Any delay between the end of a speech and the audience’s applause can send strong negative signals to those watching and listening. In order to prevent this awkwardness, there are rhetorical tricks we can implement that trigger applause or laughter at appropriate moments.
Speechwriter and political speech advisor Max Atkinson, inÂ a critique of UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s speaking style, offers some rhetorical devices for preventing delayed applause.
The point about delayed applause is that, when the script and delivery are working well together, it should happen within a split second of the speaker finishing a sentence.
That’s why contrasts and three-part lists are so effective, because they project a clear completion point where everyone knows in advance where the finish line is and that it’s now their turn to respond […]
Better still is to get the audience to start applauding early, because it gives the impression that they’re so enthusiastic and eager to show their agreement that they can’t wait – and the speaker ends up having to compete to make himself heard above the rising tide of popular acclaim.
One way to do that is to use a three part list, in which the third item is longer than the first two.
Back in 2004, a Max Atkinson-inspiredÂ BBC article offers some more persuasive devices.
After discovering that he was to share a double bill with the “famously good” public speaker Malcolm Gladwell, Gideon Rachman decided to use the experience to learn how to improve his own speaking abilities.
In hisÂ write-upÂ of the experience, Rachman discusses the lessons he learnt from Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘public speaking secrets’:
The first lesson came from simply looking at the programme. The photo of me was unexceptional [â€¦] Gladwell’s photo was very different. It was taken from a distance and showed off his magnificent Einstein-like Afro – it said, here is a mad genius. [â€¦] But there are other things he does that might be easier to emulate.
First, he is a master of the “look no hands” style of speaking. He just stands up there, with a button mike and talks – and it all sounds very spontaneous, with little asides and jokes, and messages tailored to his [â€¦] audience. Second, he tells stories – there are theories attached to the stories – but the bulk of the talk is made up of charming anecdotes to illustrate rather simple themes.Â [â€¦]
So how does Gladwell do it? [â€¦] He answered – “I know it may not look like this. But it’s all scripted. I write down every word and then I learn it off by heart. I do that with all my talks and I’ve got lots of them”.
It occurred to me afterwards that Gladwell’s success as a speaker illustrates one of his homespun themes – hard work pays off. But he has also made an important realisation. He is not giving a speech or a lecture – he is giving a performance. And like any good actor, he knows that you have to learn your lines.
The Tim Ferris technique for preparing a speech. For those aware of the concept, you may spot a resemblance to the snowflake method (previously), as typically used for writing novels.
There are also some non-structural tips in the article (i.e. “No one should misunderstand you. Everything you say should be clear”.)
- Organise the speech using the “rule of thirds” (no content at this stage, tailor the timings to your desired speech length):
- 2-minute introduction.
- Three 10-minute segments.
- 2-minute close.
- Create the content for the three central segments. For each 10-minute segment:
- Decide what the main takeaway or usable action is for the audience.
- Explain this using the PEP or EPE format (E = Example or case study. P = Point, illustrating the concept, offering actionable next steps).
- Use 2-3 of these per 10-minute segment.
- Create the introduction:
- Preferably start with a story.
- Explain that you’ll introduce three concepts that will help the audience do “X”, where “X” is whatever the overarching theme of the presentation is.
- Rehearse the sections separately.
- Time yourself.
- After each rehearsal write down any one-liners or wording that you like.
- Do not memorise the speech verbatim.
- Do remember the starting and closing 2-3 sentences for each portion (introduction, the three central segments).
- Create and rehearse the conclusion.
- Rehearse the entire speech:
- Rehearse until you recite the speech perfectly at least once.
- Accept that you’ll forget at least 10% of your memorised lines.
- Continue to review notes to ensure you are hitting the important points.
So, the final speech will be structured like this:
- Segment 1
- Segment 2
- Segment 3
We’ve seen before how the cognitive fluency (how ‘easy’ it is to think of or comprehend something) of restaurant menus, stock ticker codes and physical exercises influence how complex, risky and even beautiful we perceive them to be.
A recent PsyBlog article provides a summary of a number of cognitive fluency studies and here are the ones I’ve not seen before (some of which I wouldn’t have even considered to be related to cognitive fluency):
- A writer is perceived as having a higher intelligence if his writing is uncomplicated.
- Non-native residents of a country are thought of more negatively than the natives.
- Fluent speakers are regarded as being more knowledgeable and intelligent (although it was also found that hesitations in speech cause specific words to be remembered more than others–the word(s) directly following the hesitation).
- A block of text describing a product can double the amount of people willing to purchase that product if it is written in an easy-to-read font.
- Physical (sensorimotor) fluency causes pleasure.
- Cognitive fluency allows us to reason quickly and effortlessly.
The article concludes with:
Like mathematicians searching for the shortest formula to describe a complex phenomenon, we should all be obsessed with simplicity, because in simplicity lies beauty and the human mind, as we’ve just seen, finds it difficult to resist.
How the art of political rhetoric is regarded differently in Britain and America:
In the US, the act of speechwriting has gained an almost mythical status. As keepers of the president’s words, the speechwriters are at the centre of government and are objects of fascination. It is a little different in Westminster. There are no “speechwriting offices”. There is no official Downing Street speechwriting team. [â€¦] There is none of the collaboration and, as a result, little of the powerful effect. [â€¦]
Today, says [historian Simon Schama], it is “highly allergic in our British culture to be extravagantly rhetorical”. To turn a fine phrase suggests duplicity.
As the article later states, when it was discovered that Gordon Brown employed the services of speechwriters for an address to Congress in 2009:
The money – indeed, the very existence of such a service – appeared to come as a shock to us in Britain. It exposed the stark differences between the two countries’ oratorical cultures. In Washington, speechwriting is a professional undertaking; the speechwriter is a known quantity. Here, the idea that time or money has been spent crafting a politician’s presentation arouses suspicion. The realisation that the words are not his own only adds to the sense that they are false.
The article suggests there are three speeches worth remembering in contemporary British politics (Robin Cook’s 2003 Cabinet resignation on the eve of the Iraq war, Tony Blair’s 1999 speech on humanitarian intervention and David Cameron’s 2005 Conservative Party leadership pitch) and begins with some succinct speechwriting ‘tricks’:
Verbal tricks that make a speech fly: contradictions (Blair: “September 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue”), opposites (Napoleon: “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is for ever”), phrase reversals (Obama: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America”).