Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first “Fireside Chat,” delivered on March 12, 1933, is remarkable for its pitch-perfect calm. Roosevelt achieves ethos by his measured pace, establishing himself as levelheaded in the face of crisis—just the man to lead the country out of terrible trouble. He uses words that are easy to understand, and makes complicated ideas (like the principles of banking) comprehensible, so that his logos is clear. His pathos is exemplary as well. He offers calm in the face of panic, hope in the face of despair, and even a wry sense of humor when he describes the “exceedingly unfashionable” pastime of hoarding. This speech helped restore stability to the banking system through masterful writing and delivery.
Compare Timothy Geithner’s February 10, 2009 speech about the Financial Stability Plan to Roosevelt’s First Fireside Chat in order to understand how difficult it can be to explain complicated concepts. Geithner’s speech misfires because of his over-reliance on jargon (impossible to understand when the audience is asked to absorb information solely through hearing it) and his stiff delivery. You can see how shifting eyes and ill-at-ease body language can sink a performance.
Howard Dean’s speech to supporters, following defeat in the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucus, illustrates the problem of pathos gone awry. An audience will not trust a speaker who seems to be unable to master his own emotions.
Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech is notable for its elegant wordsmithing and masterful delivery. Notice how Obama plays with pace and volume once he introduces the “yes, we can” refrain. He begins softly, almost conversationally, then builds in pace and volume as he describes more and more Americans taking up the cry. He crescendos at, “Yes we can, to justice and equality!” But then he drops the volume again at, “There is something happening in America,” demonstrating how a low volume can sometimes make a moment thrilling. He builds again from that point all the way to the end of the speech, culminating in a triumphant, “Yes we can!”
Ronald Reagan’s June 6, 1984 commemoration of the anniversary of D-Day is another terrific model of effective performance techniques. As you watch the speech notice how he builds his pace to heighten the dramatic affect and uses eye contact to project calm and control.
Compare Obama’s and Reagan’s performances with the stiff delivery of John Kerry in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Kerry rushed from one point to another (elided the beats), and seemed to be at war with his cheering audience as a result.
Hillary Clinton’s unexpectedly personal answer to a question posed on the campaign trail may have led to her victory in the New Hampshire primary. It satisfied the country’s desire to see a more human side of the candidate, but the pathos was particularly effective because Clinton was immediately able to switch to logos, to support her strong feelings with facts.
One of the best uses of visual aids in recent years was Al Gore’s lecture in An Inconvenient Truth. Notice how he combines pictures, video clips, charts, cartoons, maps, and his own body to make his point.
Maya Angelou’s eulogy of Coretta Scott King demonstrates the power of poetry in public speaking. Watch this video for an example of a terrific beginning. Angelou takes the audience by surprise by bursting into song—an unexpected moment that elicits cheers. The beginning establishes at once the hopeful tone of the oration, and makes the audience eager to hear what will come next. You can also see Angelou’s lovely smile in reaction to the cheering of her listeners, illustrating the premise that if you write yourself a good beginning, you’ll be able to relax into the speech and enjoy the experience.
Barbara Jordan’s Statement on the Articles of Impeachment, delivered on July 25, 1974, is a terrific example of power in a female speaker. Jordan’s strong voice and the complete conviction with which she delivers the speech are a pleasure to hear. The speech is particularly strong on logos as she proves her points with lawyerly skill. Her word choice is formal, highlighting her dignity and the respect in which she holds the government of which she is a part.
Mary Fisher’s speech before the Republican National Convention in 1992 advocating support for AIDS sufferers is notable for its masterful use of pathos. Fisher is a sympathetic figure—a beautiful, young wife and mother facing her disease with courage and grace. Her ability to maintain her poise as she speaks of her own plight, and the empathy and compassion that she demonstrates toward others, brings her listeners to tears. Through maintaining her own composure, Fisher moves her audience to action.
Winston Churchill’s powerful voice bolstered the courage of his country when it needed it most. Listen to his thrilling delivery as he proclaims in his June 4, 1940 address to the House of Commons, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Churchill offers his countrymen a place in history, elevating their actions and sacrifices to provide meaning for the struggle.