Anatomy of a Great Speech

by Emon Hassan on September 1, 2008

Of course I’m referring to Obama’s victory speech at the Denver convention.  Why these many days later? Try this: try and remember what he conveyed, not said, in his 44 min. speech and you’ll understand why it was a great speech, and not a mere good one. Try and remember what you felt when you listened to him. A televised speech has two audiences it has to reach out to, the one present in front of the speaker and the ones who are connected to the speaker via their own mediums. A great speech is part science, part performance, and mostly presence. The voice in a great speech is what your mind conveys, not what your vocal chord projects.

Now divide up that two audiences into two more sections: one wants to hear a hope in that voice, hope in those words, hope in the enthusiasm, the dedication. The words themselves are just in place to give the projection a ‘tangible’ record. The other section looks for meaning, meaning, meaning in every little word, every little gesture, every little slip-up.

Let’s go back to the person who has the task of delivering everything said above as if (s) he were playing a solo instrument in front of a giant crowd at Carnegie hall. If I were in those shoes, I’d be a nervous wreck. But what would make me walk out there, position myself, and play solo, entertain, invoke, incite, inspire, and give those people sitting in front of me expecting their evening spent there be worth while, their emotional investment justified? I’d say confidence. Wouldn’t you?

Anybody can recite Lincoln’s speech, but can it have the effect as when he himself addressed it to a group? Would the best performer in the world be able to ignite in people’s mind what MLK Jr.’s speech did in front of Lincoln memorial? Anyone can write about their intent on doing good, bringing hope, stirring change, restoring faith in others. Anyone can play with words and sing them with their fine-tuned voice. But it doesn’t matter if the person has no credibility. For someone new, it’s knowledge, vigor, and the genuine enthusiasm to do more than what’s being done than it is about track record. A marathon runner has won several of her own before winning the Olympic gold medal. Just because she has never won an Olympic medal prior to that doesn’t make him less qualified. Did her coach believe in her? Did her supporters? What would make them believe in her if not the confidence in her that she could, and if given the chance would, win?

If a speech doesn’t excite you when you give it, why would you think it will resonate with others? Great speechwriters have mostly written their own because they are in tune with their voices. Obama is no different in that regard than Lincoln or Dr. King. It helps that he, like them, is a good writer and understands the basic principle of performance: if it ain’t on the page, it won’t be on the stage. A great speech is not unlike a great song – the words, the music, the rhythm they all have to effect people as a whole or as the sum of its parts. For years I had no idea what the words to Hotel California were, but did I feel – not understand – any differently about the song than a person who did?

In the Time piece you’ll notice a mention of Obama’s 27-yr old speechwriter/editor Jon Favreau (not that one, no). His first interview with the Senator will give you a good idea what Obama looks for in a speech.

“What is your theory of speechwriting?” Obama asked.

“I have no theory,” admitted Favreau. “But when I saw you at the convention, you basically told a story about your life from beginning to end, and it was a story that fit with the larger American narrative. People applauded not because you wrote an applause line but because you touched something in the party and the country that people had not touched before. Democrats haven’t had that in a long time.”

The pitch worked. Favreau and Obama rapidly found a relatively direct way to work with each other. “What I do is to sit with him for half an hour,” Favreau explains. “He talks and I type everything he says. I reshape it, I write. He writes, he reshapes it. That’s how we get a
finished product.

They couldn’t have been more different in their backgrounds, but they were on the same page.

What’s the difference between a speech and a sales pitch? Both are trying to sell something, aren’t they? A good sales person will argue that honesty is the best policy. A good speech maker will argue the public isn’t sold on words alone. Trust? That depends on who’s your daddy. Faith? Maybe, but submit more evidence. Reliability? Can I count on you to pay my bills?

Then what? Tricky, isn’t it. A great sales pitch will have you buy some land on the moon. A great speech will have you take that first step towards it never caring if you own a piece of it. Inspiration is hard to come by. When it does, seize it. Let not any speech just make you a better politicker. Let it give you pause and wonder why simple words inspire yet simple deeds are rare with your daily life. Neither Republicans nor the Democrats own the best arguments to what would make a better nation or a better citizen out of you.  You always knew the ‘Do unto others…” phrase. You’ve always wanted what’s around you to be better for you and others.

A great speech is ultimately a conversation where both speaker and listener declare to each other: I am, and we can.

A must: 100 greatest speeches. Audio and text.

Update: Sept 2nd – Presentation Zen wrote an excellent piece on the speech. 

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