For the past several months, I have had the privilege of hearing Marshall Ganz speak about the use of personal stories in public speaking during his course called Public Narrative: Self & Us & Now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Students in this course come from every country, every discipline, every age, and every ethnicity. If you are a few minutes late to the cavernous Starr Auditorium in Belfer Center, you are likely to be among the many sitting in the aisles, rather than in a seat.
Ganz is a gentle speaker himself, and his classes are a series of questions. He posits an idea and then probes the audience for their responses. His wisdom is ever so slowly revealed as he guides the class to deeper understandings of how great speakers do what they do. Only once have I seen him reveal the emotion underneath his calm: a student asked him about his personal experiences with Robert F. Kennedy. We had just watched a video of Kennedy speaking in Indianapolis, April 4, 1968, where he talked of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Ganz had tears in his voice as he spoke about King’s death and Robert’s assassination a mere three months later at the Ambassador Hotel. He was there. He heard the shots.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of great speakers analyzed early in the course. Many are familiar with only the last few minutes of his historic speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, the powerful and moving “I have a dream” conclusion. However, the “dream” that ends his speech makes even more sense if we have heard the “nightmare” which begins it.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
King calls for action in “the fierce urgency of Now,” and warns the listeners that there will be “a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” He continues, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Yet he asks his listeners for temperance in their actions.
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
King creates inclusion throughout the speech. He calls on both black and white to act.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
And in the soaring conclusion he brings himself into the speech: it is his dream that he speaks of, a dream that can become our dream, too.
The central theme of Ganz’ course is that great speeches in acts of leadership have three fundamental parts: Self (our personal experience), Us (our common experiences, beliefs and values) and Now (what we should do right away and how we should do it). When the class examined King’s speech, it became startlingly clear how he wove the Us and Now together in the first two-thirds of his speaking and brought his personal experience in only at the end, the section where he went “off-script” and spoke from his heart, the section emblazoned in our memories. And the final words of his speech weave Self, Us and Now together.
…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
This speech is breathtaking in its power and poignancy. In our own public speaking, it’s not likely that we will rise to the quality of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rhetoric. Nor is it likely that we will be at the nexus of history in the way that he was. Yet we can bring ourselves to our speaking in a more authentic and effective way.
We can investigate our personal connection to our leadership challenges. We can find the story of Self and have the courage to speak it, the reason we are doing what we are doing, the moments of revelation or understanding that propel us to make a difference in the world. We can hone this story of Self so that it is simple, clear, and memorable in its detail.
We can include the Us: what do we have in common? What is our shared history? What is our shared purpose? Even if you are speaking to an audience that may not agree with your values, if you dig a little deeper, you can find the place where you and they exist together, where there’s a common thread that binds you.
It is essential, as well, to bring in the Now. What exactly do you want us to do? In what way would you like us to do it? Give us tasks that we can accomplish today; give us larger goals that encompass a grander scope of action.
My time in Marshall Ganz’ class has flown by. He has opened my eyes to a new way of hearing great speakers, a new way of speaking myself, and a new way to teach public speaking and storytelling. During the few months that I have been listening to this master at work, I’ve offered these suggestions to any number of friends and/or clients – and they work! Try them. Experiment. Think more deeply about your purpose and how best you can help move the world forward. And then speak!