Great orators (that’s what they used to call speakers) know that the impact of their words must be personal in order to reach others, to affect change in people’s lives, in small societies, or in the most powerful organizations. As I look back in history, and not very far, I see leaders who seem to have instinctively risen to the occasion, marking a moment in history with a very personal interpretation of its meaning.
Richard Nixon showed his skills in 1974 in his farewell speech to White House staff, a moment where everyone in the room felt a personal loss. Nixon chose to cite a passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s diary. In deep grief, Roosevelt had recorded his feelings upon losing the love of his life to an early death, and how … “when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.” Yet, Nixon pointed out, Roosevelt had gone on to become president and to serve the country for many years thereafter. In his own darkest hour, Nixon cited a deeply poignant example of fortitude which offered hope to his audience, and to himself.
The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, when he had the grand opportunity to inaugurate the Pen Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Memorial Lecture in 2006, gave a masterpiece of political leveling. He spoke of a personal awakening; “Until then I had stood on the margins of the political world… but now, as I listened to suffocating tales of repression, cruelty, and outright evil, I felt drawn to this world through guilt – drawn to it, too, by the feelings of solidarity, but at the same time I felt an equal and opposite desire to protect myself from all this, and to do nothing in life but to write beautiful novels…” In those lines he sets a vast stage by opening his heart and conscience for many great lines which followed, including, “When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free.” Having come from an oppressed heritage, he hoped to open wide the world’s literary doors to freedom.
Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela was able to articulate a vision for his country which seemed larger than any one could cause, yet he lived to see great change come about because of his words. In his presidential inaugural address in 1994, he included this beautiful line; “Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.” It’s a thought of inclusiveness; it pays historical respects and encourages a forward look with dignity. It also includes his tragic personal story, his many years imprisoned partly due to his powerful oratory skills, interwoven with the nation, and of which he had no need to be specific. It also commanded respect for his future office, and extended respect toward the expectations of the world. It became history.
In great orators (and let’s not forget their speech writers), there are lessons about defining the moment, reaching other’s hearts, looking forward with hope, and causing change. In the most trying moments, they looked deep inside, then toward the occasion, and in doing so, understood the power of including their story in the moment.
For most of us, the biggest speech we will ever give will honor a passing at a funeral, celebrate the beginning of a journey at a wedding, or announce the latest direction of things at work. When we step up to the mic, the audience always hopes to hear something profound. That’s worth repeating – the audience always hopes to hear something profound. Inspiration is readily accessed; from your story, and the convictions, yours or others, which shape your view. Whether the occasion is in the darkness of mourning or the bright light of a newborn’s cry, reaching others becomes more powerful, more profound, by including a bit of you in a great moment.