What Makes a Good Speech (And What Doesn’t)

What Makes a Good Speech (And What Doesn’t)

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Two weeks ago, the verdict on the Sasikala corruption case surfaced. I have no idea what it’s about, since I don’t follow politics much. But being on the fringe of hearing about interesting law news and having a fascination for the English language, I picked up rumblings from the literary forests about the unique 570 page Supreme Court verdict.

Basically SC Justice Amativa Roy tries harder than a 9th grade me at using Thesaurus.com to pretend he knows the English language. I have no doubt that he does, but see the result for yourself:

A growing impression in contemporary existence seems to acknowledge, the all pervading pestilent presence of corruption almost in every walk of life, as if to rest reconciled to the octopoid stranglehold of this malaise with helpless awe. The common day experiences indeed do introduce one with unfailing regularity, the variegated cancerous concoctions of corruption with fearless impunity gnawing into the frame and fabric of the nation’s essentia. Emboldened by the lucrative yields of such malignant materialism, the perpetrators of this malady have tightened their noose on the societal psyche. Individual and collective pursuits with curative interventions at all levels are thus indispensable to deliver the civil order from the asphyxiating snare of this escalating venality.

That was a bad bit of writing

Immediately after copy-pasting that my Yoast SEO Readability Index dropped to 0. “Readability: Needs improvement” it says. There’s actually some grade-A alliteration here, along with some almost brilliantly placed invented words. There’s 7 other paragraphs like this that Justice Amitava Roy has chosen to include in the final pieces of the Sasikala verdict. It’s a whole lot of language just to prove the same point, which is that corruption is a problem and the person involved in this corruption is bad.

Let me contrast the Sasikala verdict with some examples of what I think are good, impressionable pieces of writing or oration. For this I’ll invoke one of the more famous speeches from the current most powerful man in the world.

Many Americans must wonder why our politicians seem more interested in defending the borders of foreign countries than their own.

Americans must know that we are putting the American people first again. On trade, on immigration, on foreign policy – the jobs, incomes and security of the American worker will always be my first priority.

No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must do the same.

We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism.

The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down, and will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.

Donald Trump’s stoic simplicity juxtaposed with Amitava Roy’s concave complexity is startling. Here’s a man who won the Presidency by dumbing language down to obscene levels; literally that of a fifth grader. The message is clear and pronounced. Globalism will be defeated. ‘Murica!

Be simple, but not Trump-level simple

I have no doubt in my mind that Trump’s foreign policy speech will go down as a significant one in the annals of history. For better or for worse, only time will tell. But the words themselves mean something. “The false song of globalism” is a phrase that rings in your ears for the first time, and the more you say it to yourself, the more you want to look into the rest of the message. That’s one of the key aspects of a good speech – having an engaging hook.

Write it like a writer, speak it like not-a-writer

Good speeches aren’t just delivered through audio and video, they’re delivered through text. If a piece doesn’t work on text it usually won’t work in front of an audience. Most people use the same intonation in text as they do in spoken word, depending on who they’re reading. You would read a paragraph you knew was written by Benedict Cumberbatch in his voice. So it would be weird if the words in Benedict’s speech were written to sound like something Donald Trump would say.

Some inspiration from the bard

There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That’s one of Macbeth’s more famous soliloquies. It’s a pretty good speech too. People remember it over 500 years later. There’s fascinating symbolism through Shakespeare’s oft mentioned life and stage metaphor. If you heard someone who wasn’t a total idiot say this in real life you’d actually appreciate it, because a man moaning about disilluminating a candle is exactly what you’d want in a speech.

Don’t be a Shakespeare

I’m not saying Shakespeare would work in a speech given later than 1606. It wouldn’t. The intonation and delivery of the content is what matters the most, but the sound of the words is what matters second. Using literary tools like alliteration, or coming up with some interesting themes and metaphors goes a long way.

A short summary of what makes a good speech:

  1. Keep it simple, but not stupid. The complexity of your sentences should be somewhere between the fifth Harry Potter book and the monkey from Dora the Explorer.
  2. There’s no rhyme or reason when it comes to making people think you just said something smart. If you can be confident about it, say it.
  3. A good speech should have a good hook, ie. a moment that makes you go “damn, dis guy smart.” Reagan did it with the “Tear Down this Wall” speech. Churchill did it with the “finest hour” speech. Narendra Modi does it every time he says the word “mitron.”
Follow Upamanyu Acharya:

Upamanyu Acharya is a writer who doesn't write. Sometimes he's an artist, musician, photographer, physicist or lazy student. His hobbies include being vague, bending rules, time-travel, and embellishment of words. This is his personal blog where he writes on topics ranging from leadership skills to the consistency of jam.

2 Responses

  1. C M Sharma

    Good thought Upamanyu

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