W hen I’m not writing speeches or other executive communiqués for my clients, I’m writing poetry. Two very different activities – you might think. But great speeches and great poems have more in common than meets the eye.
Recently I was listening to a colleague, Pete Weissman, describe tools that add color to a speech – they included rhyme, alliteration, parallel construction, metaphor, anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more successive sentences), epistrophe (repetition of a word or phrase at the end of two or more successive sentences), contrast, and echo (a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases). To that list I add imagery – words that appeal to our senses, evoke emotion, and can transport us to a place, time, and experience.
Then it hit me. These elements of great speeches also appear in poetry. Poems are meant to stir emotion, present subjects in different lights, draw back a curtain. Our ancestors knew that poems — especially spoken aloud — could change us by imparting vital wisdom. I’m not suggesting that you recite poetry in your speeches (though sometimes this, too, can be a powerful tool), but you must use language that captures attention — as all of the above tools will do — and above all, you must communicate what has heart and meaning.
Do you know that most people retain only 7% of the content of a speech? But they may recall 38% of its heart (most of us, even if we weren’t there, recall “I have a dream” from Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech). And 55% of us recall a speech’s images. When the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, speechwriter Peggy Noonan in a speech for President Ronald Reagan replaced the image of the explosion being shown on all major TV networks with the image of the astronauts as heroes walking toward the shuttle that morning. In that way she repositioned the disaster as a farewell, giving people the gift of a positive image to cherish. When President Kennedy in his inaugural address implored Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” he used anaphora, echo, and heart, appealing to his countrymen’s noblest instincts, a message Americans were eager to hear.
More often than not at cocktail parties, I hear, “Poetry, I want to like it, but I don’t really understand it.” Indeed, poetry is often called the language of the soul. It is a bit mysterious — but by incorporating its elements into your speech, you will capture and stir your audience — just what a world-class speech needs to do.