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Book Review-Great Speeches for Better Speaking

I’m always trying to improve my craft. As it pertains to my keynote and educational speaking, it’s not always easy to find people who can press me to improve. That’s why I took the standup comedy course years ago as I described in my post I am a Comedian. While that was a very indirect path to improving my work as a speaker, the book Great Speeches for Better Speaking is a much more direct approach.

Components of a Speech

The history of public speaking traces its roots back to ancient Greece. Plato viewed intellectual legitimacy based on three criteria:

  • a craft had to have definable and distinct subject matter
  • whose theoretical principles could be articulated and mastered
  • in service to the public good.

Socrates was concerned about rhetoric and the power of speech because of its ability to create the appearance of expertise where none actually exists. In fact, Socrates believed that rhetoric was primarily concerned with appearance and not about truth or justice.

However, the most powerful case for rhetoric is found in Aristotle’s work On Rhetoric. His position was that we could preserve the working democracy through the training of everyone in the art of oratory. In that way people could use the power for good.

Aristotle believed that the power of public speaking came from three sources:

  • The favorable light of the speaker (ethos)
  • The provocation of emotions (pathos)
  • The force of reason (logos)
Put Out the Fire

The Violence of Speech

Humans are the only species on the planet who have the capability to resolve conflict by force of oratory persuasion rather than the introduction of physical violence. Certainly there are oratory constructs such as yelling and screaming that have more in common with physical violence than impassioned reason, but our ability to resolve the differences in perceptions and values through communication (oral or otherwise) is unique to our species.

Brené Brown speaks of guilt and shame in her book Daring Greatly. These are ways that our words can tear down others. We can name-call. And while “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is an often-repeated phrase, it’s not truth. Our words have the ability to build people – and a society – up or to tear them down. Aristotle wanted to arm everyone with the weapons of good public speaking to deter anyone from seeking to harm another with the violence of their speech.

Persuasive Speech

Of the speeches studied in the book, most fit cleanly into the structure of a persuasive argument. A few, however, have a more subtle goal of persuasion. In the case of Regan’s address following the Challenger explosion, it seems like there is no persuasion present. However, when viewed more broadly, one can quickly realize that the objective of the address is to persuade the American public into the belief that there was meaning in the deaths of the astronauts, and that though we will mourn, it will be OK.

In the case of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, the objective is to persuade Americans to step up and do their part to remake the great country by asking what they can do for their country and for their fellow man rather than asking what they can get. The persuasion isn’t about changing their view on a particular issue but is instead asking the audience (all of America) to change their world view. This is a much loftier goal than most persuasive arguments.

Structure of an Argument

If the goal of rhetoric is to persuade, then the basic structure of persuasion is an important part of any speech. There are three major components of the argument. The first is the premise. The premise is the idea that supports the conclusion. Next is the warrant. The warrant provides additional evidence or provides a connection between the premise and the claim. The final part is the claim. That is, the claim is the logical outcome of the premise plus the warrant or warrants. This structure is a simplified version of the work of Steven Toulmin in The Uses of Argument.

Often persuasive speeches start with a premise with which everyone agrees. Movement proceeds from what everyone agrees with into areas where there may be some disagreement, before proceeding to the point where there is known disagreement and for which the speech is prepared.

Agree Then Disagree

When trying to persuade an audience, you must address all three of Aristotle’s sources of power. First is to create a favorable light for oneself so that the audience will even listen to the rest of the message. This is what we’re doing when we start by stating things with which everyone will agree. However, more than this it’s possible (and recommended) to speak to how you and your audience are similar. That is, why it is that you might have differences but are more alike with them than different. Ted Kennedy focused on his being American and Catholic to his audience at Liberty Baptist College. While his views may have varied substantially from most of his audience, there were aspects of his beliefs and values that they shared, and he wanted to ensure they were aware of it.

By building what The Heart and Soul of Change would call “allegiance”, Kennedy’s message had the possibility of resonating on the hearts of his audience to build his ethos.

Finding the Framing

Randal Terry might not have been the first to utter the words “He who frames the issue wins the debate,” but he was the one who used those words to powerfully drive his agenda of pro-life. Whoever the initial author of the quote, there is truth in the words. The person who is able to successfully frame the issue will win the debate – or in this case, the hearts and minds of the audience. This means that careful work must be done to frame the issue in a way that makes the proposed course of action the logical choice.

