We thought it only fitting, with the inaugural issue of our newsletter, Substance & Style™, that we bring you insight into another inauguration – that of President-Elect Barack Obama and his upcoming inaugural speech. He approaches this historic occasion with an outstanding record of public speaking excellence; everyone expects that his speech will be great. But, what makes a speech great? What should you watch for, what should you listen for and how can you apply what you observe to your own speaking occasions?
To answer these questions, let’s look back, nearly 50 years to one of the best inaugural speeches of all time. John F. Kennedy’s address delivered on January 20, 1961 in which he famously said: “…my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together, we can do for the freedom of man.”
Kennedy’s quote reflects one of the critical qualities of every great speech – the speaker must leave us with something memorable. What will you remember from President-elect Obama’s speech and what must he do to deliver a memorable speech? Here are a few things to watch for and listen to:
- Parallel phrases, comprised of concise, simple language – Kennedy’s speech is filled with balanced phrases spoken simply. In addition to the example already given, Kennedy said:
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
“Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
The parallel structure of each statement is apparent and powerful, and the language is simple. To help your audience remember what you say, use short, simple words. Note that in Kennedy’s first quote above 15 of the 19 words are one syllable. In the second, 10 of the 14 words are one syllable. In short, use parallel structure and speak simply!
- Cadence & alliteration – Kennedy presents his ideas with a rhythmic cadence and when listing a series of thoughts, he never exceeds five items and often uses alliteration to add to the rhythm. For example:
”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
(Note the parallel structure of “well or ill” at the start of that sentence).
- Personal, inclusive pronouns – Great speakers draw their audience into the speech. As a listener, you want to feel that the speaker is talking personally to you. Kennedy achieves this throughout his speech. Here are just two examples:
“United there is little we cannot do.…Divided, there is little we can do….”
“…with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love….”
- Vivid, visual imagery – We’ve all heard the expression that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well chosen words can also create vivid images in the minds of listeners and those images resonate long after the speech has ended. In speaking of freedom, Kennedy said:
“…remember that in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
In speaking of the looming danger of international adversaries, Kennedy requested:
“…that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
What visual language will Obama use in his speech? Note the images you hear as he speaks.
Finally, for any speaker to be memorable, he or she must use effective:
- Delivery skills – No matter what the context, every great speaker must employ specific delivery skills to capture and hold the audiences’ attention. Kennedy faced a weather challenge as he stepped onto the podium to accept the oath of office and deliver his address. Snow had fallen on Washington DC the day before and in the frigid air of that January morning, you could see the President’s breath each time he spoke. Yet, his manner in speaking never reflected the chilling conditions.
Much has been written about Obama’s delivery skills, so use his inaugural speech to observe his use of:
- Relaxed, purposeful gestures which reinforce the words we hear
- Steady eye contact with audience members
- Vocal variety, with changes in volume, pitch and pace to keep us interested
- Facial expressions that evoke our emotions
The substance and style of a great inaugural speech can also be the substance and style of your next speech. If you would like help with your next presentation, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-394-1700. Watch Obama on January 20 with a keen eye and watch for our next newsletter for more communication skills insights.
What's your message to the world?