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Catching the echo: why do some speeches live on?

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. Consider such seeming details as the repetition of the word "peace" in the first quoted sentence. In a modern business context the conventional executive speaker might say, "We aim for profits, but there aren't any." How immeasurably more powerful, and memorable, to say something along the lines of "We strive for profits, profits -- but there are no profits!"

Consider the use of rhetorical questions -- a technique that wouldn't even occur to someone writing for a print publication. The goal in public speaking is to involve the audience, and how better to involve listeners than by challenging them with questions?

Consider, too, the mixture of short and longer sentences, producing added dramatic clout. "Is life so dear (etc.) ..." then "Forbid it, Almighty God!" Wham!

Rare indeed are the opportunities most of us get to craft truly important speeches, conveying "life or death" messages. But even our most humdrum and mundane business luncheon remarks can benefit from lessons embedded in history's great, galvanizing orations. Mark Anthony's funeral oration in "Julius Caesar" by William Shakespeare can teach us much about effective speech-making.

First it teaches that a great speech has a clear objective and achieves it. Anthony's object was to start a revolution against the powerful Romans who had murdered his friend.

The theatre audience learns Anthony's intent when in a soliloquy he promises his speech will "let slip the dogs of war." The audience in the Roman forum sees Anthony's purpose unfold gradually. They begin by shouting that Caesar was a tyrant, but finally the speech inspires them to "fire the traitors' houses."

The second lesson shows us how data should support ideas. Without stating them openly, Anthony makes two points. One, Caesar was not ambitious, which he supports with examples, including the vivid recent instance where Caesar had three times refused to be king. Two, Caesar should be revenged, which Anthony supports with visual aid -- Caesar's will, his bloody cloak and his body.

Third, Anthony makes the speech personal; in classical terms he uses ethos to persuade. He says:

"I am here to speak what I do know."

"I am no orator [but] a plain blunt man."

"You all know this mantle. I remember [t]he first time Caesar put it on."

Fourth, the language. A dozen rhetorical questions. The rhythm and the images: "You are not wood, you are not stones, but men." And the irony: "For Brutus is an honorable man."

William Shakespeare proves to be a superior ghostwriter as well as poet and playwright.

U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's 1962 farewell speech at the U.S. West Point Military Academy is first of all audience-centered. Although his speech is a fond, personal farewell to an institution he loved and admired, and an expression of values that guided his 50-year career, MacArthur had the good speaking sense to remember who he was talking to. Every aspect of his remarks has something for members of the corps of cadets he addresses.

The speech is tightly structured and unified on the theme of duty-honor-country. Relying on superb dramatic skills, and -- at age 82 -- a commanding presence and still resonant, authoritative voice, MacArthur delivered his remarks without script or notes.

Included in the roughly 1,900 words are matchless examples of speechwriting devices and techniques. For example, seldom has the versatility of the triad or "rule of three" been more ably demonstrated than in the third paragraph of the speech in which MacArthur expresses the moral code of the U.S soldier.

The dignity and authority of the passage flow from his selection of untarnishable words like honor, courage, faith, hope, eloquence, and brilliance as well as his use of five triads.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes excerpts of selected speeches
Author:Ragan, Lawrence
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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