Thursday, January 1, 2009

once upon a time: the eloquent calendar

You may be mulling the passage of time or the significance of the date on this New Year's Day, so it's the perfect time to consider how special dates and times can add eloquence to your next speech. In some measure, eloquence transports the listener from her seat to greater, grander thoughts and places--and moving your listeners through space and time can be one of the most effective ways to make a strong impression. Here are some ways eloquent speakers can turn the calendar and the clock into tools that take your listeners someplace memorable:

  • Define the larger issues that result in your being here today: I recently had the chance to see the White House's copy of the Gettysburg Address--in Lincoln's own handwriting--in this special exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This entire short speech endures today in large part because of its sense of time: It encapsulates the past in describing what the founders did, notes the significance of the day on which "we are met on a great battlefield of that war," and looks to the future in which government "of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." (The exhibit link includes access to an electronic file of the short speech for you to study.) Lincoln drew a verbal timeline that lets any listener understand how their presence on that day fit into the nation's history and its future.

  • Make the date resonate: If your role as a speaker occurs on a special anniversary, find out what else happened in that year to add historic context to your audience's celebration. Is it the 50th anniversary of a local professional chapter? Then find out what else happened in that profession 50 years ago. Is a special person's service being honored at a retirement or awards ceremony? Describe the technology that was in use when she began her career, or how many women graduated from her college department at the start of her career versus how many today. Pulling those present back into the past helps them place the anniversary--and its significance--in history.

  • Go 'beyond the moment:' Use the occasion to ask big questions and demand big answers from your audience--even if your rhetorical questions go unanswered for the moment. Sometimes posing the questions for the audience is the most moving: In effect, you're giving voice to what they're wondering, allowing all points of view to come forward. Push listeners past the anniversary, hour or day in question and inspire them to make it worthy of reflection at a future point. For inspiration, look at this interview with the contemporary poet Elizabeth Alexander, who's been chosen to create an "occasional poem" for the inauguration of Barack Obama January 20th. She notes she hopes to "to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment."

How will you make the time and date ring out with eloquence in your next speech? (Photo of Elizabeth Alexander by caribbeanfreephoto on Flickr.)

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