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.
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.
One of the trickiest parts of crafting a speech is figuring out how to start it. Some recommend launching into a story, others recommend letting the audience know where you are heading with the speech, and others suggest using a startling statistic or fact. I don’t think there is a “right” way to start a speech, but there are a few things that matter. An opener should be short, and create an immediate impact on the audience; a laugh, a giggle, a sigh, a gasp, etc. Here are a few great speech openers from some recent TED Talks:
1) Monica Lewinsky – Ms. Lewinsky is one of my favorite speakers. I really love this TED Talk. It’s chock full of courage, wit, pathos, and great storytelling. She starts the speech with a hilarious, BRIEF story about a young man who tries to pick her up at a bar. Check it out to hear his pick up line…
Needless to say, humor is one of the best ways to open a speech. If you can get the audience laughing at the top, they will be more receptive to your ideas. What makes this opener so brilliant is the way Mrs. Lewinsky manages to get a laugh out of a terribly painful and embarrassing moment in her life.
2) David Miliband – One powerful way to open a speech is to tell a story, but the type of story you tell matters. In an opener, you need to keep things brief, and personal. Watch the way Mr. Miliband uses his family heritage to make a startling point about immigration:
3) Anne Lamott – I think this opener is both subtle and startling. What’s subtle about it is Ms. Lamott’s delivery, which is pleasing, but subdued. What’s somewhat startling about it is the way she talks about her grandson’s nightmares. Openers can incorporate paradox:
So what are your favorite openers? Post here or at my twitter.
One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing. “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot. I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting. Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech. Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush. But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting. Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:
Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:
Interesting comparison on a number of fronts. I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech. Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts. The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.
I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly. I couldn’t find one. So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting. What do you think? Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.