Paul's Column: what makes a brilliant speech?

21 November 2017

Last week we marked the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King being awarded an honorary degree by Newcastle University, the only British university to do so during his lifetime.

King was one of the 20th century’s finest public speakers.  His, ‘I have a dream’ speech is his most famous but others such as, ‘Our God is marching on!’ are equally electrifying.

What makes a brilliant speech?  Over the years I’ve developed a particular interest in the techniques of public speaking.  I’ve looked back at the great speeches of the past, King’s included, and have deconstructed them with a view to distilling out the tricks and devices, the ‘clap-trap’ to use the technical word, that helps turn a good speech (usually built around interesting content) into a great speech (interesting content plus rhetorical devices).

As an MEP I’ve deployed ‘clap-trap’ from time to time in an attempt to induce support or applause from an audience but context is also important.  It’s hard to give a stirring speech on a wet Wednesday afternoon to an all but empty hall.  It is much easier if the room is packed, there aren’t enough chairs for everyone and the matter in hand is both topical and contentious.

Some years back while Head of Campaigns at Christian Aid I was looking forward expectantly to what I thought had the potential to be ‘the speech of my life’.  It was in the first few weeks of the new coalition government and we’d booked Westminster Central Hall for a supporter rally prior to lobbying the new Parliament on the issues of tax justice and climate change.  The good news was we had persuaded the Rev Jesse Jackson, a former member of King’s staff and a noted speaker in his own right, to address the assembled and I was the warm up act.

In the weeks prior I drafted and redrafted my ten minute speech over and over again.  Copies were shown to friends, improvements made and I practiced it out loud repeatedly.

Finally the big day came.  Jackson had flown in from the States and the stage was set.  The turnout was promising, the hall was almost full and there was an air of expectation.  What could go wrong?

My speech delivery and timing went well.  I paused in the right places and worked my way through some carefully crafted lists of three and contrasting pairs – the staple components of a speech resonant with ‘clap-trap’.

But something was wrong, I wasn’t connecting with the audience, they were distracted.

What I was unaware of at the time, but was told later, was that Jackson, seated behind me, had a heavy cold and had taken some fairly hefty medication to deal with it.  This was compounded by jet lag and as a result he kept dozing off.  As he slowly slumped forwarded he would wake himself up, only to doze off again this time slowly falling in a different direction until he woke himself just in time to prevent himself from falling off his seat.  This sight understandably proved to be of greater fascination to the audience than my speech and so I was done for.

The European Parliament oddly doesn’t lend itself to fine speeches.  Pause a moment.  If you were asked to address a room would you turn your back on the audience, then speak?  Clearly not, eye contact is a key component of a good speech and how can you read your audience if you have your back to them?

Yet, in the European Parliament we sit in a hemi-cycle facing the speaker at the top table and three or four functionaries.  Our fellow MEPs are either mainly behind us, if you sit near the front, or, if you sit more towards the back, mainly in front of us but crucially with their backs to the speaker. Tricky.

This contrasts somewhat with the Westminster Parliament where the government benches face the opposition benches meaning that approximately 50% of those in the House are facing you when you speak.  Much better.

Meanwhile I’ve decided my best speeches are yet to come, I just need a new job come March 2019.  Any suggestions?

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