Many overweight books have been written on the art of speech composition. My experience is that when you de-lard these tomes so that a thigh gap materializes in their form, you get my one-page formula for preparing a speech, which I spelled out in my book The Success Genome Unravelled. I call it the “SHIP formula”: S stands for stories, H for humour, I for insight, and P for poetry. (For the male readers, it might be easier to remember this formula if the letters are transposed to make it “HIPS”.)
The first step is to find a story from which you can extract the message that you want to convey. People love stories, and so the use of a story, apart from helping you build your speech, also acts as an instant attention-grabber. The Bible, the news, and fables constitute a rich fund of stories that can be adapted to serve a wide spectrum of messages. All speechmakers must therefore pay close attention to these sources. In light of this advice, you will not fail to notice that the atheist who sets out to be an orator does his cause considerable harm by putting all biblical stories beyond his reach. It is for this reason that the cunning orator calls himself a believer.
Once you have your story wrapped up, the next thing is to examine it so as to discern some piece of humour it can yield. Now, the enterprise of telling jokes is fraught with pitfalls, and so if you lack a gift in this direction it is better to skip it altogether rather than risk and end up with a debacle. We are unfortunate that a sense of humour cannot be acquired by learning; nevertheless, we are fortunate that the lack of humour in a speech is not fatal to it. History brims with many great speeches that were not graced with pieces of humour. This does not mean that humour is superfluous in speechmaking: all I am saying is that there is no speech great or average that cannot be improved by the appropriate integration of humour.
Alongside humour, your story should also yield some insights that can help you to express your message. The story you use for this purpose could be the one you began your speech with or another one you have introduced specifically for its promise of insights. The most captivating insights are those that we draw from stories that the audience is already familiar with but which alert the audience to some subtle message that was all along hidden from their view. Take US President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln had been invited to speak at a ceremony to consecrate a battleground where many government soldiers had fallen in the American Civil War. When he rose to speak, Lincoln, with luminous insight, stated that it was not for those present to consecrate that battleground, for that office had already been performed on the day of battle by the blood of patriots spilled there. The sheer brilliance of this insight, which the main speaker of the day and the rest of the Gettysburg party had missed, has from that day to this sent audiences the world over scurrying to their “like” buttons. Such is the power of insight appropriately deployed in speechmaking.
Lastly, a speech is enriched by poetic modes of expression. The power of poetry heightens the feelings experienced by the audience and makes the message so expressed linger longer in memory. Like in the case of humour, a feel for poetry is a natural gift and so cannot be taught. This mode of expression should be used sparingly and should preferably be reserved for the climax of the speech. When we turn to this device, the atheist speaker again finds himself acutely oppressed by his unbelief. For he must deny himself use of the most powerful concepts that the poet often avails himself of: concepts like God, the angels, paradise, the soul, and the afterlife.
My speech below, which I presented to a social club on the death of Nelson Mandela, illustrates the use of the SHIP formula. Study it.
I stared deep into the night sky yesterday. A million stars stared back quietly. And I could not but ask: Which of them holds your great soul, Old Nelson?
In Christian lore, the lone deity of the universe created the world in six days. On the seventh day, his labours done, he rested. And thus began a golden tradition of rest following a period of sweet labour. Each life that comes into the world someday finds its seventh day of rest. In the case of Nelson Mandela, that seventh day came last night in his 95th year, and he now reposes in a dreamless sleep alongside his ancestors, his place of rest adorned by a crown aglow with the love and respect won over seventy years by his million labours for globe and nation.
When his mother, a simple village woman, brought him forth and held him aloft in the early morning light ninety-five years ago, what hopes and dreams did she have for him? We know that her people had lived under subjugation for two hundred years. We know that they had been driven off their fertile lands and interned in harsh reservations; hundreds of thousands had been wiped out and survivors consigned to a life stripped of all strands of human dignity. And across their borders, in friendly lands where a distressed heart might have found something to latch onto for dear hope, their black brothers and sisters had suffered a like fate from Namibia through Botswana to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. What bright hopes could she, a new mother, have had for a fragile baby alighting onto this bleak scene of hate and unrelenting cruelty? Did the circumstances of her people leave her with any bright hopes at all for him or did she expect nothing but a life filled with terror and hopelessness?
I rejoice that whatever her expectations, when we look back across the expanse of his years we can all agree that her boy lived a truly successful life. Among his many fine qualities some will say his courage shone brightest; others his forgiving spirit; yet others still his statesman’s vision. I consider that the lesson he left us in his extraordinary capacity for the endurance of scorn and thorn shall be his greatest legacy. Mandela, like Gandhi, taught us by example that where we stake out the bounds of our endurance, just there shall lie the bounds of our power to do our will. He who will endure nothing can therefore have no power to act according to his will, while those who will endure the slings and arrows of an oppressor will trim the oppressor’s power over them by a quantity proportional to the scope of their endurance.
So by enduring vicious attacks for defying racial discrimination laws, he eroded the apartheid regime’s power to confine him to racially prescribed rights while increasing his own power to exercise the rights of a free man, albeit under stress.
And by enduring nearly three decades in prison, he denied the apartheid regime power to have him bargain away the rights of his people in exchange for his own freedom, power that it sought desperately but in vain.
Then by enduring the fiery criticisms of certain quarters of his victorious people for refusing to pursue their erstwhile tormentors, he denied them power to exact revenge while increasing his own power to bring healing to the nation.
Returning to the day of his birth, I think the midwife on duty that day while breathless with joy announced him thus: “It’s a boy!” With hindsight, she should rather have said: “It’s a man!” And what a man!
May the shade of the Lord’s throne fall upon his place of rest through all eternity.
I would love to hear about your own approach to speech composition. Please tell us in the comments lot below, and let’s get a conversation started. It would be especially interesting to hear from the atheists among us what they would substitute for the lines and passages in this speech that draw their power from religious concepts.
(Author-poet Agona Apell is the author of The Success Genome Unravelled: Turning men from rot to rock)