Speech of the Month, January 2019 - Kamala Harris

The public speaking techniques we can all take from Kamala Harris's presidential launch address

Speech of the Month, January 2019 - Kamala Harris

'Speech of the Month' will look at a great speech that everyone can access. I’ll pick out a few elements of the speech that we can all learn from to make our presentations more effective. 

When we read, hear or watch the speeches of Pankhurst, Churchill and King, the vast majority of us would agree that with their clear reason, impassioned tone, rhetorical flourishes and general command, they are oratory masterclasses. But we also feel that the objective of our day-to-day addresses would never allow us to deliver such sparkling, emotive oratory - making a case for why a sports chain should stock your range of sweatbands is hardly up there with demanding equality for all citizens. 

In most cases, we are right to feel this way. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t structural, written or delivery techniques that the speaker is using that we couldn’t use ourselves. It’s these techniques that I’ll pick from a speech and bring to your attention.  

The first speech I’ve chosen to dissect is Sen. Kamala Harris’s presidential launch address which she gave on 27 January in Oakland, California. If you’ve yet to see it, you can watch it below.  

So what can we learn from this address?


Establish that you’re like your audience

Harris has a strong ethos appeal with the Oakland audience. Ok, she’s speaking to the converted who can’t wait to hear what she says and whoop when she says it, but this doesn’t stop her from telling them that she’s an Oakland girl - a fact they can’t not know - that she was born down the road in Kaiser hopsital, that her parents met while studying at Berkeley, and how her mum was big buddies with the mother of the current mayor. Because by doing this she’s reminding the audience that she’s one of them, so she understands them and holds their interests dear. And we’re more likely to trust people who we feel are like us.   

So, before any of us gives a presentation, we should consider our audience and think about how we are like it. If you’re a Director of Nursing speaking to a class of trainee nurses then that’s quite clear - you’ve been in their shoes a decade or three ago. 

But what if there’s no obvious connection between you and your audience? Well then you should consider alternative, less work-based links. It might be that you’re a poacher turned gamekeeper. If so, let your audience know. Tell them that you understand the pros and cons of being in their position. To inject some humour, maybe comment that back then listening to pitches from the likes of you was one of the biggest cons! If you’re speaking to an audience of strangers in a city you studied in, let them know. Mention the old haunts and characters that existed then. Explain the mark the city left on you, i.e. your love of rowing and / or curry. Or if the only other time you’ve visited the place is when your football team was thrashed by the home side, then say so. And say you greatly hope you won’t leave X as demoralised today as you did on that cold, wet Saturday evening. 

But don’t force it. If there really is no link that you can talk about comfortably and truthfully, then don’t crowbar one. 


Address the naysayers

In her speech, Harris sounds out naysayers’ arguments, "You know, some will say 'We need to search to find that common ground' - here's what I say, we need to recognise that we are already standing on common ground." But she goes on to accept that in the past the peruit of unity has been used to shut people up or preserve the status quo. She vows that her committment to unity won't do that.

In most work presentations, speakers rarely encounter extremely hostile opposition, but there will be sceptics or just good-hearted worriers in the audience. After you’ve put forward the arguments supporting your case, get into the habit of then telling the sceptics why they shouldn't be so doubtful and why the worriers needn’t be so fearful. Not only does this nip some post-talk questions in the bud, but it also demonstrates to the audience that you’ve really considered their feelings.


Open the chest

Harris doesn’t simply look comfortable (and why wouldn’t she when 20,000 people have turned up to support her and shout out her name) she looks stately. This is because her body is aligned and her chest is open, which helpfully improves vocal projection too. An open chest is not achieved by thrusting the shoulders back, but this is what people often do. Rather, it’s done by taking weight back into the heels.

Stand with your back to a wall making sure your weight is evenly divided through your feet and your tail bone and the back of your head touch the wall. You will immediately feel a great expansion in the chest. Stand there for a minute and get used to that feeling. Now step away from the wall maintaining the expansion. Just before you address an audience, check that you’re grounded and your chest is open. By doing this you’ll look more assured and sound so too.   

If you enjoyed this article, then maybe try some of my other blog posts.

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