The other framing is the use of a structural motif. A structural motif is a repeated word or phrase, like the chorus of a song, that brings everyone back to a common point. Structural motifs provide a rhythm and realignment of the speech and ensures that everyone returns to the common point before venturing off into another area of the argument. By echoing the same phrase, the momentum of the presentation can build.

Who Makes the Connection

In speaking, there’s a question to be answered about whether the speaker should be the one who draws the line between two ideas, or whether that connection should be made by each member of the audience individually. There are numerous techniques and reasons for leaving the audience to fill in the details for themselves, and perhaps equally as many reasons why one would make the connection explicit.

When a topic is distasteful or when the connection is related to the listener’s personal experience, allowing the listener to make the connection is important. You can describe the evils of the world in broad, sweeping terms and encourage the listener to fill in their own personal perception of the evil. This minimizes the negative valence on the speech and frees it up to be inspiring.

The nature of people is that we all have similarities in our experiences but we also have differences. When a speaker is working with an audience where the precise perception of a topic is unknown and the audience’s specific issue may be completely opaque to the orator, then utilizing techniques that allow the listener to create their own connection is a useful way to create the appearance of alignment where there is less alignment really present.

Consider Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which encouraged people to have a dream – their own personal dream that followed the structure of Dr. King’s dream, but was at the same time uniquely personal.

However, utilizing these techniques assumes that the audience is sufficiently motivated to attempt to make the connection, and further that they have the information necessary to make the connection. If they don’t know enough about where the speaker is going or about the subject, they won’t be able to make the leap across the conceptual gap.

It is these times when it’s necessary to walk someone through the specific connections that need to be made between concepts. It’s necessary to be explicit about how two or more concepts are related.

Bringing it Home – Delivery

One of the things that I learned from my work with comedy is that sometimes when a comic takes a drink on stage, it’s not really a drink. They may take in a beverage. They may actually take a drink; however, the timing of the drink isn’t accidental. In fact, the timing of the drink and the body language of the comic may be designed to enhance the power of the joke or punchline. Ron White is a master at this. He’s frequently seen on stage with a glass of hard liquor and a stirring straw that he frequently uses to break or change the cadence of his delivery.

The cadence of delivery can have a profound effect on the impact of the speech. In comedy we spoke of “stepping on the laugh” – that is, starting with the next joke or tagline before the laughter from the previous one had died down. Conversely, there’s letting the laughter die out when you allow too much time before reengaging the audience. “Simple” cadence isn’t so simple, as it requires using techniques which are designed to vary the rhythm and pace of the talk to match how the audience is responding.

Speaking as someone who does both live presentations and recorded video presentations, I have great respect for the skill that Ronald Regan had when delivering his Challenger address, because he had to get his cadence right without the benefit of being able to read the audience for timing. Of course, this is something that a movie actor practices. It is perhaps why, when Regan was asked how an actor could be president, he wonders out loud how a president could not be an actor.

In technical training, one of the frequent mistakes is the delivery of a monotone droning of information. While I see this kind of delivery all the time, it’s not something that’s appealing to the audience. In general, more positive delivery creates a more positive response in the audience; however, not every situation calls for a positive and upbeat delivery. For instance, the Challenger Address isn’t an appropriate time to be “perky.”

The actual delivery of the words can create as dramatic an effect as the words themselves. When I read Great Speeches for Better Speaking, I was reading the words from the page. While some of the speeches I remembered, most I couldn’t recall the delivery in sufficient detail to recognize the artfulness with which the speaker paused for dramatic effect or lowered their voice and slowed their delivery at important points. So when I listened to them in preparation for this post, I was surprised at how the dry words came to life and began to beat in my heart in the way that they were originally intended.


Each speaker prefers to prepare for their moment differently. Some speakers are best making off-the-cuff or impromptu speeches with very little preparation. Some speakers are more comfortable reading their speeches. Others memorize their speeches to prevent the issues with reading. Others, like myself, prefer extemporaneous speaking, which requires an understanding of the material and a rough outline.

In comedy, I learned that many things which appeared on the surface to be off-the-cuff, accidental, or impromptu were well-rehearsed. That is, while it gave the appearance that it wasn’t rehearsed, often times they were. This has created skepticism in my mind when someone appears to be doing a good job with an off-the-cuff speech.

