The essence of the memorable speech

03 January 2017 -


The best speeches come from deep within, says the creator of House of Cards

Matthew Rock

May 1979. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Her speech, featuring St Francis of Assisi’s famous line “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”, would go down in British political history.

Michael Dobbs was there that day, a junior spin doctor in Thatcher’s ranks. He later drew on his experiences in government to write House of Cards, the biggest political blockbuster in history.

For Dobbs, Thatcher’s words that day didn’t ring true: “Margaret wasn’t a harmonious politician, she wasn’t a compromiser; she was a confrontationalist by commitment.”

At some point in our career, we’ll all have to make a big speech. There may be hundreds in the audience or just a handful. But it will be a moment when we’ve got to strike the right note.

The greatest speeches mix passion and an ability to capture the moment, says Dobbs, who spoke to Professional Manager not long after the UK’s historic Brexit vote, when launching season 4 of House of Cards on Blu-ray and DVD. (Incidentally, Dobbs despaired at the inability of any major political leader to convey the issues at stake.)

For Dobbs, one of the best recent political speeches was David Cameron’s pitch to become Conservative party leader in 2005. By giving his speech without notes, Cameron showed how seriously he took his audience. “He seemed to rise above the rest.”

Within five years, he was prime minister.

A great speech needn’t be long, says Dobbs. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was just over two minutes long. Watch Hilary Benn’s speech calling for British aircraft to be deployed in bombing ISIS and it’s over before it’s begun.

“Where do the great speeches come from?” asks Dobbs. “They’re more than just bits of policy; they’re actually about something that reaches deep down inside the politician and reaches out across barriers and individuals.”

It’s all too easy to scoff at today’s oratory and compare it unfavourably with that of, say, Winston Churchill. But Simon Lancaster, who’s written speeches for government ministers and CEOs, is impressed by the current political crop. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is criticised for being long-winded, but his leadership campaign started off in small halls and ended up in sell-out theatres. He must be doing something right, says Lancaster.

And he describes Theresa May’s 2014 speech to the Police Federation as the “bravest political speech since Neil Kinnock took on the militant tendency” at Labour’s 1985 party conference.

It is possible to learn to deliver great speeches, says Lancaster. His ‘Speak like a leader’ TEDx Talk outlines the ancient rhetorical devices that still underpin the best oratory: a breathless start to grab your audience’s attention; repetition in threes (“education, education, education”); metaphors to breathe life into your subject; exaggeration to communicate your passion; and rhyme to cement your memorable phrases.

But, even for a seasoned speechwriter such as Lancaster, there’s one simple test of whether your speech has worked: “Has it left the audience feeling how I wanted them to?”

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