Using Word Pictures in Your Speech


There is one major point that sets apart great speakers from those who can merely read a speech. It’s called story-telling. It is widely believed that the greatest speech Churchill ever gave, he delivered in America. For a man who delivered many great speeches, why was that one considered his greatest? It was primarily due to how that speech changed American’s feelings about the Soviet Union. How did a single speech influence a country? It was the appropriate use and timing of a single phrase.

In his stateroom, as the train carrying the presidential entourage headed west through the night of March 2, Churchill studied his map of Europe. With his pen, he drew a black line from the Baltic Sea through Poland, then down through the Balkans to the Adriatic Sea. He retraced that line as he tried to think of the right “picture” to describe the Soviet’s current suppression of human rights. Around 2:00 a.m., as the train stopped in Salem, Illinois, for refueling, Churchill looked at the curtain dividing the sleeping part from the rest of the stateroom. He was inspired to write down a few lines in ink. The next day he read: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.” That picture phrase inspired and motivated America into action.

As a speaker or a teacher, it’s best to try to talk about your own experiences. Everyone in his or her own life has personal experiences. Try this exercise: start by writing down ten incidents. Think of the stories you have often told your friends and family: when you won a state final; how you met your spouse on a blind date; when your grandparent passed. Don’t write out the entire story, simply write a title for each event. When you recount some personal experience in a talk, you come alive because you’re talking about something personal; something that happened to you. Since it is personal, you are able to tell it well because you’ve already told it many times before. Each time you give a talk you can look at this list and find that at least one of them will suggest a picture analogy for the talk you are giving to a particular audience.

Franklin Roosevelt, arguing for aid to Great Britain said, “Who of you, if you saw your neighbor’s house on fire, wouldn’t lend him your hose to put out the fire?” That is what you call the language of great leadership.

If you can’t think of the right analogy, take a walk in nature. Walking amongst the trees, streams, birds, or beach will help you be more connected to your intuition and creativity. Ideas will come to you. Lincoln often used this approach. Once, when he came across a stream, he was able to picture his argument for his re-election. “It’s not best to swap horses in the middle of the stream.”

If you desire to truly move, inspire, or motivate your crowd, then you must get them to think outside themselves. Create that scene or picture for your audience.

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