In conclusion

Big speeches and how to give them. Plus a link to a strange one, and 7 other things worth your time.

“Good news/Bad news. Good news: I just got vaccinated! Bad news: I got it because I’m 75.”

—Steve Martin, on getting the Covid vaccine in NYC.


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What I want to understand: how to give an important speech under difficult circumstances.

I’ve done a bit of speechwriting over the years. I like to think I’m pretty good at it.

But I can’t imagine what it must be like right now, trying to put the finishing touches on Joe Biden’s inaugural address—one he’ll be delivering under the strangest possible conditions, with almost no live audience.

Against all that, a lot of people — including some of Biden’s top advisors — say a big part of his job tomorrow will be to strike a note of unity.

Do any of us remember a time when Americans were more divided? The Civil War, probably the Revolution itself, sure— but none of us were alive then.

Now, I know that some of my readers are excited about the inauguration, some are unhappy, and some are waiting and seeing.

That diversity is part of why I keep writing this newsletter, and I’d like to do what I can, when I can, to find ways to strike notes of unity myself.

So, since the big speech is such a big part of the big story this week, I went into my archives, and dug out some good (mostly apolitical) speech-writing and making advice.

In other words, here’s how to be more like Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005, and less like Senator Ben Sasse at a Nebraska high school last year. (I just Googled “worst commencement address ever,” and Sasse’s speech was the entire first page.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Be authentic.

This is in some ways the only advice that matters. Great speeches are about connection with the audience, and the audience has a built-in fraud detector. I hate to go back this far, but if you think about President Bush's short speech in 2001 at Ground Zero, it resonated not because it was a great speech, but because it felt authentic.

Be structured.

Once again, I’ll cite the speech Jobs gave at Stanford almost 15 years ago. One of the best parts is that he says right up front what he’s going to do: tell three stories. If you don’t like the first one, maybe you’ll like the second or third. Tell the where you’re going; bonus points for telling them how it will take to get there.

Sing, don’t just speak.

It’s fitting that yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, since he did this so well. You don’t have to rhyme or look up iambic pentameter; just write or speak with a dash of poetry. If nothing else, finding good phrases to repeat is a good place to start.

Talk less.

President Bill Clinton was first introduced to most of America at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. He gave an interminable, 33-minute speech, in which the biggest applause line was, “In conclusion.” For reference, this newsletter is about 1,350 words long, and the average person reads 250 words a minute. Almost nobody ever says: wow, I wish that speech had been longer.

Know where the exits are.

I always used to suggest building “escape hatches” into your remarks, so that if you need to cut yourself off, you can do it at a natural time. I guarantee you that at least once in your speaking career, both you and your audience will be glad you did.


It’s a great thing about this readership — almost anything I can write about, I know there’s probably at least one person in this group who has more expertise. Probably more than one. Feedback is especially welcome on this one, since it’s a topic I’ve come back to many times.


If you have two extra minutes, here’s an excerpt from the strangest commencement speech I ever saw in person: news anchor Connie Chung at Wheaton College in 1994, in which she started talking about the strange dreams she’d been having recently.


7 other things worth your time

  • There’s so much DC and media news: Parler is back, apparently hosted now on a server in Russia after Amazon’s AWS banned it. One big possible ramification of this is that U.S. intelligence agencies can more actively monitor it, if it’s actually outside the U.S. (The. Guardian)

  • During his third-to-last day in office, President Trump revealed a list of 244 people he’d like to commemorate with statues in a “National Garden of American Heroes.” Among them: Neil Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, Christopher Columbus, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ronald Reagan, Antonin Scalia, Alex Trebek — and Grover Cleveland, who apropos of nothing was the only U.S. president to lose his reelection bid, but then win a subsequent election and become president again. (NPR)

  • More details emerged about Biden’s plans to try to do a massive overhaul of U.S. immigration law on Day 1, including an eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without current legal status, as long as they were already in the country prior to January 1. (WashPost, $)

  • The FBI is vetting all 25,000 U.S. National Guard troops assigned to the inauguration, due to fears “about an insider attack or other threat from service members.” Separately, they’re warning of the possibility that “adherents of the QAnon extremist ideology” will dress up as National Guard troops on Wednesday, according to a report. One more while we’re at it: the FBI also says it’s investigating whether a 22-year-old woman who took a laptop from Nancy Pelosi’s office during the Jan. 6 riots may have tried to sell it to Russian intelligence. So far, the FBI says it can’t find her. (AP, WashPost, CourtListener)

  • “Murderer dies in prison.” A bunch of media organizations are being criticized and/or apologizing for their headlines about Phil Spector’s death, which emphasized his music career and downplayed his conviction for killing actress Lana Clarkson. (BoingBoing)

  • A 36-year-old man from Los Angeles lived inside a secure area of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for three months without anybody noticing, apparently because he was afraid of Covid. That last part doesn’t make sense, but as the judge in his case pointed out: “Based upon the need for airports to be absolutely secure so that people feel safe to travel, I do find those alleged actions do make him a danger to the community.” (Chicago Tribune)

  • Finally, just a nice story — maybe even a bit of unity. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills beat the Baltimore Ravens in a playoff game Sunday, during which the Ravens’ quarterback, Lamar Jackson, had to leave in the second half due to a possible concussion. Bills fans responded by donating almost $250,000 to Blessings in a Backpack, a charity Jackson supports. Earlier, the same fans donated $1 million to John R. Oishei Children's Hospital in honor of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen’s grandmother, who died last year. (ESPN)


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of Pixabay. I’ve written about speech techniques many times before, including at Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, gosh, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.  

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