Anyone who has ever witnessed a gripping speech can attest to its effects—tears, laughter, and even chills. Never is the power of language so evident than when it hits on a visceral level.
So what gives a great speech its spell-like quality? We can feel it, but rarely delve deeply into its mechanics.
As a PR professional, you’ll probably have to write a speech at some point in your career. We’ve rounded up a few key takeaways from some of the 21st century’s best speakers for some inspiration.
What do all the greats have in common?
1. They’re authentic: Warren Buffett’s 2001 speech to UGA students
People connect with the unobscured self: it puts us at ease, and makes us feel we can trust the speaker. Warren Buffett’s keynote speech to students at the University of Georgia discussed the role of character in success. During his delivery, he lists the qualities that lead to achievement—integrity, honesty, generosity and hard work—all while delivering a speech that comes off like a casual conversation. He’s sincere, self-deprecating and puts the audience at ease with a few jokes along the way. Many speech writers warn to not go overboard on the flowery language—yes, it’s important to sound eloquent, but you should still speak like a human being and focus on the message at hand. In other words, be yourself–because the audience can tell when you’re faking it.
2. They connect with the audience’s heart: Obama’s 2015 Statement on Oregon shooting
Emotion is the anchor of many a well-written speech. Politicians, in particular, know that to sell their point, they must speak in emotional terms.
Obama’s address to the nation after October’s Oregon school shooting balanced facts with the heart. He opened, and ended, with the anguish of those affected:
“There’s been another mass shooting in America—this time, in a community college in Oregon. That means there are more American families—moms, dads, children—whose lives have been changed forever. That means there’s another community stunned with grief, and communities across the country forced to relieve their own anguish, and parents across the country who are scared because they know it might have been their families or their children.”
His no-BS script (“prayers are not enough”), empathy and exhausted body language convey a man who is sincerely fed up with giving this speech and allow his message about the need for gun safety regulations to resonate with the audience.
3. They speak to larger truths: Oprah Winfrey’s 2008 Stanford address
Oprah’s address to Stanford University wove together vignettes from her past as part of a larger, overarching theme about learning from success and failure, along with listening to intuition. She boiled it down to a larger message: while her audience was graduating that day, they’ll always be students in the classroom of life: “You got the diplomas, now go get the lessons because I know great things are for sure to come.”
4. They maintain idealism: Obama’s 2008 victory speech
In another example from the President, the victory speech from a campaign that hinged on the idea of hope. Obama speaks about the American dream and of his vision for the future of the nation. His optimism is infectious—evidenced by the roar of the crowd. “This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.” In the words of Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter, “Cynicism and hope are both choices, so choose hope.”
5. They end with a call to action: Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Address
The send-off should empower the audience. Steve Job’s 2008 Stanford address referenced a theme of triumph over adversity, with his narrative touching on struggle and sacrifice. He closes with the now famous words:
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish. I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Whether in business or in your personal life, there will be times when you’re expected to stand before others and deliver. While there are some things you can’t teach—that elusive X factor known as charisma, for one—you can learn how to put pen to paper, and ultimately connect better with your crowd.
But writing your speech is just the first step in a public speaking engagement. In our next post, we’ll detail some of the best ways to prepare for getting onstage and executing—whether you enjoy the spotlight or not.