How treason, ping pong and pensions can help you master the art of public speaking

Earlier today, I delivered a workshop on speech writing for Local Government officers. The session explored the language of persuasion by looking at a range of speeches from leaders around the world and throughout history.

It made me think about the importance and power of oratory and how great leaders use this skill to build a following. The blog ‘The Art of Manliness’ describes the difference between public speaking and oratory like this:

If public speaking is fast food, oratory is a gourmet meal. Not in pretentiousness or inaccessibility, but in the fact that oratory exists above the ordinary; it is prepared with passion, infused with creativity, and masterfully crafted to offer a sublime experience. Oratory seeks to convince the listener of something, whether that is to accept a certain definition of freedom or simply of the fact that the recently deceased was a person worthy to be mourned.

Oratory is not mere speaking, but speech that appeals to our noblest sentiments, animates our souls, stirs passions and emotions, and inspires virtuous action.’ (Resurrecting the Art of Oratory, July 2008)

Now let’s be honest, many of us can only dream of achieving that level of public speaking, it’s far more likely that speaking in public in any situation fills us with dread. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, in 2014, public speaking ranked America’s no. 1 fear, coming ahead of heights, bugs, snakes and needles.

Scary as it might be, presenting thoughts and ideas in public is one of the key skills that leaders have to master. They have to be able to stand up in front of an audience and persuade them of a new point of view, changing the way people think about things. If you can do this and win hearts and minds, then you have mastered a major aspect of leadership.

If you are someone who watches great public speakers and wishes you could get your message across so effectively, then the good news is that you can learn! No-one starts off being an amazing public speaker, they just take the opportunities that com along and work at getting better.

One of the ways to develop your technique is to observe how others do it and then try to emulate the aspects that you like in order to develop your own style. To get you started, here are some examples that inspire me:

1) Mhairi Black – the youngest MP in Westminster, this is one of her early speeches in the House of Commons, which criticized the Government’s position on pensions. What I love most about this speech is the way Black makes this issue relevant to everyone by drawing a comparison with mobile phone contracts. She also reaches out to her audience, attempting to bring them together to pursue a shared goal.

2) President Obama – in 2009, the President delivered an address to students across the country to talk to them about the importance of education. In this address, he reaches out to different student groups to recognize their experience. This makes them all feel like he is speaking to them personally.

3) Nelson Mandela – in 1963, Mandela and others were tried for a range of crimes including sabotage, treason and conspiracy to overthrow the Government. In the opening of his defence, Mandela read a speech where he shared his vison for equality and said that the ideal of a democratic and free society where all people live together in harmony and equal opportunities was “an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

4) Martin Luther King – in 1963, approximately 250,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington DC to call for civil rights. It was here that King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.


And for some light relief…

5) Boris Johnson – at the hand-over party following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Mayor of London gave his memorable ‘Ping Pong’ speech.


Are there any speeches that have inspired you? Or tips that you would give to others who want to develop their public speaking skills? Add your thoughts in the comments below.


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