What makes a great speech? Every year around this time in the US we honor Martin Luther King, Jr, for his selfless dedication to improving the civil rights of Americans. Part of the reason we honor him is that he had a way of articulating in memorable language what many Americans were feeling: I have a dream. Don’t misunderstand me: he was also an organizer, a leader, an advocate, and many other things. But central to his greatness was his extraordinary public speaking. 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.”
Honed over many years of Sunday preaching, King’s public speaking was responsive, vivid, and powerful. He knew how to put into words what the people in front of him were feeling. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.And he knew how to lift that audience up, above its daily concerns, to focus on something greater, something worth achieving, something world-changing. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
At the heart of great public speaking like that is understanding your audience. If you don’t know whom you’re talking to, you’re not ready to talk to them.
What does that mean in practice? It means that, if you haven’t lived alongside those people, as King had, you need to research your audience well in advance of your presentation, in order to make sure that you’re solving problems they actually have, rather than just preaching your particular expertise at them.
This research should go well beyond the standard questions of how many, their demographics, and the time of day. Of course, you do want to know whether they’ve been fed recently, or whether they’re looking forward to a meal. You want to know if you’re after-dinner entertainment or a keynoter first thing in the morning. And you want to know if there are going to be 100 people or a thousand. You need to know all the practical issues associated with the audience, the venue, and the occasion.
But the most important questions to ask are, what do they want — what are their hopes and dreams — and what are they afraid of. Your speech should be about helping them realize their dreams and triumph over their fears. That’s what King did so powerfully.
The connection a speaker has with her audience is profound and emotional, when it works. When it doesn’t, everyone’s time has been wasted. Understanding your audience means being able to go on a significant emotional journey with them. That’s the only journey worth taking in public speaking.