On Speech Techniques
Remarks at an Embassy Workshop
London, 16 June 2009
Today I would like to share with you some techniques I have found effective when giving speeches. But first, I would like to explain why making a good speech is so important, and then what makes a good speech. Lastly, I will talk about some of the problems we might encounter.
Why are speeches important?
Good speeches can help to shape a better international image of China. In Britain, listening to speeches is as common as listening to an opera or a concert; it is part of people’s social and cultural life. Almost every association, academy, think-tank and university hosts regular speeches. It is a platform that no one can afford to ignore.
Of late, a book titled Say It like Obama has become a best-seller. Though coming into office only recently, President Obama has spoken on several important occasions, which has enabled him to achieve one of his big ambitions: “to change the image of America.” Looking back, we see that at key moments and turning points in history, great speeches that altered the course of history and changed people’s hearts and minds are always remembered.
Though not every diplomatic speech has to be historically insightful, they play an important role in sending out China’s messages to the world and changing stereotypes and misconceptions about China, which also calls for a strong sense of mission. So it’s our compelling responsibility to deliver good speeches, get our messages across, and enable new understanding and insights among our foreign audiences.
So, what makes a good speech?
A good speech should have a specific purpose, like answering some questions the audience may have, or providing information of interest. Whatever the occasion, it is always important to stick to the most popular topics about China backed up with relevant facts and figures and, if possible, quotations.
There are two equally important components of a speech: one is what we want to say, and the other is what the audience want to hear. If we only focus on what we want to say, it will become a lecture, not a speech. The audience will sit through uninterested, and go home unimpressed. However, if we only focus on the interest of the audience, the speech will miss its purpose. It works best if one can combine the two aspects to make a speech that the audience can relate to. In preparation, we should first learn the educational and professional background of the audience, as well as their age group, and how much they are likely to know about China. Then we can decide what we want to include in the speech and how sophisticated we want the messages to be.
Give you an example here. I was invited to make a three-minute speech for Lang Lang’s solo concert in London to a very learned audience. It is hard to write and deliver a great speech of only three minutes, but it was such a valuable opportunity I would hate to miss. So I began my preparations by searching for stories about Lang Lang and his father, where we found the grip of the speech. When the moment came, I started with their story and then moved on to the changes and development of China. I then concluded that it was the opening and reform policies that had provided young talents like Lang Lang the great opportunities for self-fulfilment. Whilst it was a short speech, I am pleased to say it received long applause. We found the right grip of the speech. From this case we can see that we do not necessarily need big stories to present China’s case. We can develop any point, however small, to be convincing enough to get our messages across.
As to the techniques of speech, brevity is its soul. We first have to decide on a consistent position we want to pass on to the audience, then try to answer or reason it out, step by step until finally coming to a conclusion that strengthens our stance or our call for action.
The British make very simple and clear speeches, without forking out too much. Soon after I was assigned to work in London, I was invited to speak at the Royal Society of Arts about China’s development. I prepared a plentiful amount of materials and a slide show and the audience seemed to be interested. However when it was over, a friend came to tell me that he had found it hard to follow me or to remember what has been said.
People go to listen to a speech because on one hand they want to learn new knowledge and information, and on the other, they hope to enjoy the process just as they enjoy a concert. So instead of including a laundry list of topics, it is better having a main point, which is to be repeatedly explained and reinforced. In Britain, the routine time for a speech is between 20 and 25 minutes, so forking out too much means that you are unlikely to serve any of them well.
A good beginning means your work is half done. A number of sentences into your speech, whether or not you have engaged your audience is a foregone conclusion. I have used both good and bad opening remarks. Once I was invited by the Political Society of Eton College to speak to students aged 17 or 18. I struggled to decide on what to begin with. So, my opening eventually started like this: “Before coming here, I searched ‘Eton’ on the Chinese search engine ‘Baidu’ and it produced 68,000 search results.” The atmosphere was immediately warmed up, as the young students were so curious to know how Eton was described by the Chinese on the Internet. I believe this is a successful opening that engages the audience well.
The earlier you get to your point, the better. One should know better than to stray too far away from the core message. By raising a question first, even a controversial one, you can arouse the interest and curiosity of the audience. You can ask, for example, “Is China a power?” or “Is China’s economic growth sustainable?” A rhetorical question can also get the job done.
Facts speak louder than a thousand words and personal experience and examples are far more convincing than abstract concepts. Yiwu is one of my favourite examples, with which I would explain why the massive Chinese manufacturing sector is only producing thin profits and therefore drastic appreciation of the RMB is out of the question and emission cuts have to be phased in gradually for it to be economically viable at all. The more solid the case, the more convincing it will turn out to be.
The conclusion is crucial to the whole speech. The best way to build to the conclusion is to let the audience realise it for themselves with sound reasoning and logic.
In 2009 at a commemoration for Shakespeare held at his former residence, I was invited as a representative of all the guests to make a five-minute acknowledgement speech. The guests included fans of this great playwright from across Britain. My key point was that the British did not know China anywhere near as well as the Chinese knew Britain. I told them that on a rainy day in Beijing, to shelter myself from the rain, I went into a bookshop and found shelf after shelf of original versions of English books, whereas in the stores of Britain, I had seldom found books about modern China, let alone any original Chinese books.
Then I talked about the familiarity of the Chinese with Shakespeare. I told them in diplomatic negotiations I usually quoted “To be, or not to be” and it was really a helpful phrase. My audience were obviously amused. But then I said, I wonder how many in this country have heard of the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, who actually passed away in the same year with Shakespeare, or of Tang’s work The Peony Pavilion. The audience were silent. I said that now it was time for the West to learn more about China. It was a pointed remark, in fact critical, but when I paused, I heard loud and long applause from the audience.
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