What All Great Speeches Have in Common

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What do Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler all have in common?

For better or for worse (in the case of Hitler), they were all incredible speakers, who were able to move people to action with their words.

I recently listened to a great podcast featuring Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc., and co-author of the book Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

Having analyzed speeches, particularly those which are exponentially effective in connecting with people and inspiring them to action, Nancy claims that the best speeches, sermons and talks all follow a similar cadence. She describes the pattern as “pumpkin teeth” — having a sequence of lows and highs.

Contrasting the Status Quo with a Vision of a Different Future

Stories that connect, she says, follow this pattern: they build tension and then have cathartic release. Great speeches emphasize contrast between what is and what could be; the speaker goes back and forth between contrasting today’s current reality (status quo) with tomorrow’s possible future. They start with the way things are, and then give them a vision of a different, brighter future.

Nancy, who is a Christian and moved to Silicon Valley with her husband originally to plant a church, points out that Jesus was a master at this kind of communication. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus is constantly contrasting the way things are now on Earth, with the way things are and will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”, and things like “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26). Note the contrast between what is, and a vision for what could be.

Steve Jobs did this with his keynote speeches at Apple for years. When he introduced the iPhone, he used a hockey analogy to tell people that unlike other tech companies, Apple would always skate to where the puck will be, not where it is – essentially giving them a vision of a brighter future in contrast to the mundane present.

Ending: the “New Bliss” and a Cautionary Tale

Great stories and speeches, Duarte explains, tend to end with two key elements:

  1. A description of the “new bliss”, a picture of the great future that will come about if you adopt the new idea the presenter is putting forth
  2. A cautionary tale, explaining that the danger of not adopting this idea, and what will happen if you ignore it.

A perfect example of this is found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… (read the whole passage here: Matthew 7:24-27)

Case Study: “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr. did this in a masterful way with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He ended with a vision of the world that could be. Take note of the cadence of his speech:

[Positive: the Ideal] 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.

[Negative: the Status Quo] 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 languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

[Cautionary Tale] It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

[Enduring Bliss] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

How this Applies to Homiletics and Preaching

If you want to move people to action, you have to make a clear differentiation between what is now, and the future you’re inviting them into. In order to be persuasive, you must have contrast in some form.

For those who preach or teach the Bible, this is important to keep in mind and take note of, because every time we open the Word of God, we do so with a telos (aim or objective) not only to instruct, but to move people to action and response; to move them away from some things, and towards another thing – faith, repentance, decision, etc.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade others… God making his appeal through us: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

It’s important to keep these things in mind, and see that Jesus himself was the master of this kind of effective communication.

The goal is to present the problem and the solution in a way that truly reveals to the recipient both the urgency of the peril and the beauty of what makes the “good news” of the gospel so glorious, that they might respond in faith and action.

Video

Here is a TED talk that Nancy gave on this topic:

Expository Preaching: Structure and Progression

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In my last post, I shared some thoughts from Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the topic of expository preaching, and why expository preaching is more than simply going through a passage verse-by-verse and giving a “running commentary” of disconnected thoughts, but that an expository sermon is to have a structure similar to how a piece of music or a building has structure.

(for more on Lloyd-Jones, check out: Preaching While the Bombs Fell)

Here are some further thoughts from him on how to do that:

Distilling the Message of the Text

The burden of your message arises from understanding the passage. If you have truly understood the verse or passage, you will arrive at a particular doctrine, which is a part of the whole message of the Bible. It is your business to search for this and to seek it diligently. You have to question your text, to put questions to it, and especially this question— What is this saying? What is the particular doctrine here, the special message? In the preparation of a sermon nothing is more important than that.

To do this, I often tell people to boil down their entire message into one sentence. I do the same for every sermon I write.

Showing People Why it Matters to Them

You then proceed to consider the relevance of this particular doctrine to the people who are listening to you. This question of relevance must never be forgotten.

This is an important point that is often missed by preachers and teachers. I once heard someone ask the question: “Have you ever heard a sermon that was doctrinally accurate, but it was so boring it made you want to cry?”

I have. You probably have too. Why was that? This person argued that the reason was because: although what the person said was true, you didn’t understand why it mattered to you.

This isn’t about trying to “tickle people’s ears,” or “trying to make the Bible more interesting.” The fact is: the Bible is interesting. It is compelling. But if we are not helping people see why it is so very interesting and compelling, then we are failing them in our role as Bible teachers.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… God making his appeal through us: we implore you on behalf of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:11, 20)

You are setting out to influence these people and the whole of their lives and outlook. Obviously, therefore, you have got to show the relevance of all this. You are not an antiquary lecturing on ancient history or on ancient civilisations, or something like that. The preacher is speaking to people who are alive today and confronted by the problems of life, and therefore you have to show that this is not some academic or theoretical matter… but that this message is vitally important for them, and that they must listen with the whole of their being, because this really is going to help them.

Structure: Progressively Building a Towards a Conclusion

You now come to the division of this matter into propositions or headings, or heads—whatever you may like to call them. The object of these headings or divisions is to make clear this central doctrine or proposition.

The arrangement of these propositions or heads is a very important matter. You have a doctrine, an argument, a case which you want to argue out, and to reason, and to develop with the people. So, obviously, you must arrange your headings and your divisions in such a way that point number one leads to point number two, and point number two leads to point number three, etc.

Each one should lead to the next, and work ultimately to a definite conclusion. Everything is to be so arranged as to bring out the main thrust of this particular doctrine. The point I am emphasising is that there must be progression in the thought, that each one of these points is not independent, and is not, in a sense, of equal value with all the others. Each is a part of the whole, and in each you must be advancing and taking the matter further on. You are not simply saying the same thing a number of times, you are aiming at an ultimate conclusion.

You must end on a climax, and everything should lead up to it in such a way that the great truth stands out dominating everything that has been said, and the listeners go away with this in their minds.

Making Application Along the Way and at the End

It is important that you should have been applying what you have been saying as you go along. There are many ways of doing this. You can do so by asking questions and answering them, or in various other ways; but you must apply the message as you go along.

This again shows that you are not just lecturing, that you are not dealing with an abstract or academic or theoretical matter; but that this is a living matter which is of real concern to the people in the whole of their life and being. So you must keep on applying what you are saying.

Then to make absolutely certain of this, when you have ended the reason and the argument, and have arrived at this climax, you apply it all again perhaps with an exhortation, a series of questions or a series of terse statements. But it is vital to the sermon that it should always end on this note of application or of exhortation.

(All quotations taken from Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers, pp. 86-88)