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  • Writer's pictureDavid Nagai

The Art of a Powerful Speech

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Have you ever wondered why certain people can speak with such power and persuasion?

Do you want to learn how to improve your public speaking so that people are deeply impacted and follow your ideas?

Simon Lancaster gave a TED Talk presentation in Verona, Italy in 2016 about rhetoric, or the art of persuasive language – the art of giving a powerful speech. In this episode, I want to summarize his main tips, examples, and also add some comments. You can watch his 13-minute presentation here.

Here are Lancaster’s six tips for making a great speech along with some of my commentary.

1) Three breathless sentences

Use three sentences or three words that cause people to feel panic or fear. And, do it all in one breath so it sounds urgent. Barack Obama once said, “A world at war, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a generation.” Notice there are three main points. Lancaster says that using three points each time is the key. He says it makes the idea more compelling, convincing, and credible. I think it’s also helpful because it gives enough information but not too much. So, it’s easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to repeat. Shakespeare wrote: Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou, Romeo?

You can sense the passion, right? A modern day example is: reduce, reuse, recycle.

The “Three Rs” are so simple and basic that everyone should be able to remember them.

2) Repeat the opening section / clause

I’m not asking 20 pounds. I’m not asking 15 pounds. I’m not asking 10 pounds. See, then 8 pounds appears very reasonable. Repeating the opening increases the emotion, passion, and authenticity and makes people feel the message more intensely.

3) Balancing statements

To be or not to be? Bill Clinton once said, “There’s nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what’s right with America.” If the sentence sounds balanced, then people naturally assume that the main idea is balanced. It feels balanced and people like balance.

The future, not the past. We’re working together, not against each other. We’re thinking about what we can do, not what we can’t do. So this technique simplifies the complex reality into a simple choice you want your audience to make. It provides simplicity and clarity.

4) Metaphor

Metaphor is very common in speeches and very powerful. Metaphors can pull people in, or push people away. They can attract or repel, or cause people to be disgusted. And I would add to this that our intonation or tone of voice can emphasize the negative ideas or positive ideas. We are attracted by metaphors of beauty, love, and sunshine. We are disgusted by negative words, scary monsters, sickness, and storms. Research shows that a change in metaphor can influence politics, business, and much more. Foreigners or outsiders have been described as dangerous “snakes” (by Hitler) and “cockroaches” (by Rwanda’s Hutus against the Tutsis). When people describe an economic crisis as a financial storm, it makes it sound like part of nature instead of the result of greedy bankers, politicians, or corporations. It makes it sound like we just have to let nature run its course and adapt as humans.

The Catholic Pope Francis once said: The dung heap of capitalism.

Here, “dung heap” means a pile of waste, poop, feces, crap, or shit. He wants to clean up a messy, shitty, disgusting system. He makes an impact because it’s disgusting, easy to imagine, and a little bit funny.

So metaphor can be powerful because people can imagine it right away, especially if it is clear, common to every human being, disgusting, or funny.

5) Exaggeration

Lancaster didn’t spend much time on this one at all so I won’t share much about it. But I guess the main point is that if you exaggerate something and you can get people to feel the emotion then they will pay closer attention and consider your topic important.

6) Rhyme

Research shows that people are more likely to believe things that are rhymed. It feels nice, it sounds true, and it’s memorable.

We learn rhymes as children. It’s easy to remember and copy.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

I would add that alliteration and rhythm also can be useful. Alliteration is when two or more words start with the same letter. We saw this with “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Or, take a story title like “The Big Bad Wolf,” which contains only words with one syllable each.

So, we’ve learned Lancaster’s six tips for making a compelling speech. But what’s the main takeaway from his presentation?

First, the way you choose your words can have a great impact beyond what you can imagine. But it’s not only the words you choose, but also your tone of voice and how you deliver those words.

Second, don’t always trust public speakers who use these techniques. Because they might sound smart, trustworthy, and confident, but are actually just using speech techniques to persuade you to buy their product or believe their idea which is actually not true, exaggerated, or stupid. If English is not your native language, then be careful not to be persuaded by a presenter who only sounds smart because they speak native English.

So, be careful what words you use and how you use them. And, be careful who you believe.

Next time you feel inspired by someone’s words, just ask yourself this question: Was it just their words and delivery that were inspiring or was it their actual idea?


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