Soaring Speeches for the Busy Professional: Secrets from a Trial Lawyer.

Busy professionals sometimes forget what every trial lawyer in America knows – that great speeches can come from ordinary people. It’s not the charismatic speaker who delivers soaring speeches or best-selling presentations. It’s those who deliver powerful words and speeches who come across as charismatic and move ahead.

I’m a trial lawyer. Words, and words alone, are my trade. I spend my hours in the courtroom, speaking to judges and juries whom I’ve never met before and never will again, and I convince them with my words. Because if I don’t (and the other trial lawyer gives a better speech), I lose.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking to improve your speeches, and that’s an incredibly important goal. Effective speaking and great oratory are not talents to be inherited, but skills to be learned. And you can learn them. Whether you’re a busy professional tasked with a last-minute presentation, or a maid of honor with the wedding two weeks away, or a parent trying to change the curriculum – we are all speechmakers with lots to win, and lots to lose. You’d be surprised about how much time most spend picking out the perfect suit or dress for a meeting, and how little time they spend figuring out what to say (which is the only part that really matters)! With just a little time spent, you can dramatically improve your speaking skills.

The Power of Echo

One very simple technique you can use to make your speeches sparkle a bit more is the echo. This basically means that you repeat a specific phrase or a word again and again, and so essentially build your argument brick-by-brick. Take a relatively plain passage from a typical (and typically boring) wedding toast such as the following (made-up):

Fred’s a great and caring guy. I’ve known him since freshman year in college. Our circle of friends counted him as the hub because he would always also make sure everyone had a great time and he always found out about all the parties. When my sister tragically passed away, Fred was there for me. He made me food for a week, even paid my bills. Over time, as he left for NYC to work as a banker, and I was a lawyer in Chicago, he would keep in touch even though he was so busy. At some point, he began mentioning this woman, Muriel. And now, I’m so happy to see him marrying her [or whatever].

Ok – how do you turn this passage into something better through the power of echo? Fred’s a great guy, so how do you do him justice? How about:

Fred has been my friend when I’ve been up – in college, he pulled us to every cool party on campus. Fred has been my friend when I’ve been down – when my sister passed away, he made me food for a week and paid my bills. Fred has been my friend when I’ve been far away, and he’s been my friend when I’ve been nearby.

In this revised passage, the phrase “Fred has been my friend when” is repeated to lead into unrelated stories about him – and because you repeat that phrase with such different variations, it not only sounds better, but also adds to your overall message that Fred really has been a friend to you through it all. Cheers!

This is a pretty common but effective technique, and has been used even in the Declaration of Independence, when our Founding Fathers took issue with King George III as follows:

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. … He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

The “he has” construction echoes throughout and the long list of accusations is very effective – each is like another count in a long indictment against King George III.

Finally, today I attended the Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama, one of the greatest speakers of our time. As crowds of people flocked, freezing, around the National Mall and the Jumbotrons, they heard his remarks, and the echoing technique:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

For a president who has spent his first term in office talking about prosperity as a result of shared sacrifice and success, the "together" term as an echo does a great deal. By just tweaking your speeches and presentations a bit to incorporate this echoing technique – in moderation because you don’t want it to sound too gimmicky – you’ll improve your charisma and dramatically improve your speeches.