I heard this story once about Charles Chaplin supposedly calling Mexican actor Cantinflas one of the best comedians alive, even though he couldn’t understand what he said in his movies. Whether this is rooted in reality or in popular myth, I’ve always liked the story and what it implies. Having seen Cantinflas’ movies myself, I can tell you there is no way the British actor could possibly understand the tangled Mexican slang Cantinflas used. But I can also tell you it’s perfectly plausible Chaplin did laugh at the comedian’s performance, which was brought to life by his body as much as it was by his mouth.
I also recall a scene from the movie The King’s Speech, when King George VI and his daughter are watching a clip of Hitler speaking.
Lilibet: Papa, what's he saying?
King George VI: I don't know but... he seems to be saying it rather well.
Both examples, the latter of course a far grimmer one, disclose the amazing power of public speaking: it transcends language, and therefore, the literal meaning of words put together.
A great public speaker has a way of connecting with its audience that goes beyond good grammar and a logical train of thoughts. The intonation of voice, the rhythm and pauses, the body language, are as much a vehicle to convey beliefs or ideas as the words themselves. It is a rare talent to be born with; in fact, quite the opposite: as many great skills, it mostly depends on time, opportunity, and practice to attain them.
Here is my personal selection of amazing speakers I admire. Some of them have passed away now; some of them are alive, and young; some of them are not even real people but fictional characters who have taught me something with an incredible performance. I hope they will inspire you as much as they have inspired me!
Hans Rosling is a Swedish medical doctor, academic, statistician and public speaker. Few people have the ability Rosling has to explain complex sets of data in the simplest way. What amazes me about Hans, other than the fact that he is absolutely brilliant, is that he is so genuinely amazed by what he has to share with his audience! As if every chance he gets to speak in front of somebody is a unique opportunity to change something in them. Most of his conferences are in English which is not his native language, and he has a strong accent that makes every syllable sound like a drum, but that doesn’t diminish by an inch his ability to explain himself. He is also one of the best examples of the importance of sharing valuable content in order to engage with your audience.
The British actress, who’s now the UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador, gave a powerful speech last year on gender inequality. She speaks unapologetically about the stigma around the word “Feminism”; she speaks intelligently and humbly at the same time. I think the reason why her speech is so good is she talks from her own perspective, therefore making it a personal cause. It’s easy to relate to her because she is not making any elaborate abstract rhetoric. She is talking about a problem that affects her, and what she hopes can be done to deal with it. She acknowledges that she is nervous (again, empathy), and at some point close to the end she makes a joke about herself with a stroke of genius in my opinion:
“You might be thinking: who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN. It’s a good question and trust me, I have been asking myself the same thing. I don’t know if I am qualified to be here. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better.”
John F. Kennedy
One of the most beloved American presidents of all time, JFK is also known to have been one of the best public speakers to ever govern the country. As part of his political career, Kennedy gave a significant amount of public speeches, thus becoming a prominent orator. But there’s one in particular that is most appealing to me: "We choose to go to the Moon". Regardless of any political views, and despite the fact that the premise of reaching the moon was inspiring enough by itself, the speech is exciting, inviting and incredibly well constructed. At one point, Kennedy uses a brilliant resource to explain how accelerated humankind has progressed over the last decades by condensing 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of 50 years.
“(...) Condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century (...) Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America's new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight”
How beautiful a metaphor is that! Not only is it used to embellish his speech but it actually serves the purpose of making something hard to grasp, accessible.
Maya Angelou was an American author, poet, actress, and singer (and basically one of the most epic women, ever). Her acting training and her ease of writing gave her a significant advantage when she spoke of course. She had a slow, serene pace; a deep voice that lingered in your head. I’m sharing with you the speech she gave at the funeral of Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King Junior’s wife), but other videos also show her verbal strength. She talks slowly, pausing after each phrase, as if to let people digest every word she has to say.
Martin Luther King Junior
You can’t talk about great public speakers without mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. The humanitarian leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement was one of the best orators of our time. His memorables speeches had an unparalleled might in both content and delivery, and they made him one of America’s greatest intellectual leaders. While many of his public appearances went down in history, “I Have A Dream” is without question his pièce de résistance. I think there were key elements that made it so: The repeated use of the phrase “I have a dream” was crucial in order for people to remember the idea; his preaching style, taken from his practice as a Baptist minister, and suitable for his audience that day; the iconic scenario provided by the Lincoln Memorial; and, of course, the overwhelming promise of his speech that rises to the end like a flag of victory:
"And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
In 2014, American actress Ellen Page publicly recognised being gay during her speech at the Time to Thrive Conference. But her speech was moving not just because of the fact of coming out, but because of the way she built up to acknowledging it during the first half of the speech, and the way she talked about her own struggle afterwards. Her voice is shaky, and her body as well, and this makes you think “damn, not even a talented, beautiful celebrity has it easy coming out”. But at the same time, she looks empowered by the overwhelming support she gets the minute she says the words “I am gay”. Her speech is very personal, and honest, and her vulnerability is her ultimate strength.
Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (movie)
I chose this scene for selfish reasons. The first is I love the movie; the second is that the scene is a turning point in the relationship of the two main characters, thanks to the profound speech Robin Williams delivers so authentically. The third reason is this is not the ordinary, easy-word pep talk that you see by the thousands. This message is tailored to the listener, and that’s why it is touching. A great speech doesn’t require a huge auditorium, or a massive social cause behind it. Two people sitting in a park bench will do.
Summarising, here are a few simple takeaways you can use from these prodigious speakers next time you need to speak in public:
Know your audience, and tailor your message to that specific audience.
The use of pauses is critical. They let your message sink in. Use them.
An anaphora (deliberate repetition of a sentence) can be a powerful resource to be remembered.
Avoid posing. And try not to sound like something other than yourself. Being legit works best every time.
I once read something that went like this: If someone enters the room at the end of your speech and asks: “what is it about?” someone else should be able to answer in one sentence. Even when it sounds obvious, a speech or presentation has to be about something, and that something should be clear.