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"Be a voice not an echo." - Albert Einstein

How to Move an Audience in Public Speaking


[Gk. katharsis < katharirein, to purge < katharos, pure.] 2. A purifying or figurative cleansing or release of the emotions or of tension, esp. through art. (The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition)

What does it take to be an extraordinary public speaker—one that uses emotions to be authentic and credible and speak with presence and charisma? Let me ask that differently: “What’s involved in being simply extraordinary speaking in public?”

For part of the answer to that question lies in that added word: simplicity.

“Simplicity,” Leonardo da Vinci told us, “is the ultimate sophistication.” To be at our very best every time we speak, we need to embody both the concept and the practice of simplicity.

Let’s look at how both play out in one of the outstanding speeches of our time.

Are you the type of speaker who knows how to engage and enthrall audiences? To make your own presentations memorable, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience."

Ronald Reagan’s Speech at Bergen-Belsen

On May 5, 1985, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in northern Germany. Bergen-Belsen was a notorious Nazi-era camp in which tens of thousands of prisoners died, including Anne Frank.

President Reagan had been invited by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to participate in a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. The ceremony was to be held at a military cemetery at Bitburg, Germany. Controversy erupted when it was discovered that Nazi SS soldiers were buried there. Reagan’s team decided that the president would give a speech first at Bergen-Belsen.

Reagan biographer Edmund Morris’s Wall Street Journal article, “Acknowledging the Inadequacy of Empathy,” discussed this situation as the 30th anniversary of the Bergen-Belsen speech approached last month.

Because of the developing political crisis in 1985, it was crucial that the President’s remarks at the concentration camp should make clear Reagan’s—and America’s—moral position. A former Reagan speechwriter was called to Washington to help make that happen.

The Power of Simplicity in Public Speaking

According to Morris, the result was Reagan’s greatest speech. The Bergen-Belsen address, he opines, was oratory "imbued with genuine rather than staged emotion." Since Reagan was an actor, says Morris, you could never be sure that he shared the emotions he was talking about, for what concerned him more was making other people feel those emotions.[1]

But Reagan understood what was needed in this speech. The profound and terrible truths of what had happened in that concentration camp needed simplicity in delivery. Great truths never need to be shouted from rooftops; more often, they move most when they are spoken softly, sometimes even whispered.

The better the writing, the more important the occasion—and the more emotional the moment—the less we as speakers need to do. This is the essence of the actor’s art. But it applies equally well to the speaking we all do in our professional lives and on social occasions. From key meetings to conference speeches to wedding toasts to eulogies, the more you can reach the essence of what you’re there to say without embellishing your delivery, the more surely you’ll reach your audience. Here's more on 5 essential techniques of speaking for leadership.

Think of it this way:

The more powerful the words, the simpler your delivery should be.

How to Move an Audience in Public Speaking

According to Morris, Reagan himself was moved to catharsis. What a wonderful word from the ancient Greek, embodying the sense of emotional release and purification that the very best speeches and presentations accomplish.

Watch a video of Reagan’s speech at Bergen-Belsen. Note the unadorned, simple way he speaks, without vocal flourish of any kind. It’s a reminder—and actors know this—that with powerful material, nothing needs to be added in performance. “Gilding the lily,” is the apt term. When what we are saying is good and true, we need do nothing but say the words. The emotion in them accomplishes everything we’re trying to achieve.



It’s part of the paradox that your performance in public speaking shouldn’t be a “performance.” As a public speaker or presenter, you shouldn’t ever try to be good, for then you won’t be. If you keep your eye on the prize—the needs of your listeners—and do your best to get through to them through a passionate performance of what you’re saying, you’ll achieve all the excellence you desire.

It’s the foolproof way to move an audience in public speaking.


[1] Edmund Morris, “Acknowledging the Inadequacy of Empathy,” The Wall Street Journal, May 2-3, 2015, C13.

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