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19th October 2016

Public Speaking Tips: Speak like Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill

Public speaking can be daunting for even the most seasoned professional – whether you’re writing your first keynote speech or trying to put a new spin on an old favourite, it pays to have a few tricks up your sleeve. One of the best ways to find public speaking tips is to look at great public speakers and emulate their style. 

Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill gave arguably two of the most-cited speeches in history. Using the right rhetorical devices and structure helped to make these speeches both memorable and evocative.

Martin Luther King

‘I have a dream’ is one of the world’s most quoted and memorable speeches. While King’s passion is inimitable, the rhetorical devices he used are actually quite simple and well known. Here are just a few:

Anaphora: this is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence or phrase. King repeated ‘I have a dream’ throughout his speech, giving the words structure and bringing people back to the core idea over and over again.

Alliteration: this is the repetition of particular sounds, for example in King’s speech he says ‘rise from the dark and desolate…the marvellous new militancy… trials and tribulations’.

A lot of common phrases are actually based around alliteration, which makes them easy to memorise. It’s easy to overdo but selective alliteration makes certain parts of your speech stand out.

Allusion: creating emotive references within your speech can ‘borrow’ emotion and positive/negative association from well-known events or characters.

Everything – including your speech – happens in context, rooting your speech in that context can make your words more real.

King’s speech wasn’t just in the script but the delivery – while he had notes prepared he did not read his entire speech from them. In fact, he improvised a lot of the speech on the spot.

Speaking from notes often makes the speaker seem detached or even robotic; memorising your key points and practising your speech is the key to smooth, natural delivery that connects with your audience.

Winston Churchill

In just over 2 minutes, Winston Churchill rallied the British people and faced the grim reality that the Nazis could invade. 

Churchill used a number of well-known rhetorical devices throughout his speeches preceding and during WWII:

Litotes: otherwise known as deliberate understatement. Phrases such as ‘business carried on as usual during alterations on the map of Europe’ both showed a hardened approach and renowned British humour. Understatement can feel more natural to some speakers, and can be used to great effect to calm difficult situations and create contrast.

Antimetabole: like many effective rhetorical devices this uses repetition, but changes the order. ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

Antimetabole can be used to contradict established wisdom or cast situations in a different light.

Epizeuxis: emphatic repetition can build a list to a crescendo and force your point home.

Churchill’s style was almost the opposite to Martin Luther King, using dry humour and understatement to make his speech more authentic to himself and the British people. One of the most important aspects of being a good public speaker is finding your own voice and speaking in a way that feels natural.

He is also known for the brevity of some of his most powerful speeches – if your point can be made in 5 minutes rather than 20, it’s important to avoid filler and waffle if you want to make an impact. This too will help your public speaking feel authentic to your own style and personality.

Central Hall Westminster was honoured to receive both Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill as speakers, as well as other historical figures such as the Dalai Lama and Ghandi. If you are preparing your keynote for an event at Central Hall Westminster you will not only be sharing rhetorical devices with these great men, but a venue as well.  

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