Lesley Vos 1 May 2023 6 min reads
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy…
Everyone knows these names today. And while most people remember them for their political, cultural, and other inputs to humankind's heritage, public speakers appreciate these people as deliverers of some of the most powerful speeches that have shaped history.
Public speaking specialists have been studying and admiring these speeches for years, aiming to extract a set of actionable writing techniques from them to use in their own public talks.
And here comes the challenge:
There are no official parameters defining a successful speech. Some are rich with storytelling and fascinating language patterns, while others are brief and to the point. The filigree combination of arguments, images and ideas is pivotal to mastery: It ensures the undeniable impact the speech will have on the audience.
In this post, we've gathered the seven secrets of powerful speeches based on the public performances of famous historical figures. Feel free to use it for inspiration or as a practical toolkit to use in speechwriting for engaging and motivating your audience.
1) Power Words
A must-have for a successful speech to be engaging and memorable, power words are emotional lexical items packed with persuasion. They are active (verbs) and descriptive to trigger an emotional response from the audience. This response can be either positive (encouragement, safety, curiosity) or negative (fear, anger, greed).
When listening to a speech filled with active and descriptive words, the audience feels encouraged to take action.
Given the effect power words have, no wonder they are the instrument of all men of pen: fiction writers, sales copywriters, freelance writers, and marketers use them to spice up their content and evoke the desired reaction from the target audience.
Here's how Margaret Thatcher juggled with power words in her speech, The Lady's Not For Turning:
For more information on power words and how speakers use them to persuade their audiences, please read this article at SpeakerHub.
Power words are also those with sensory details: They are more memorable than ordinary words because they activate the part of the brain responsible for visual thinking, making us process them faster than other lexical items.
Sensory words are descriptive adjectives to include in speech for the audience to activate their five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch) and "feel" the message a speaker communicates.
Examples, from Henneke Duistermaat’s article explaining the nature of sensory words:
Sight words: gloomy, bright, foggy,
Smell words: zesty, tantalizing, stinky
Hearing words: crash, thumping, piercing(Video) Chinese President Xi Jinping confronts Justin Trudeau at G20 | USA TODAY #Shorts
Touch words: creepy, sticky, fluff
Chiasmus is a literary technique that is super popular among speechwriters because of its convincing nature. You craft a two-part sentence where the second part is a reversal of the first.
Political speeches often use this technique: It's a surefire way to enhance your message.
Let's take John F. Kennedy as an example:
Chiasmus is not only about reversing the same words but also about reversing concepts and ideas to create a "wow" effect that makes a speech more memorable.
Repetition is a powerful writing technique to create and hold a desired atmosphere and communicate a specific context to the audience.
It's easy to use: Repeat words and phrases to help the audience to take in what you're saying. According to some political speechwriters, you need to say a word on average five times before it starts influencing people.
Types of repetitions are many: epizeuxis, epistrophe, anaphora, anadiplosis, and polyptoton. But the point remains the same: You repeat particular words, phrases, or sentence parts to emphasize the message and make the audience remember it.
Thus, epizeuxis is about repeating simple words within one sentence. Like Winston Churchill did:
Or, let's take anaphora, a repetition of a word or a phrase at the beginning of sentences. Common for poetry, it helps write powerful speeches because it provokes an emotional response.
A primary example is Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream:
Important! Do your best to find the right word/phrase balance; otherwise, you'll sound like a parrot.
4) Asyndeton and Polysyndeton
These are simple yet powerful writing techniques to create rhythm in your speech and focus the audience's attention on a particular concept or idea.
Both relate to crafting complex sentences:
Asyndeton is a trick of leaving out conjunctions from sentences.
Polysyndeton is a trick of adding frequent conjunctions to sentences.
Both are also perfect for podcasts when a speaker wants to get the listener's attention back or emphasize a particular idea.
Back to Martin Luther King. Here's how polysyndeton looks in his speech:
And here's asyndeton from Winston Churchill (We Shall Fight on the Beaches, 1940). No conjunctions between clauses; power words (shall, fight, confidence, strength, defend, never, surrender) and repetition (we shall) are also here:
Writers know this technique as The Rule of Three:
Group three words, phrases, or ideas together to make your message more engaging and memorable.
It's about psychology: The brain reacts to the number three best because it can easily be held in short-term memory and has more capacity for emphasis than two. Three is the lowest figure to create patterns in mind, so a sequence of three has a powerful effect on communication.
Tripling in speeches can be an instrument to earn the audience's trust and get social proof from them. It creates a sense of rhythm and adds stress to a statement.
Today, speakers continue to actively use tripling in their speeches. Here is an example from Sergiy Kyslytsya's speech at the UN in 2022.
6) Rhetorical Questions
A rhetorical question is one we ask to make a point or initiate some dramatic effect rather than to elicit an answer from the audience.
It's the fact that rhetorical questions are not seeking answers that makes them so compelling, engaging, and persuasive. They force the audience to think, evoke emotions by putting them in a particular situation, and help a speaker emphasize a specific point.
Here's an example from Elizabeth Gilbert's Your Elusive Creative Genius: