In order to become a good speaker, you must observe, practice and learn from the ones who know more about that art than you. So, let’s analyze some of the important essence of delivering a good speech.
Aristotle gave us a unique formula in the 4th century BC and not much has changed since. He has pointed out three crucial elements that every talk should have balanced: logos, ethos and pathos.
Logos is the logical core of our speech, it lies in the clear structure of the speech, it lies in metaphores and analogies, it is what we are saying, the linguistic and semantic part of our speech.
Ethos means credibility: who am I to talk about the topic, what gives me the right? Am I to be trusted, can I be considered an expert, have I done a research about it, do I have all the needed references?
Pathos means establishing an emotional bond to the audience, making an impact on the feelings, saying how does the idea we are planing to deliver reflect in our own lives, what does it mean for us, as speakers, and what does it mean for them – members of the audience, listeners. Pathos is achieved via the method of storytelling, through anegdotes and through narrating personal experience.
Besides these elements, your speech should be well structured (clear distinction between introduction, elaboration and conclusion) and you should use the full power of your voice as well as your body language.
When it comes to voice, your whole diction matters, meaning intonation, vocal pitch, volume, speed, elocution, use of pauses etc.
In order to show what does it take to create a good speech, we will analyze a speech of Severn Suzuki at the UN Earth Summit in 1992 . But, we will also analyze Sean Penn’s Oscar speech in 2004, in order to show what is considered to be a bad act of public speaking.
Here is the video of Severn Suzuki’s speech:
Her whole speech is very emotional: strong emotions arise from two aspects – the first one is linked to the persona of the speaker, which is a child, a little girl talking about serious issues and giving a sort of a lecture to the adults. The second aspect is accomplished through the use of language and harmonizing the semantic part with diction, as well as through various emotional references and very well established element of pathos.
Introduction can consist of exposition and positioning.
Exposition: introducing yourself; this part of your speech is supposed to take up to 10% of your whole speech and during this time you are supposed to hook your audience and grab their attention. In the speech of Severn Suzuki, her introduction is clear and very well stated:
Hello, I’m Severn Suzuki speaking for ECO – the Enviromental Children Organization. We’re a group of twelve and thirteen year olds trying to make a difference.
In these two short sentences, she managed to concisely introduce herself and inform the audience what is it that she does. Also, this is where she establishes ethos – her own credibility.
Positioning: saying what will you be talking about; it should take up to 16% of your total speech time; during this period, you should make a certain promise to the audience and let them know what to expect of you and your speech.
We’ve raised all the money to come here ourselves, to come 5000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways. Coming up here today, I have no hidden agenda. I’m fighting for my future.
Given the fact her speech takes place at the UN Earth Summit, it is logical that the theme is related to the global challenges regarding enviroment. But Suzuki uses emotional reference here through commonplace (lat. locus communis), which is fighting for future. That way, she implicitly raises the question of the world of the generations to come. That is something that should be a concern of us all, because subconsciously we are thinking about our own future children. Besides that, she is preparing the audience for the speech and we can sense that the tone is going to be firm and reproachful. She stands there on behalf of all the children and is about to tell the adults how to do their work, which creates a sense of veneration in listeners.
Argumentation: the main part of your speech, it should take up to 60% of your total time.
Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on a stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behaf of the starving children around the world, whos cries go unheard.
These three sentences have the perfect balance of logos, ethos and pathos. Everything Suzuki is saying is true and logically justified. In addition to that, it has a special meaning giving the fact it is all a part of her personal experience. In just three strong sentences, using analogy, Suzuki calls for a review of the list of priorities.
Pathos is the dominant element of this speech. Like a harsh reminder, Suzuki asks her audience:
Did YOU have to worry about this things when you were my age?
Here is a good example of how emphasizing a certain word (in this particular sentence, it is the word YOU) can make your message bolder and leave a stronger impression. It is important to have these amplitudes in your speech, because the way you are saying something can often overshadow the actual content of your speech. The worst scenario would probably be to have a very interesting idea conducted within the speech, but a boring, monotonus delivery of it.
Suzuki also uses contrast and repetition, which is a good way to make your audience pay attention and to underline some of your main ideas:
I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions. I want you to realize neither do you.
I’m only a child, yet I know we’re all part of a family 5 billion strong.
I’m only a child, yet I know we’re all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal.
I’m only a child, yet I know if all the money spend on war was spent on finding enviromental answers ending poverty – what a wonderful place this Earth would be.
In addition to pathos, the ethos element of the speech is well achieved here: Suzuki, as a part of the children community, states that she is well aware of the global problems. It all has a special impact on the delegates, that can be seen plainly on their faces: they feel uncomfortable, ashamed and like they have failed. You can read all these emotions on them during the speech, which is a proof that the speech has indeed a successful one.
Let’s see the position of the highest peak of the speech in the argumentation part, where we can see logos and pathos enterwaving:
Here, you may be delegates of the government, business people, organizers, reporters or politicians. But really, you’re mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and all of you are someones child. […] If you don’t know how to fix it, please, stop breaking it.
Observe the commonplace: our relationship with people (especially the ones by blood) mean a lot more to us than our business roles. Through this simple disposition, Suzuki managed to make the listeners think about the more than needed process of humanization in the world. The plea to the listeners – not to make everything worse due to the lack of solutions, is much more effective after this pathos.
Conclusion: around 14% of your speech; in conclusion, you should bring out your main ideas, make a final impact on the audience, sum up what you’ve been talking about and thank them for their time and attention.
As approacing the end of her speech, Suzuki directly adresses her listeners and explicitly rebukes them and criticize them:
Do not forget why you are attending these conferences, who you’re doing this for. We are your own children. You are deciding in what kind of a world we are growing up in. […] Are we even on your list of priorities?
By using the commonplace – children, which is a notion that creates strong emotional reaction in everyone, Suzuki creates a final impact, underlining the importance of the listener’s role in creating a better world.
The final part of the conclusion uses citation:
My dad always says: you are what you do, not what you say. Well, what you do makes me cry at night. […] I challenge you, please: make your actions reflect your words.
Using citation is a good thing, if it is relevant to your speech. If you quote someone that is considered to be a well known person from history, you show your erudition, which adds up to your credibility. However, you don’t always need to quote someone that is well known. Suzuki here quotes her father, which is a great choice on numerous levels. It shows her emotional bond to her father, a healthy way she has been brought up, it shows her values and her commitment. Citation is also good because it adds vibrancy to your speech and increases the attention of your audience. This also allows them to identify with you, as a speaker.
The last sentence has a special emotional charge. Suzuki uses pauses very wisely and the plea has been made in the most effective way.
The key to a good speech is good preparation. The fact is, when you see a great speaker that seems so at ease with himself, so fluent and spontaneous, chances are he invested hours of work in preparing himself. Some people do have a natural talent for speaking in public, others need a lot more practice. The point is – you cannot leave everything to improvisation.
Now let’s see the example of a bad speech. It is Sean Penn’s Oscar speech.
When it comes to Oscars, all nominated actors tend to prepare a speech or at least a concept for what they’re going to say if they are announced as winners. The speech of Sean Penn lasted for about two minutes. The first minute was enduring, but the second was pretty bad. We will now point out several bad aspects of the actor’s speech:
The Uhms: People tend to use catch phrases or uhms and ahs, unsounsciously trying to fill in the awkward silence, because they don’t know what they are going to say. The fact is, you can use silence in a very clever way when delivering your speech. Silence is used sort of like an emphasizor of the idea that has previously been announced. Pausing in speech gives your audience a chance to make a hierarchy of everything that has been said so far, it makes them think about the importance of what you’ve said.
The voice: Weak and shaking voice are clear signs of stage fright or nervousness. Here, the actor has a rational reason for it: he was not prepared at all for the speech, plus he is overwhelmed with the fact he has won the Oscar. Being overemotional can manifest in various ways, such as tearing up, being enthusiastic or just strangely distracted and shocked. However, public speaking includes high level of interpersonal qualities, which means controling your emotions. You can show your emotions, especially on an ocassion such as receiving a respectful award, but you should be able to balance yourself out in order to make your words find their way to the audience.
„Where do you go?“: Due to the lack of preparation, the actor stops at one point and asks himself out loud – where do you go? Then he manages to remember a few more names and thanks his mom and dad. It was bad for several reasons. Mostly because you can see that he just wants to get it over with, and therefore his acts of gratitude are not sincere, but cliches in order to fill in the unpleasent silence. Eventually, he says his thanks to Robin, his wife during that time.
The faces in the audience: When giving a public speech, you should keep in mind the feedback. You can check the feedback explicitly (by asking directly: are there any questions, is everything clear?) and implicitly (by watching the non-verbal part of your communication with audience – their faces and body posture). Public speaking has many forms and it is not always suitable for you to ask questions. That’s why you should watch how your audience reacts in order to adjust your speech to them. Are they yawning? Then you are starting to get a bit bored. Are they frowning? Then you stopped making sence and must use analogies in order to clarify your ideas. If you look at the faces of Sean Penn’s colleagues, you can see that they seem confused or uncomfortable. You should blame the way humans are naturally wired for that: we have a biological predisposition for empathy, so basically – seeing Sean Penn struggling on stage made them feel unpleasent.
Keep in mind that the key to succsess is good preparation and that, in order to become an excellent speaker, you have to practice a lot. As Aristotle said: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.