Slowly, clearly, meaningfully

I made a speech on Saturday, and afterwards a member of the audience, who had never heard me speak before, told me that he had never seen anything like it.  That’s always nice to hear, but why did he react in this way?

It wasn’t anything particularly original that I said, and it wasn’t my usual impactful visuals because there were no visuals. It was all about the way I delivered the speech. For me this was normal, but when I reflected on the speakers who had preceded me, I understood that it must have been a little different.

The main point was that my speech was much slower than anybody else’s. I weighed my words, spoke them clearly and quite loudly (no microphones – not a very large room but large enough to need to project your voice, which some others failed to do), and most importantly, gave meaning to what I was saying via suitable pauses, accentuating certain words, and bringing some emotion into it.

This particular member of the audience told me that it showed the difference between speaking and communicating. I told him that he had hit the nail on the head – I couldn’t have expressed it better myself. I also told him that I am not especially gifted – anyone can learn to communicate effectively, and part of my mission is to help people to learn that skill.

I was looking through Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech yesterday, and tried to recreate the first three minutes of this monument of oratory, using various styles.  I tried reading the transcript normally and clearly (1:40), extremely quickly like a horse-racing commentator (0:55), and slowly, clearly and meaningfully as I did on Saturday (2:25).  Even at my best, I still took thirty seconds less than MLK over the same words (and there were only about five seconds of applause in those three minutes, so that’s not the reason).

Therefore remember this next time you get up to speak: it is not a race, and the more slowly, clearly and meaningfully you speak, the more your audience will respect you as a speaker, and remember your messages. If that approach is good enough for a great orator like Dr King, it’s good enough for all of us.

Why don’t you try this?  See how long it takes you to read the following text, and then watch Dr King.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”


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