The other comedy trick I learned was the idea of “savers”. That is a technique that a comic uses to pull the audience back when a joke falls flat or they’re not getting the reaction they want. One of my favorite savers is from my buddy Michael Malone who will, when an audience isn’t responding, say to them, “You know this isn’t TV, right? You know I can see you.” This serves two purposes. First, it generates a laugh as the audience realizes that they’re not interacting. Second, it telegraphs his desire to interact with the audience. (I greatly admire Michael’s ability to work with an audience.)

The obvious problem that happens when reading a speech is that there is a tendency to a single-metered rate of delivery and a monotone voice, something that speakers who prefer reading their speeches carefully learn to control. Some orators prefer to memorize their speeches in order to eliminate this problem. There’s something different about recalling a speech from memory compared to reading it that makes it easier to manage the delivery.

Extemporaneous speaking follows the structure but can bend and change, and thereby reduces the challenges associated with monotone delivery, at the risk of making it impossible to hit a time target. The flexibility to read an audience and lean into a topic more because they’re reacting more is great, but only when you can control your timing to a point that you’re able to hit the time constraint or goal that you’ve been given.

There isn’t any one way to prepare for a speech. Each approach has its limitations. The point isn’t that there’s one path up the mountain for preparing for public speaking. Rather, one must find the style that works for them, and then develop skills around mitigating the potential limitations of that preparation style.

The Love of a Good Story

At the National Speakers Association (NSA) convention a few years ago, I saw a curious thing happening. (See my blog post.) I noticed that some of the speakers were telling their stories. Whether it was their rise to fame or triumph over impossible odds, there were the stories that were designed to motivate and propel people. At the same time, I heard the seasoned speakers in their workshops speaking about the techniques to help someone be a better speaker or the option to listen to their story. The moan that went through the crowd as the idea of hearing another story was palpable. It seemed that no one wanted to hear another story that wasn’t theirs and wasn’t something they could use to improve their speaking.

I think this is a special audience of people who, while recognizing the value of stories across time and today, equally recognized that these stories weren’t replicable to them. What they could take away and use were the tool, tricks, and techniques of the craft of public speaking.

We all love a story. We want to be entertained and inspired. However, if your objective is for your audience to leave and be able to actually do something else rather than having an inspirational moment, that requires the sharing of techniques and tools. It requires specific actions to be done.

A counselor and former pastor friend of mine once told me that his business as a marriage counselor picks up dramatically after the church with which he is associated runs a marriage seminar. Ostensibly, the seminar is teaching couples how to have a better marriage. However, in truth, it further exposes the reality of their current relationship, and the work that would need to be done to make it rise to the level of the utopian ideal proposed at the seminar. This is true no matter who is delivering the seminar. The result is that couples become disillusioned with their current relationship and decide that it’s broken and needs fixed. In fact, it needs so much fixing that it’s necessary to engage a professional.

The stories told in the marriage seminars are great stories. They’re stories of couples staying together after infidelity. They’re stories of couples who’ve spent their entire lives together and who die within minutes of each other. However, these stories are the exception and are not the norm. While we need stories to inspire us, we need tools and techniques to help us deliver on the promise that the inspiration leads us to.

Eliciting Emotion

In Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis, I learned of the Rider-Elephant-Path model for considering how people are motivated to change. In this model, if you want to create meaningful lasting change, you need to talk to the emotional elephant because it is the powerhouse of the psyche. It’s the elephant that gets things done.

Great speeches engage the elephant and create in the audience an emotional response (pathos). Emotions can be created by recalling the pieces of our identity or history that we’ve lost. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for the impact of loss.) Emotions can be created by the creation of a grand unifying vision such as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or Kennedy’s call to land an American on the moon and return them safely.

Powerful speeches aren’t only well-reasoned pleas to the rational rider to take the reins and steer the elephant towards a path: they directly engage the elephant and the rider to lead them in unison to the desired goal.

The Speeches

The speeches used to illustrate great oratory in the book are as follows:

While I encourage you to listen to the speeches, I believe that understanding the structure of them and having a guide to what is happening in the speeches make it well worth reading Great Speeches for Better Speaking.

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