It’s the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth this year, this summer, last month, and so it seems like a good time to think about my favorite saying: the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. I remind my clients of this often when I don’t think we’re reaching high enough. Mandela changed the world, and he did so with patience, persistence, and dignity even though his name at first was Rolihlahla, which apparently means “troublemaker.”
When Mandela was first released from prison, after that heartbreakingly long incarceration, he gave a speech that shows how you change the world with words. In this case, words of great economy and power. There are three aspects of his speech which are worth noting for anyone else who wants to change the world.
First of all, you have to answer the question, why now? Speeches are monuments to the moment in front of you – and the audience in front of you. Not many speeches last forever, and your goal should be to address a particular audience with a particular message at a particular time. Let history take care of itself.
In this case, Mandela said:
Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment, so that the process toward democracy is rapid and uninterrupted.
So we’ve got urgency. Mandela is telling us that the fight is reaching a crucial stage and we have to take action now.
Second, you have to address a clear problem. You don’t change the world by applauding the status quo. And it’s not a time to be diplomatic. Indeed, speakers can often grab the attention of their audiences by uttering an unpalatable or typically unspoken truth. It’s all about giving voice to a problem which the audience knows that it has but either hasn’t articulated so well or hasn’t faced in quite this way before.
We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.
This is simple, direct and strong. And note that it reinforces the urgency of the first sentences.
Third, you have to invoke strong emotions. Emotions are deeply entwined with memory and nothing can be changed if the world doesn’t remember what you’ve said.
Our march toward freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.
I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
That’s how you change the world. It seems the victory is never complete and the struggle is never over. I was sitting in our Quaker meeting one Sunday when I was fifteen and the grownups were talking about heading down to the Southern U.S. to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the protests against segregation. I raised my hand to go with them, but the older and wiser heads said I was too young and the risks were too great; only adults could go. I remember clearly thinking, with frustration, then it will all over before I’m old enough to take part.
How wrong I was. We still need the courage, the dedication, and the vision of great leaders like Mandela. And leaders still need audiences ready to hear the clear words of justice, truth, and peace. The only reason to give a speech is to change the world. And it still needs changing.