In delivery, language, rhetoric

Delivery – according to Demosthenes, this is the key to good speaking. As anyone who has seen a bad actor mangle Shakespeare can attest, how the words are spoken plays a vital role.

What then constitutes good delivery? Not an easy question to answer, because so much depends on the situation, the content and the audience. I’ve seen fantastic presentations become lifeless because the presenter changed their delivery. In one case, the presenter made a bubbly, ebullient pitch for his home town as the perfect holiday destination. After seeing himself on video, he decided that he hadn’t been sober and business-like enough. On the second run- through he was determined to restrict his voice and his gestures – with predictably disappointing results. So, getting the delivery right is not always easy. But in many cases, one simple step makes a world of difference.

Slow down. Professor Max Atkinson has calculated that in normal conversation we speak around 180 words a minute. He advises presenters to aim for around 120 words a minute. How? Not. By. Speaking. Like. This. But rather by pausing every six or seven words or so, usually for longer than would be the case in conversation. Naturally, this isn’t something we should just slavishly follow. Any advice, taken to extremes, will lead to the opposite of what we hope to achieve. Above all, we need to be flexible in this. Good speakers tend to vary both the pitch of their voice and also their speed. And this is where good writing can help.

So often presenters create massive problems for themselves and their audience because they fail to distinguish between written and spoken language. In a written report some people may find this kind of thing acceptable (it isn’t):

“On the other hand, we have to find a way of practically limiting the governmental interference into the economic activities since they would otherwise cause permanent impairment of the growth drivers of the free market economy.”

Try saying it out loud. Even Barack Obama would have his work cut out with that. What’s needed is to build your speech on the principles of rhetoric.

One of my favourite film scenes is from The Third Man where Orson Welles, playing the fugitive Harry Lime, seeks to justify his crimes to his old friend, Holly. It is rhetorically perfect.

In Italy,
for 30 years
under the Borgias
they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed,
but they produced
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.

In Switzerland,
they had brotherly love –
they had 500 years of democracy and peace,
and what did that produce?

The cuckoo clock.

If you’re looking for writing that leads to good delivery, this is hard to better. First, the language is extremely simple both in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Second, it uses the four rhetorical keys brilliantly. It’s based on contrast both between Italy and Switzerland, but also between the bad things that had a good result in the case of Italy, and the good things that – well didn’t lead to anything very impressive in the case of Switzerland. But it also makes judicious use of repetition: In X they had Y and they produced Z. We also have a list of three: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. The pay-off line is that old standby – the question and answer – interrupted by a good pause.

The effect of this writing is that it’s almost impossible to say the lines without achieving at least some of the power and rhythm of Orson Welles.

Demosthenes was surely right that delivery makes a vital difference. But all of us, regardless of our vocal abilities can take a step to good delivery through good rhetorical writing.

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