.
Then maybe take a look at Obama in action in this You Tube clip “Fired Up and Ready To Go”
Consider sending your people on our two-day Presenting with Impact course (which looks in detail at how to design and deliver a great presentation.)
If you’re a Senior Executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ coaching session would be a useful option for helping you improve your ability to give a key note speech…
Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or +44 844 394 8877 (International) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.
And remember… In the words of the orator Plato …