Text vs Style

Great speeches always involve a great message. Personal charisma can help tell that message well, but it is the substance you need to be extraordinary.

We envision great speakers as having amazing podium skills. They do, but what sets them apart is something quieter: the writing of their speech itself.

Look at the canon of great speeches — take, for example, “The Gettysburg Address.” Abraham Lincoln. Charisma? None of that matters today. We quote the speech. We remember,

That these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I can imagine that with Lincoln’s brilliance and imposing stature, he was easy to listen to on a chilly day in Pennsylvania. That’s just my imagination. I have no idea, but it makes sense that a national leader, especially one without a microphone, could give a speech impressively. Still, now, in 2019, we only care about what he said.

How about William Wilberforce and his “Abolition Speech”? He was a famous politician in Britain in the late 1700s, early 1800s, whose religious faith informed his leadership. As such, he fought hard (and effectively) against slavery.

He finishes it with an oft-quoted line,

Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.

We don’t quote his charisma, do we? Slaves aren’t free in modern London because Wilberforce wore a nice suit or spoke with a golden throat.

The person’s style giving the speech does help. That’s why practicing is essential to delivering well. When you raise your voice, how you use your body, how long do you pause between lines — good stuff. But the best delivery only shines the product. The product is still what you are saying, not how you are saying it.

It is that simple: the message, not the speaker, drives the truly evocative, impactful speech. By all means, deliver your best but first, focus on writing something important.

I’m happy to help with those words

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