Earlier, I related how Malcolm X did not do much throat-clearing at the beginning of his talks.
Instead, he thrust a metaphorical sword into his audience.
He drove deeply to the heart of the issue in just a few short sentences, tapping into listener sensitivities.
His initial “grabber” was not meant simply for shock or surprise like a cheap circus stunt. It was shock and surprise linked to the needs of his audience, directly relevant and intertwined closely – even spiritually – with his listeners. Malcolm did not engage in academic circumlocutions, oblique arguments, or vague generalizations. He spoke directly, with punch and verve, with color and power.
He shunned latinate words and phraseology and drove home his point with Anglo-Saxon directness – short, powerful, repetitive sentences, constructed of the sturdiest syllables.
And once he had audience attention, he kept it.
Holding the Audience in your Grasp
One technique he used to hold his audiences rapt was the offering a single point and then colorfully making that point by means of a repetitive technique called the anaphora. It’s a technique that you can use as well. Here’s how it works.
A powerful and carefully selected phrase is utilized at the beginning of a succession of sentences. With each repetition, the presentation builds to a climax to produce a powerful emotional effect. In Malcolm’s example we’re about to see, he uses the anaphora skillfully to identify a point of commonality among those in his audience that he holds with them.
I previously offered an example of one of Malcolm’s speeches delivered in 1963. Let’s revisit that talk, review the first couple of sentences, and then see how Malcolm uses the anaphora to powerful emotional effect. The speech was called Message to the Grass Roots, and he delivered it in Detroit. Note how Malcolm begins his talk by immediately establishing intimacy with the audience.
We want to have just an off-the-cuff chat between you and me . . . us. We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.
We all agree tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a very serious problem. Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem.
America’s problem is us. We’re her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn’t want us here. And every time you look at yourself, be you black, brown, red or yellow, a so-called Negro, you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you’re not wanted. Once you fact this as a fact, then you can start plotting a course that will make you appear intelligent, instead of unintelligent.
What comes next?
Now that Malcolm X has the full attention of his listeners, it’s time to make point # 1 – unity and commonality of purpose. He chooses the anaphora as his technique, and he does so masterfully. His phrase of choice is “You don’t catch hell because . . . ”
What you and I need to do is learn to forget our differences. When we come together, we don’t come together as Baptists or Methodists. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Baptist, and you don’t catch hell because you’re a Methodist. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Methodist or Baptist, you don’t catch hell becasue you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you don’t catch hell because you’re a Mason or an Elk, and you sure don’t catch hell because you’re an American; because if you were an American, you wouldn’t catch hell. You catch hell because you’re a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason.
Malcolm has established beyond all doubt that he shares a commonality with his listeners that is directly tied to the central thesis of his talk. He drives his point home with the anaphora: “You don’t catch hell because . . . ”
He utilized the same theme, or trope, in the video below in this speech before another audience in 1964. This time his anaphora was slightly different: “We’re not brutalized because–” And it is just as powerful with its mesmerizing effect. The entire video shows a master presenter in tune with his audience and in control of his message.
Malcolm’s delivery is masterful . . . his voice, his tone, his inflection, his humor, his posture, and his gestures combine with his rhetorical techniques to establish an incredible bond with his listeners. You sense his control of the event.
So what does this have to do with you and with business presenting?
A powerful and graceful speaker, Malcolm X utilized an entire battery of oratorical weapons. He intuitively understood the oratorical methods developed over more than 2500 years, and he wielded them with grace and with power. These techniques can be yours. You need only understand them, their function, their effects, and practice them.
For instance, the anaphora of repetition. You can use anaphora as a powerful technique to hammer home your most important points and to hold your audience in the midst of your presentation.
But you may Hesitate
You may protest that Malcolm X lived and struggled in a different place and time over issues far more important that you or I will ever face. Yes, he did. The stakes were incredibly high and, for him, became quite literally a matter of his death. But regardless of the message, the techniques of powerful presenting remain the same. They are verities handed to us over centuries.
And if you refuse to learn from our great legacy of master speakers, if you do not emulate them, who then will you learn from? The CEO of Coca-Cola? Hardly.
A cornucopia of especially powerful techniques is available to you. You may not struggle for justice on an international platform, but this does not absolve you from crafting the most powerful presentation you possibly can using the techniques of the masters. Surely while the emphasis and tone of your message changes with circumstance, but not the methods themselves. The anaphora is one such technique you should incorporate into your repertoire.
Malcolm X used a multiplicity of techniques to engage his friends and to disarm his enemies. We’ll look at them in future posts.