For this #LearnFromGreatSpeeches we look at the Commencement Speech of David McCullough Jr. to the class of 2012 at Wellesley High School. It’s a remarkable one for the message he got across and also very interesting for us to learn how to craft a successful talk. We will see different devices in action: parallelism, shock, anaphora, antithesis and humour.
What is parallelism and why it can help you create better speeches? The answer comes straight from its Wikipedia definition: “In grammar, parallelism, also known as parallel structure or parallel construction, is a balance within one or more sentences of similar phrases or clauses that have the same grammatical structure. The application of parallelism affects readability and may make texts easier to process.”
Take a look at this passage from McCullough:
Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.
As you can see all the sentences here have a common structure: action to do something not for something else. This has different positive outcomes. It becomes easier for the audience to grasp the concept, since they don’t have to focus on the form they can focus on the meaning. It also creates a nice rhythm in the speech. It makes it more powerful and memorable.
Shocking the audience, by telling them something they not expect, is good to catch their attention and make them listen. Even better when you tell them the opposite of what they expect to hear.
Here is a sentence from David McCullough Jr.:
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
Well what a surprise from many other commencement speech! For an audience normally used to be told they are exceptional (from their parents to advertising) here is something different. This may have left many flabbergasted and surely resonate with many (the video of the speech went soon viral thanks to the students)!
I can picture the audience thinking “Hey, I didn’t see that coming, this is the not the usual speech!”. Suddenly they are way more mentally engaged and attentive. What sounds new and different always titillate our curiosity and grabs our attention.
The concept is then repeated and David McCullough Jr. elaborates on it, up to the antithesis later on. But the shock effect is the first time, and if you listen to the whole speech you can notice how is strategically placed at the end of the opening where most would expect a statement that praise the graduates excellence.
Anaphora is described as: “a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighbouring clauses, thereby lending them emphasis.”
Let’s see how is used in this speech:
No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement (…)
From this day forward . . . truly . . . in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference (…)
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. You are not special. You are not exceptional (…)
So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus
There are more occurrences in the speech but these can give you an idea of how it makes sentences sound more powerful. The repetition underlines words that convey a meaning and it gives them more focus.
Antithesis is used in writing or speech either as a proposition that contrasts with or reverses some previously mentioned proposition, or when two opposites are introduced together for contrasting effect.
Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you (…) Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Contrast makes it more interesting and more importantly easier to understand. We are used to define things as opposites: dark as the opposite of light, fat as the opposite of skinny, hell as the opposite of heaven. The effect is therefore powerful and helpful for the audience.
Albeit here we don’t have pure opposites we do have antithesis in the first sentence, in all the parallel sentences in that paragraph (see parallelism above) which all prepare for the final clause of this block.
The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
This statement holds a truth that is the opposite of what many people assumed at the beginning of the speech.
In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no centre; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi)
are two examples of humour inside the speech, and there a few more.
Why humour is great in public speaking?
Do you like having a laugh? So does your audience.
If you make them laugh you make them listen. Just remember humour should be contextual and… funny!
As you have seen this David McCullough Jr. Commencement Speech is a very good one for improving public speaking skills. Its success is surely due to the message it brings but I am sure the form didn’t hinder at all. Having a defining phrase also helps: “You are not special” it’s great because it’s easy to remember and propagate and at the same time it reminds you of the idea of the speech.
I suggest you to watch the full speech to better appreciate all of these advices that you can make your own to become a better speaker.