The art of rhetoric is full of rules and wisdom. Going as far back as Aristotle and Cicero, a whole corpus of literature has built up around how best to make your point. Speechwriters pour over the rule of threes, of rhythm or repetition. Rhetoric is not a science – but it has all the trappings of one.
In truth, however, the best speeches all have some fairly basic elements in common. Without some of these fundamental building blocks, no speechwriting – however sophisticated – will be able to make a point well. To turn a phrase effectively is certainly a skill, but speaking is ultimately about communicating – and we all do that every day.
One of the key ways for any speaker is to engage with their audience, and form a bond with them. In order to achieve this, it’s necessary to give a little of yourself. The very worst speeches – and, alas, the very worst speakers – are those who seem unable to reveal anything personal. No amount of figures and facts, or rhetorical devices, will make up for the absence of this human factor.
That’s why it’s so important to personalise your pitch. By this I mean add a dimension to your speech that renders your general argument more particular. You may be selling a product or persuading an audience that an idea is a good one. You might be informing them of new research or giving a project report. Whatever it is, personalise the topic.
A good speech makes its content matter by rooting it in everyday experiences. For example, why do you think your idea is a good one? When did you first encounter this particular product or service? Tell that story, help your audience understand you. If you form that sort of bond with them, they’ll listen and learn – which is your ultimate aim.
TED Talks are excellent for watching this in action. Take this speech about the refugee crisis by David Miliband: right at the top of the speech, he emphasises that his own mother and father were refugees . He says that his job at the International Rescue Committee makes the issue of refugee rights personal for him. Likewise, in this talk by Sinéad Burke, the audience is made to think about design from her perspective, personalising her theme of inclusivity.
Both of those are powerful speeches – and it’s not only because they’ve been written by experts. It’s because both speakers make their pitch personal. In so doing, they make their audience care – and you don’t need Cicero to understand how valuable that can be.