Thursday, April 14, 2011

Using poetry in a speech to add color, connection

Lots of speakers talk about being poetic, or giving epic talks. But should you actually use poetry when you speak to achieve that effect? I've got two recent real-life examples to get you started.

William L. Fox, president of St. Lawrence University, stumbled upon using poetry in speeches--and now makes a point of it. In this essay, "Speaking Through Verse," he describes the impromptu decision to recite a poem during his remarks to a group of the university's alumni, gathered on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, a dramatic setting. He said:
....I abandoned for a few moments my talking points. The Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which I knew by heart, came to mind, so I recited it, thinking it would connect me with my fellow Laurentians, and connect us all to the location. An excerpt:
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I was pleased at the positive reception my impromptu recitation received on that summer night, so I decided to carry with me poems appropriate for other, similar occasions, poems that would help alumni and others connect with the University in a new way....It’s a way for people to hear something they don’t hear during their work day, something different from the press of business or the political swirl of the moment.
Another way to consider using poetry in a speech is to watch a real poet do it. Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay performs two poems--at the very start and the very end--in her TED talk  "If I should have a daughter," shown below. Listen for cadence, words that move her forward, and the words that lend themselves to expressive gesture. These poems draw you in immediately, and leave you wanting more. Both of them got standing ovations:

You might not be a poet yourself, nor a student of poetry. So what should you keep in mind about using poetry in a speech?
  • Have a plan: Fox puts poetry to work aforethought, using it to make connections and evoke emotions in alumni returning to campus. His poetry choices are based on the place, the event, the memory or experience he wants to evoke. In this approach, the poem is both shorthand--a way of quickly summing up a big thought--and seductive, drawing the listener in and making her pause and think.
  • Don't let us check out: You can do it as Fox does--with poems that aren't universally well-known, which  means you need to listen to what's coming next--or as Kay does, with original work of her own. Either way, make sure you don't reach for the best-known poem on your topic. Your audience will thank you. (And in Fox's case, his audience members suggest other poems to him, a great sign of their engagement and attention.)
  • Make it sing:  Kay's expressive gestures and vocalizing make her poems three-dimensional, gripping to watch as well as to hear. Poems stir emotion, divulge secrets, share different viewpoints, draw back a curtain. So help them do that with your voice, gestures, and tone.
  • Memorize--or use notes: As Fox notes in his essay, reciting poems from memory is a by-gone skill once drilled into young people. So if your memory for a poem isn't as sharp or practiced, by all means, carry the text with you. (That's a great use for a Kindle, by the way, when you're speaking--your Kindle can hold thousands of poems and entire collections, ready for sampling.)
Do you use poetry in your speeches? Tell us how in the comments, and share some favorite poems that work for you when speaking.

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