Updated: Sep 25, 2019
The best orators of all time have one thing in common - one common element that brought their words to life: theatrics.
When you think about public speaking, William Shakespeare probably doesn't come to mind. You probably aren't reminded of Willy Loman's monologue from Death of a Salesman, Robert Paterson's masterful performance as Harold Hill in the 1957 musical, The Music Man, or Kurt Russell's famous locker room speech in the 2004 film, Miracle. But I'm here to tell you that you really, really should. If you want to be a captivating public speaker -- emphasis on 'captivating' -- you must turn your full attention to the theatre.
No matter how artfully curated your words are, they will fall flat or cause little impact if they are not delivered with passion. Great speeches mirror great theatrical monologues in their ability to effectively convey emotion and mesmerize an audience. To do that, a speaker must be well-versed in dramatic pause, comedic timing, supplemental body language, voice projection, tone modulation and emphasis placement. Don't believe me? Well then, let's examine two of the most well-known speeches of all time to test my hypothesis: Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight On The Beaches" (1940) and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" (1963) speech.
Churchill is regarded as one of the finest orators to ever live. But why? What was it about this stocky British politician that inspired a fledgling nation to fend off the Nazi invasion and resist surrender? I would argue it was his ability to project steadfast strength and palpable sincerity when addressing his countrymen. In "We Shall Fight On The Beaches," Churchill addresses a hopeless nation on the brink of collapse. He speaks mildly and confidently. His tone remains firm throughout the address, signaling to his audience that their leader is undeterred by the Nazi invaders. When Churchill declares, "We shall fight in the air," his voice gains power. One could imagine his fist rising into the air as he said it. Churchill maintains this power as he repeatedly calls the British people to action. In addition, Churchill tempers his speech with skillful dramatic pauses, giving his audience time to fully absorb the meaning of his words. The former British prime minister was no expert actor, but he delivered this speech as if he were.
Martin Luther King (MLK) is a shining example of a theatrical orator. In "I Have A Dream," his words are pronounced with clarity and elongated at times for emphasis. His speech has a rhythmic bounce to it that is never once interrupted by an awkward 'hm' or 'uh'. MLK's audience is enthralled by his exciting delivery. They listen with awe as he plays his words like a finely tuned instrument. There is not a single moment in "I Have A Dream" when a line comes across as flat or unenthusiastic. The speech could be easily mistaken for a Broadway monologue if the listener was unaware of the historical context. Thanks to MLK's innate performative prowess, his speech is as bold and proud as the movement he championed.
The lessons brought to us by Churchill and MLK are not only useful in teaching theatrics, but also in teaching public relations best practices. At a time when public relations is so inundated with behind-the-scenes content creation, it's easy to forget that sometimes PR professionals will be called upon to step in front of a microphone. In these moments, conveying messages with sincerity and/or enthusiasm will be the key to effective two-way communication and representing clients in a positive light.
Lastly, it's important to remember that talking and speaking are two distinct acts. The first can be accomplished by anyone without much thought given to technique. The latter demands attention and must be sustained with theatrical tools to make an impact. By studying theater and practicing your performance skills, you too can craft messages that captivate audiences and endure the test of time.