On the final day of the Democratic National Convention, a Muslim father whose son died in combat stole the show with an electrifying six-minute speech.
Khizr Kahn, with his wife Ghazala Khan by his side, spoke of their son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Kahn. He was an American soldier who died in Iraq saving his fellow soldiers from a car bomb. Kahn and his family are Muslin immigrants: “If it was up to Donald Trump, he would never have been in America.”
The story is compelling, but so were many others offered by grieving family members at both conventions. The speech made a particular impact because of Khizr Kahn’s ethos, pathos and logos.
Khizr Kahn embodied ethos—credibility—because of the sacrifice his family made, but also because his speech was imbued with goodwill and good moral sense. He opened with a declaration of “undivided loyalty to our country”:
“Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy; that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings. We are blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams.”
He delivered this positive message with a steady cadence, steely countenance, and piercing diction, all of which made him more credible.
The emotional heart of the speech—pathos—came when he directly addressed Donald Trump:
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
This is a creative rhetorical technique, though it can sometimes backfire—witness Clint Eastwood’s now infamous address to an empty chair during the 2012 Republican convention, which you can see here. Kahn’s version worked because his questions were succinct, to the point, and gave voice to his community.
The speech was also short. This is important. Logos, or logic, will be more clear if a speaker makes choices. Both conventions featured hour-long monologues that proved wearying over time. Mr. Kahn spoke for six minutes only. He has explained in media appearances that his wife served as his editor, insisting that he winnow down his remarks. We believe that all speakers could benefit from such an editorial process. A few points, offered in crisp, well-chosen words, are more likely than a long-winded recitation to stick with an audience after the speech is done.
Finally, Mr. Kahn used a prop to great effect. “Let me ask you,” he challenged Mr. Trump, “have you even read the United States constitution?” Then, producing a small pamphlet from his pocket, with a flourish: “I will gladly lend you my copy!”
Props make speeches memorable. If you want to use a prop, do as Mr. Kahn did—think about how you will introduce it, practice how you will hold it, and use it to emphasize your most important point. It is no wonder, after such a memorable speech, that in the days following Kahn’s speech the National Center for Constitutional Studies pocket constitution became a bestseller on Amazon.
You can watch entire remarkable—and short—speech here: