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The Principles of making an excellent speech

Published on November 14, 2022


The Principles of making an excellent speech

– Naomi Pandey
Grade 12, Shiv Nadar School, Noida

Speeches are different. That’s the point. They are different from a story, a poem, a debate or from a discussion. Speeches can inform, persuade, motivate or inspire. They can change. Change people’s minds about issues, change how we look at things. Change how we see the world. They may change everything. However, there’s a catch. To be able to do all of that, one must know the art of speechwriting, as well as public speaking. Ideating the material and performing it.

So, how do we write a compelling speech? Is it easy?

The question isn’t really about ease, though, it’s about what you want to talk about. Who do you want to talk to? What impact do you want to make? As soon as you can answer all these questions, you’ll be ready to embark upon the journey of actually writing the very script for the speech.

In this blog, we will unpack three main principles of speechwriting and public speaking with references to Martin Luther King Jr’s memorable speech, “I have a dream”, spoken in the year 1963, during the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Principle 1: Know your audience and purpose

When writing and performing a speech, it is always essential to know your audience. Whether this is for a product pitch or to make a motivational speech to teenagers about how they can combat anxiety, a speaker should know who they’re addressing and prepare accordingly. In the former example of a product pitch, the speaker will have to present a product in front of multiple businesses, and therefore will have to be experienced and well-versed in the realm of business. In the latter example, the speaker needs to be experienced in the field of mental health, especially for teenagers, and be able to break down complex principles of psychology into easily explainable analogies and examples, and then, provide effective and simple solutions about how a teenager can actually combat anxiety.

In “I have a dream”, Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking to a large crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC. This crowd consisted of fellow African American folk, who supported the Civil Rights Movement, as well as people of other races and creeds who, too, supported this movement. As is clear from its title, “I have a dream” was not only to tell African American people to take a stand against their mistreatment by white leaders but also to propel them forward- to fill them with hope, with a dream.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of oppression, of police brutality, of blatant inequality despite there being a constitution that regards blacks and whites as equals. Martin Luther King, Jr. does not accept a constitution that is not being executed, and instead being ignored. Dishonoured. He does not defend the American government. However, he still maintains that to be taken seriously and to have their dignity never falter, the African American people fighting for justice must do so non-violently. Respectfully.

It is clear that MLK had written this speech in a way that will be logical, but at the same time, motivating, uplifting and inspiring. With the motif of, “I have a dream”, MLK not only stands up for what’s right, but also lifts up the spirit of the people who have faced every injustice fathomable, and shows them an idealistic, yet an achievable vision of the future.

Principle 2: Richness, Rhetoric, Repetition

In order to make your speech both a rewarding experience for a future reader, as well as a listener, it’s important to make the speech phonetically rich, as well as sprinkle in literary devices wherever they fit in.

Metaphors, analogies and examples, in general, without a doubt, considerably ease up any concept that a speech might be covering. Apart from that, these tools also add a certain sense of richness and depth to the entire speech, at large.

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Here, MLK uses phrases such as, “mountain of despair”, “stone of hope” and “symphony of brotherhood” which while making the speech easier to understand, also lends it richness and creativity.

Apart from this, it’s always important to remember that repetition legitimises. This can be done in the form of simple repetition, anaphora (repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive sentences), alliteration (repeating the same/similar sound at the beginning of consecutive words) and so forth. Repetition legitimises when used right.

While an overarching motif of “I have a dream” looms over the entire speech, MLK makes use of other repetitive techniques to enunciate his points regarding justice and oppression, while adding a sensory experience that subconsciously lures every listener in.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

While repeating, “now is the time” MLK calls for quick action. Yes, the dream is into the future, but the plan is to not just keep dreaming more and more fantastical dreams. No, the plan is to act now and do what it takes to achieve this dream and make it a reality as soon as possible. MLK does not lament the past. He calls for action then and there.

Another example of repetition that spans multiple paragraphs includes, “We are not satisfied”, where MLK points out exactly where African Americans are still treated in an ever-unjust manner, despite reforms being made to laws and the constitution long ago, they continue to be aliens to the constitutions “unalienable rights”.

It is also important to utilise Aristotle’s appeals. These include logos, ethos and pathos. Logos induces logical facts and evidence to drive home a point. Ethos utilises an authoritative and/or reliable power to emphasize an argument. Pathos goes directly for the emotional appeal: to speak of tragedies raw and unfiltered, to fill peoples’ eyes with sorrow, and to allow them to hope for the future. A speech should make use of either or a combination of all three of these appeals to make said speech balanced and well-rounded.

MLK directly speaks of the state of African American activists in jail, but he also speaks of hope. He also speaks of dignity, respect and change. He maintains a balance between logical reasoning and emotional appeal.

Moreover, allusions and citations can always help. Whether you quote Freud in that speech to teenagers about anxiety or discuss Immanuel Kant’s assertions in a speech about ethics, it is always valuable to quote, allude and cite.

MLK regularly alludes to Abraham Lincoln (note that the speech also took place at the Lincoln Memorial), a president who strived to end the slave trade and to have all races be treated equally. He also makes religious allusions, and concludes his speech with an African spiritual, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.” A simple conclusion, which will still make every hair on the listener’s body stand up as they listen to it.

Lastly: have a structure. Having a structure is extremely important, and every speech will have a different structure, which mostly depends on what the speaker wants to convey and what context the speech is in. For example, in a product pitch, you would probably describe a problem, provide a list of possible solutions to said problem, mention your product, mention how it is unique from other similar products, talk about costs, sustainability and so forth.

In “I have a dream”, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of how the constitution is not being lived up to, discusses the perils of African American folk, enunciates that they must be non-violent and ends with describing his own dream for the future.

A structure will add semblance and in general, make the speech much more well-rounded and easy to grasp.

Principle 3: Confidence

As the speaker, it is essential to be confident. Confidence comes from within, so it is best to be prepared for any obstacle that may come in between your speech. To always be able to think and improvise on the spot, and most importantly, to sound confident. To not let your shoulders droop, your arms flail about and to not let your voice falter and fall.

Throughout his speech, MLK’s voice stands strong. His voice stresses and releases particular syllables, and he is consistently confident.

MLK spoke in front of a crowd of 250,000 people. A number that is incomprehensible. He spoke about something earth shatteringly important yet controversial at the time. His sense of self and his confidence were thoroughly unwavering throughout.

This makes him a charismatic leader and a trustworthy mentor.

This makes his speech all the more inspiring and moving. Never forget the adage, “confidence is key”.

To conclude, to make a speech that stands tall, is substantive and overall uplifting: one must know who, what and why they are writing and making a speech. One should make the speech easy to follow and add depth to it by using multiple figures of speech. One should always be confident in themselves- always trust themselves and always be prepared for the worst.

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