Catching the Echo: Why Do Some Speeches Live On?

By Bennet, Jim; Detz, Joan et al. | Communication World, October 1991 | Go to article overview

Catching the Echo: Why Do Some Speeches Live On?


Bennet, Jim, Detz, Joan, Heinz, John F., Tarver, Jerry, Skovgard, Robert O., Ragan, Lawrence, Communication World


Some speeches are forgotten as soon as they are heard, while others echo through history, serving as models of excellent communication for future generations. What makes a speech great -- eloquent words, compelling arguments, impassioned delivery? Communication World asked several authorities on speeches to tell us what their favorite orations of all time are, and to describe what made them great. Whether the next speech you write is for yourself, a client or the CEO of your company, we hope that some of what makes these speeches great will echo in your own efforts.

It wasn't a Great Occassion, at least not in today's terms. It lacked the batteries of cameras, millions of dollars worth of satellite time and legions of advisors now required before a speech by a national leader may be considered "major." It was just the dedication of a cemetery, a brief three paragraphs. Those who stood at the back of the crowd probably had to strain to hear.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself, anguished as he was by the U.S. Civil War, the conflict that had caused so much young blood to soak the sod of a nation divided, felt the world would "little note nor long remember" the words he spoke that day. We know better.

Like all magnificent speeches, the Gettysburg Address "reads itself." Its cadences are such that the words, as they sit on the page, are like a musical score with every note measured for best flow, emphasis and pace. If you read the address aloud, you'll find that it's almost impossible to deviate from the rhythms that Lincoln built into the text. Everything rings true to an impeccably crafted pattern. Best of all, it stops where all speeches, long or short, should -- when the thoughts the speaker came to express have been conveyed.

I'm always impressed by the fact that this superb writing was the work of a largely self-educated master of language. Its few words stand as a reminder to professional communicators that without inspiration, credentials are meaningless; with it, a speech can, like all uses of words, go beyond craft to become an art.

Lincoln's inspiration rose from some wellspring deep within himself. Writers seeking to refresh their own resources can do a lot worse than to sample those clear and perfect waters now and then. When I conduct speechwriting workshops for corporations and professional groups around the country, I take along dozens of samples of good speeches -- so the participants can develop an "ear" for what works. One speech I like to share with my seminar participants: New York Governor Mario Cuomo's 1984 keynote address to the U.S. Democratic National Convention.

Read it. Even better, read it out loud. You'll hear its eloquence.

Governor Cuomo used a variety of techniques to pack a powerful punch: -- dramatic statistics (to make a strong impression), -- rhetorical questions (to involve the audience), -- real-life examples (to build credibility), -- sentence fragments (to pace his delivery), -- parallel structure (to create a sense of rhythm), -- a personal story about his own father (to create an emotional bond).

And, of course, in the process of preparing a speech that was good and sound, Governor Cuomo managed to give a speech that sounded very good, indeed.

Even more significant, he managed to create a speech that developed his leadership image and increased his political clout -- catapulting him into the national and international arenas.

Business communications can learn a lot from this speech.

I have always argued that a speech is a success only to the extent that its essential message can be quickly and accurately summarized by attenders -- including, of course, representatives of the news media. By that standard, Patrick Henry's oration in the Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775, was exceptional.

But there's much more for aspiring speakers and speechwriters to learn. …

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