It was an electric moment for Alabama last night, and for the country. Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in an election for a seat in the U.S. Senate, an election that had broad implications for the state of Alabama and for the country at large.
I’d like to focus on his victory speech. It would have been easy for Senator Jones to surf the adrenaline of the moment, and disregard good public speaking technique, but he didn’t do that. He spoke with intention, structure, and purpose. Here are three things that rock about this speech:
It’s selfless – unlike Donald Trump, Doug Jones wasn’t quick to take credit for his victory. He rightly laid the victory at the feet of the people of Alabama. Nothing unifies an audience more than selflessness.
It uses southern myth brilliantly – After giving the victory over to the people of Alabama, Jones credits them for taking the right road at “the crossroads”. “The Crossroads” is a common motif in the music of the deep south, evoking memories of a hodgepodge of southern people and events: Robert Johnson, the Civil Rights Movement, the Alabama Bus Boycott, Segregation, etc, etc. But it’s bluesman Robert Johnson who owns the most common iteration of this myth; the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar. Every man, woman and child from Alabama, and many people from other parts of the country will immediately understand the allusion, and likely feel thrilled to be walking in Johnson’s footsteps.
It uses southern myth brilliantly part two – I don’t think you can be a Democrat giving a major political speech in Alabama without quoting Martin Luther King Jr, but the question is, which quote? I’ll admit when Doug Jones trotted out the “the moral arc of the universe” quote from King’s 1964 speech at Wesleyan University, I was a little weary. It is a quote that is often overused. But it really is the best quote for this moment. This race had everything to do with morality and doing what is right. The Doug Jones moment, for so many reasons, is personified by Martin Luther King Jr, a man who fought against the establishment in the name of dignity, grace and human rights.
Again, it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment during these big emotional speeches and lose track of what you are saying, It’s very important to remember the importance of structure, allegory, and symbolism when you speak. I hope Doug Jones will remember this when he runs for president in 2020.
It all started out so well. She was firing on all cylinders; strong voice, good eye contact, inspired writing with a personal touch, a couple of good self-deprecating jokes. However, Theresa May, giving a conference speech aimed at revitalizing her standing after a disastrous few months, found herself seriously derailed when a heckler handed her a “P45” form which is the British equivalent of a “pink slip”. What went wrong?
My feeling is she didn’t handle this guy quickly and firmly enough. Let’s see some fire, Theresa! This heckler is making a mockery of you in public, and stealing a crucial moment from you (not to mention creating a major security risk). Maybe say something like, “you may think the problems of income inequality, affordable housing, and the sinking pound are laughable, but I assure you I do not. Get off my stage, young man.” Instead, Prime Minister May takes the P45 when it is handed to her, as if she is obligated to do so, and tries to continue as if nothing has happened. After a moment or two, she makes a nice joke, and hits back a bit, but not before her momentum is lost.
What do you think is the best way to handle a heckler?
It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.
As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.
I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.
Every once in a blue moon, a speaker does everything right. Such is the case with Rita Pierson’s gem of a speech on the need for school reform. She has a powerful, expressive voice and an actress’ touch with language. She utilizes gesture effectively, effortlessly timing her movements with her content. But what works best in this speech are the stories. Well told stories are the lifebloodof any good speech.
I’d like to call attention to the way she builds her stories. Her initial stories are about her students, and the way she interacts with them, but the most powerful story, the story of her mother’s impact on the lives of her students, comes at the end of her speech, just before her call to action. With each story, she takes us deeper into both her thesis, andher own emotional life. The speech builds both intellectually and emotionally. Just beautiful.
I recently poised the question, “is it possible to speak too slow while presenting“? My answer was “no”, but Brian Little’s pace of speaking would challenge that assumption. I think he picks up the pace adequately around the middle of his TED Talk, but I found my mind wandering off at the beginning. This is because he is speaking just a bittoo slowly, and because he doesn’t have a good story up front in order to attract the audience’s attention.
This changes dramatically half way through the speech. At about the ten minute mark, we get a series of wonderful, hilarious stories, starting with this gem, and the speech really comes to life. Its amazing how a few small changes can lift a speech from good to great. When it comes to presenting, the devil is in the details.