Friday, November 20, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Angela Merkel's 2009 U.S. Congress speech

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's 2009 speech before both houses of the U.S. Congress has just about everything you'd want in a famous speech. It is by turns soaring, personal, forceful, humorous and direct. And it's quite a public speaking feat by the woman called "The Quiet German" in a New Yorker profile, which includes a little bit about how the uncomfortable speaker adopted a characteristic posture to calm her hands during talks.

As she mentioned at the start of her speech, Merkel is only the second German chancellor to address the full U.S. Congress. Although she does speak English (and began the address with a greeting in English), Merkel spoke in German with simultaneous translation. Translations add a few degrees of difficulty to any talk, including the need to craft a speech that conveys the same meanings as the original after translation. If you're a world leader, of course, translations are commonplace. But for the rest of us, translations might be one possible way to publish your talk so that it reaches its largest potential audience.

What else can you learn from Merkel's famous speech?
  • Think of all the ways that a theme could work for you. Merkel addressed the Congress about a week before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seems like a no-brainer, then, to make use of the Wall as a theme, but it's astonishing to see how much work Merkel gets out of this theme in the speech--all without showing any strain. To begin with, the Wall becomes the bridge between Germany's (and Merkel's) past and present. She then uses it to illustrate international cooperation, fiscal responsibility and strategic defense. Then it becomes a metaphor for tolerance, as it is here:
    Even after the end of the Cold War we are thus faced with the task of tearing down the walls between different concepts of life; in other words, the walls in people's minds that make it difficult time and again to understand one another in this world of ours. This is why the ability to show tolerance is so important. While, for us, our way of life is the best possible way, others do not necessarily feel that way. There are different ways to create peaceful coexistence. Tolerance means showing respect for other people's history, traditions, religion and cultural identity.
    She also uses the Wall as a metaphor for nations' reluctance to act on climate change, which she sees as a barrier that separates the present from the needs of future generations:
    Ladies and gentlemen, I am convinced that, just as we found the strength in the 20th century to tear down a wall made of barbed wire and concrete, today we have the strength to overcome the walls of the 21st century, walls in our minds, walls of short-sighted self-interest, walls between the present and the future.
  • Consider how you'll connect with a diverse audience. Speakers at a joint session of Congress know that their audience will contain more than a few members who don't agree with their political leanings or past stances--and those members aren't afraid to sit on their hands to show their disapproval. Merkel deftly heads off some of this by praising a bipartisan cast of Americans--from George W. Bush to John F. Kennedy--to show how the U.S. and German relationship has a history that transcends any current politics.
  • Take a few extra steps--and breaths--to accommodate a translator. It may be rare that your speech gets the simultaneous translation treatment, but Merkel demonstrates some nice moves here that you can steal for other occasions. She is careful to pause between major sections of the speech, and before key lines and jokes, so that the translation has time to hit her listeners' ears and give them a chance to react before she moves on. She also builds a bit more time in between sections by stepping back just slightly from the lectern before beginning a new section. Even if you aren't having your talk translated, these ideas could help you slow down when you speak, especially if you're a nervous speaker.
You can watch video of the full speech from C-Span below, which also contains a translated transcript.

German Chancellor Address to Joint Meeting of Congress

Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by

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