Like snapping a towel to skin, you want to sting your audience in a good way. Malcolm X was a great presenter, and he used this technique better than most.
He could snap his audience to attention. He compelled his listeners to sit up straight, to focus on his message.
You can do this several ways, too. It’s up to you what method you choose, but it should fit your audience and your presentation.
One effective method is the use of a “grabber” line. This is a surprising and unconventional sentence or an unusual fact that immediately alerts the audience that its about to hear something special.
Not just another canned talk.
One of the finest public speakers – or presenters – of modern times was the late Malcolm X. Yes, Malcolm X was a great presenter, and his speeches are textbook examples of how to grab an audience, mesmerize it throughout his presentation, and then mobilize it with an especially powerful call to action.
The Effects of Rhetoric
Whether you agree or disagree with him is irrelevant to the point that he was a captivating communicator. He drew from a deep well of powerful presentation techniques.
Malcolm’s speeches are just that – speeches – and they are written for the ear and not the eye. As such, they are best read aloud so as to absorb the measured beats, to feel the repetition of key phrases.
And to learn the effects of certain rhetorical flourishes.
And when you read sentence after sentence, you sense the power and the deep moral outrage coming through, sometimes explicit but most often through a steady recapitulation of ideas using different phrases, but key words.
You gain a sense of the gathering storm. You almost hear rolling thunder in the distance.
Today, I mine his speeches for their cadences, their imagery, their use of allegory, anaphora, and turns of phrase.
With respect to grabbing an audience’s attention, too many presentations and speeches begin with routine thank-yous and ingratiation of the audience.
Bad presentations launch with a peppering of routine phrases, a gripping of the podium and a squinting at notes or jerky backward glances at an unreadable projection screen.
Remember that a speech is tremendously different from a written document. Pauses and repetition, tone and inflection are essential with the spoken word.
Especially Powerful Technique
Let’s look at the beginning of a typical Malcolm X speech and see how he grabs his audience. Read it with his spoken delivery in mind.
This speech – Message to the Grass Roots – was delivered in Detroit on November 10, 1963. Irrespective of the time and place and circumstance, which of course leavens our approach, note that 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.
In the space of four sentences, Malcolm has drawn in his listeners. He has laid out a situation statement that, at that moment, captivated his audience.
He established a mood of confidentiality and rapport, and then makes a bold statement – “America has a very serious problem . . . We have a very serious problem.”
Who wouldn’t want to hear what comes next?
Malcolm X was a Great Presenter with Power and Depth
Notice that he did not engage in throat-clearing and chit-chat.
No “Thank you Mr. Chairman” . . . no “So good to see so many committed activists tonight and familiar faces in the crowd.” Notice also the use of repetition of key phrases: “Very serious problem.”
Straight to the point, and a bold point it is. See what comes next . . .
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.
Has Malcolm studied his audience? Is he reaching out with a message that is directly relevant to his listeners?
Most of all, has he grabbed your attention?
He surely has.
Malcolm was expert at executing Presentation Snap, grabbing his listeners in a way that zeroed in on them . . . on their needs, concerns, desires, hopes . . . framing the issue in colorful language, and creating listener expectations that he will offer bold and radical solutions to real problems.
For now, focus on the grabber to seize the attention of your audience. Mull this excellent example from Malcolm’s talk. Ask yourself how he contrived it . . . and how it works.
In subsequent posts, we look at more examples from Malcolm X as he moves through delivery of his presentation and builds to his call for action at the end.