It's a skill admired by many, practiced by some, but truly mastered by only a few. Andrew Moon looks at the art of writing and delivering a killer speech.
US President Barack Obama this month opened a monument on the country’s National Mall in Washington DC to the first American not to have changed the country through public office, but through his words.
Late on a summer afternoon in the nation’s capital in 1963, clergyman and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King delivered four words - I have a dream - over and over, each time chipping away at a stone wall dividing a United States.
“Because of that hopeful vision, because of Dr. King’s moral imagination, barricades began to fall and bigotry began to fade,” President Obama said.
The 44th US President is himself regarded as a ‘grand orator’, captivating audiences worldwide with his hope-infused rhetoric. But sometimes, an audience may be a little less receptive to your chosen words. Sometimes, those words may be all you have to save you from imminent death.
Aaron Tait’s experience at a secondary school in Tanzania gave new meaning to the phrase ‘a tough crowd.’
“I actually had to engage a room of about 40 boys in East Africa who had threatened to kill me,” the then 23-year old social entrepreneur says with a laugh, perhaps in hindsight.
“The rumour had gone around that they were going to kill me in a few hours, so I decided that I’d get them all together and we’d have a chat about it.”
For Tait, speaking en masse is nothing new. At 18, he worked as a Junior Officer with the United Nations in a combat zone. At 25, he developed an orphanage in Kenya. Along with wife Kaitlin, he has now founded Spark* International, encouraging leadership development in some of the poorest countries in the world. But Tait’s close call in a slum school in Tanzania reinforced a golden rule of public speaking: know your audience, and treat them with respect.
“Who is this person and why am I listening to them? Any audience wants to know that. And also respectability. Does this person respect me, and am I going to give them respect back?” he says.
“I guess for me that credibility and respect...I had to get that back very quickly, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you now!”
But how do you prove you’re the real deal to get the crowd on side quick smart? The devil’s in the detail says not-for-profit founder Melissa Abu-Gazaleh.
“I think it’s always starting off with statistics and facts.”
“It’s about highlighting what the context is, what the current situation is, but also putting out the vision,” she says, “then being able to provide the tangible strategies to get there.”
The 24-year-old from Wollongong on the NSW south coast has quite a few of those under her belt as she continues on her crusade to shed light on the positive ways in which young males are bringing change to their communities.
“People believe the statistics and facts, and there’s really strong ones out there about young men,”she says.
Each year, Abu-Gazaleh and her Top Blokes Foundation picks a handful of twenty-something males from the Illawarra region, and mentors each in civil service skills and public speaking. To take out the final gong, the candidates must woo a crowd of sponsors and community leaders with a series of prepared and impromptu speeches.
“I think what makes a great speech is about finding relevance to the audience, and trying to have that unique edge to it,” she says.
“The only way you can inspire people and almost convince people of helping the cause that you’re passionate about is being able to communicate your ideas.”
It’s the magic P word, the final ingredient in the prize-winning speech pie. Passion. Speechwriter Dennis Glover says without it, your carefully crafted pars could turn out a little bland and uninspiring.
“The worst thing you can do I think is to go out there and just use all the rhetorical techniques of speech to give a message that people just simply don’t believe,” he says, “and that they don’t believe you believe.”
“The great orators are the ones that combine the intellect, the rhetorical techniques of speech making, and authenticity and passion for what they believe in.”
In the world of the painstakingly prepared prose, Glover is somewhat of a Masterchef. For the best part of 15 years, he’s written speeches for former Labor leaders Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham and a number of senior figures in the Gillard government. But he says the current batch in Canberra are demonstrating what happens when you leave that all important ingredient out.
“The problem is that we have a political culture... where you get to the top not by exciting an audience and winning over a political conference, but you get to the top by doing the numbers in the back room,” Glover says.
“Human beings aren’t computers. They don’t make decisions just based on rational calculation.”
It’s a far cry from inner-city Sydney in 1992, when the then Prime Minister Paul Keating admitted to a crowd of indigenous Australians that their country had ultimately failed them. With a few well constructed pars, he began the country on an achingly painful path to healing decades of dispossession and division.
“I mean you think about the Redfern address. It really is a wonderful piece of classical rhetoric,” Glover says.
Whether it be a political rally for thousands or a pep talk for two, Glover says the secret to delivering words that change the world ultimately comes down to the approach you take.
“You have to learn the techniques, but you have to think of it as a form of poetry. As something that combines both the technical qualities but also the passion and the belief and the love of it,” he says.
“A carpenter can make a competent chair, a chair that won’t fall over when you sit on it, but a real craftsman can make a chair that’s not only will stand up, but it will be beautiful, it will be a work of art.”