I have spent a great deal of time over the past two weeks listening to a large number of bad speeches. Few things are more painful for me to endure than an awful, boring or pointless speech — especially if it is a political speech. Few things are more powerfully inspiring than a good one. In our soundbite world, with ever-shrinking attention spans and an ever-increasing reliance on sensory "eye candy," we are losing our ability to influence and be influenced by words.
I have written speeches for a wide range of speakers including politicians, scientists and business leaders. I have delivered more speeches around the world than either I care to count, or my listeners thought they should have had to hear.
A great speech is an experience that leads to a transformation of thought and an elevation of ideas combined with an element of inspiration.
Some speeches are better read than said. Others are more powerful to the ear than to the eye. (And as a side note — Powerpoint slides have done more to damage great oratory than anything in the history of mankind. Nothing gets between an audience and a speaker more obtrusively than a slide deck. I think slides should be banished, but I will save that rant for another day.)
There is no journey more enjoyable than a well-crafted and well-delivered speech. Sadly, such speeches are becoming extinct in business meetings, community events, churches and particularly in the political arena.
Mark Twain once wrote a letter to his wife about a speech he had experienced. "I've just come to my room, Livy darling, I guess this was the memorable night of my life. By George, I never was so stirred since I was born. I heard four speeches which I can never forget … one by that splendid old soul, Col. Bob Ingersoll, — oh, it was just the supremest combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began. … What an organ is human speech when it is played by a master!"
Unfortunately, the path of least resistance for public discourse today is to demonize your opponent and gin up your supporters with passionate but divisive language. This approach creates much heat but little light and keeps us a safe distance from actually solving problems or inspiring solutions.
Words do have meaning, and meaning matters. So too, tone and style are telling, and can often obscure the substance of our words and meaning. Irrespective of party politics, the speeches most often recalled from history are not those of the fiery red-meat rhetoric variety, but are instead reflective, instructive and constructive in both substance and style.
Abraham Lincoln called on our "better angels," John F. Kennedy challenged us to "ask what we can do for our country" and Martin Luther King Jr. invited us to look at "the content of a person's character." Ironically, and tragically, Bobby Kennedy delivered one of the most powerful speeches ever given, standing in the back of a pickup truck, in a hostile environment, from scribbled notes — delivering the news of Dr. King's death, from an authentic point of having lost his brother, President Kennedy, to an assassin's bullet, and then powerfully issuing an inspired call to unity.
The greatest speeches never require shouts, insults, demonization or self-aggrandizement. The best speakers let the words, the principles and the ideas lift the listeners to higher ground. The right speech, based on the right principles, should quicken the heartbeat, heighten the senses and cause the listener to lean in with anticipation.
The greatest compliment I ever received came after I spoke at an event near Seattle. As I left the stage, a gentleman approached me and said, "Thank you for not getting in the way of the message tonight."
In 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most unique and stunning conclusions ever to a political acceptance speech. Just at the climax, when the convention hall was energized and ready to erupt, Reagan pivoted to the need for divine help and guidance on the journey toward a better America. He then asked every citizen to join him in a moment of silent prayer. Instead of ending on a red-meat applause line, Reagan ended with divinely centered silence.
We clearly could use a little more divine silence in our public discourse today. The most transformational speeches are not always the most eloquent, but quite often they are delivered by the most authentic and humble of people.
To influence or be influenced by words, ideas, stories, principles and truth is part of what makes us both human and divine. It is time to re-enthrone superior teaching, civil debate and elevated oratory to the public square.