A master class in public speaking, from a public speaking master
by Peter Watts
By analysing speeches we gain access to the speech-writing knowledge and techniques of the people who wrote them, and of the leaders who delivered them.
When we take look under the hood of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, there are easy to replicate techniques for any business presentation.
Setting a key message
Every strong piece of presenting has a strong key message, and that message for President Obama’s Inaugural Address was equality of opportunity.
In the opening of his speech he quoted from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
By starting with this quotation, the President was using the technique of Anamnesis, where we quote an important past speaker or document in order to give external credibility to what we are going to say next.
Business Use: First make sure you have a strong key message. Then find a supporting quotation from either a recognized industry figure, or somebody that is relevant to your business case.
Framing your terms
What does the President means by “equality”?
“We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skins or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.”
The President is using a public speaking tool called Apophasis. In this technique you can state what something is, by stating what it is not.
Business Use: While the President used three terms within his Apophasis, race, religion, and national origin, the technique can be used just as effectively with just two, or even one opposition, such as “Achieving value is not about sacrificing quality”.
Emphasizing your key message
Within any effective piece of public speaking, there is one element that you will always find present, and that is repetition.
- Repetition of key phrases
- Repetition of important themes
- Repetition of what you most wish the audience to remember
The whole point is to make sure that the audience absolutely hears, and remembers what you want to say.
Let’s look at four easy to copy repetition forms that the President used in this address.
This is the most basic form of repetition, and it scatters one particular word and it’s synonyms throughout a presentation. This speech was about equality and inclusivity, so the President used inclusive pronouns to push that message. In particular:
- “We”: 73 occurrences
- “Our”: 80 occurrences
- “Us: 22 occurrences
If we add it all together that makes one inclusive pronoun every six seconds of the speech.
Anaphora is a slightly more showy structure where the same words are used to open consecutive phrases. Here’s just one of the many examples President Obama used:
“Together we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together we discovered that that a free market only thrives where there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together we resolve that a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”
Eipmone is where the same phrase or theme is repeated throughout a speech, although without the repetitions being in close proximity to each other as with Anaphora.
The President used the words “We, the people…”. This phrase saw five repetitions at various points, with the first taking the form of “We, the people, understand…”, and the next three taking the form of “We, the people, believe….”, before rounding off with “We the people declare”
Business Use: What is the key message of your next presentation? Look for as many ways as possible to repeat that message throughout the presentation, and try to vary the forms that the repetition takes. Remember: You can never over-emphasize your key point.
Build the power of your case
To make sure your message stands out in the mind of the audience, you amplify it:
“We must act knowing that today’s victories will only be partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirt once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia Hall”
This particular sentence contains a rhetorical double-whammy that can be used in any business presentation, either individually or together.
The first is the Amplification. Here a speaker amplifies something by one step increments: “Four years, 40 years, 400 years.”
Even though the orator has stopped speaking, half the audience is continuing onwards to 40,000, 400,000, to some incredibly distant point. The President is using time as the basis of his amplification, and while it’s only one of many ways to build a point, it is the simplest to deploy. It could be applied to any aspect of a presentation that is about numbers. Money for example, or numbers of employees, or volumes of web hits.
In this particular case though, the application to time introduces the technique of Metastasis. Here we ask an audience to think backward through time, or to project themselves into the future.
Business Use: In so many aspects of business presenting, we will want an audience to take a particular action in the present in order to gain benefits in the future. If you use the line: “Imagine your business one year from now”, then you too are using metastasis. If you extend that to “Imagine your business 1 year from now, 2 years from now, 3 years from now…..” then the amplification combined with metastasis will have customers visualizing all the benefits of taking long-term actions today.
Engage the emotions
Dry facts alone seldom achieve results in public speaking. You need to excite the emotions, either to a smile or to a tear. For this we use Pathos, a section of the presentation specifically designed to reach out and touch the audience:
“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn”
Business use: What emotional aspect of acting on your message can you describe for the audience?
Heading into the environmental section of the speech, the President used these words:
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
Where we know an objection is likely to be raised against us, Prolepsis allows us to stick it out there in a statement as a part of the presentation, and then immediately shoot it down.
Business use: It’s always a good idea to anticipate what objections are likely to be raised in a presentation, and then plan for how you will handle them. Including the answer to that objection within the presentation can prevent it from ever being raised.
Make it sound good
You take care to ensure that your visuals are pleasing to the eye, and it’s just as important to make sure your words are pleasing to the ear.
Try saying this next line out loud:
“So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools…..”
That repetition of all those words beginning with “re” is alliteration, where a stressed syllable is repeated to build emphasis and to make the speech sound almost poetic.
Another location where alliteration appears is in the President’s choice of three key civil rights movements: “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”. All those “s” sounds are building rhythm for him.
Words that begin with “re”, such as re-build, will all work very well for alliteration, but there are many other combinations to play with. Words that begin with “ap” for example: apply, applaud, appeal, approve. Or with “un”: untangle, undo, uncover, unravel.
When we start to play with language in this way, the art of oratory becomes fun and we can use language to it’s fullest and most pleasing potential.
And that’s when presenting truly becomes powerful, and fun.