“Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give
Me death! – Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech
It’s a fascinating fact that more of your impression on the audience is going to be made by the voice and the body than by the words themselves. You can completely undercut a great speech by reciting it in a monotone or by being uncertain and monotonous in your gestures and your delivery with your body. Nothing should ever happen that is not motivated by something in the words, but you
will infinitely reinforce the impact of your words with proper use of the voice and the body.
We’re going to turn to one of the giants of the American Revolution – Patrick Henry, who was speaking in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775 trying to get his fellow members to vote to join the Revolution. Patrick Henry gave the famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech in order to get Virginia off the fence and clearly behind the revolutionaries. Here are the words of an eyewitness who was in the House of Burgesses when Patrick Henry spoke on that day in 1775:
The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations. Finally his pale face and glaring eyes became terrible to look upon.
At the words “or give me death” at the end of his speech, Patrick Henry plunged an imaginary dagger into his heart and collapsed back into his seat. You have to be careful on the gestures; there were things that must have seemed dramatic and exciting in 1775 that might seem to us over the top. Nonetheless, it’s very clear that what got people so excited was the theatricality of his delivery. When he finished, there was cheering, yelling, applauding, and an almost unanimous vote that Virginia would join the Revolution. A lot of the power came not from the words but from what that anonymous observer told us: the passionate action that put the words across.
The action of a speech has two parts: the voice and the body. Let’s talk about the voice first. It may never have occurred to you how many elements make up your vocal production in terms of coloring the meaning and the emotion of every speech you make. There’s volume, pitch, tone, pauses (that is, silence); there’s also the pace at which you speak, the accents you put on individual words, and finally the inflection of a phrase. All of this is part of speech, and to some extent you need to be making conscious decisions about how you are going to inflect your words in order to give them the utmost meaning and force.
Volume is the easiest tool here: You have to use variety; you have to save the forte and the piano, the loud and the soft, for specific moments, or make your speech a crescendo, as Patrick Henry is said to have done with the “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Then there’s pitch: You should vary the pitch from low to high, with most of the speech given in a comfortable middle range and high and low pitch used for dramatic value.