On the final stop of my tour of rhetoric in Washington DC I visit Eleanor Roosevelt. She is the only First Lady and one of very few women to have had a statue built in her honor in the United States capital. The quote next to the statue of the First Lady reads
‘The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one Nation. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.’
It’s a good quote, but I think it’s a shame that it doesn’t belong to Eleanor Roosevelt! Her statue forms part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and the line is from a speech he made to Congress in 1945, following the Yalta Conference. Although Eleanor Roosevelt cannot take the credit for those words in particular, they are fitting because of her work in support of the United Nations.
While her speeches are not etched into granite in the nation’s capital, Eleanor Roosevelt was still an accomplished speech giver. So today’s blog is going to look at what we can learn from the First Lady’s address to the United Nations in Paris in September 1948.
Eleanor Roosevelt – The Struggle for Human Rights
Not long after she made this speech the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Anyone who watched the latest season of House of Cards might find it interesting to know that President Truman nominated her a delegate to the UN General Assembly, where she helped to draft the Universal Declaration! This is interesting from a speechwriting perspective too.
What can we learn from Eleanor Roosevelt and ‘The Struggle for Human Rights’ speech?
For this post I want to turn to Aristotle. Aristotle divided the means of persuasion used by a speaker into three categories: ethos, pathos and logos. Don’t be put off by the Greek words – they sound lofty and intimidating, but when broken down they’re easy to understand and helpful for anyone making a speech.
Ethos relates to the speaker’s credibility. Eleanor Roosevelt had a wealth of public and political experience to draw on. Her husband’s poor health meant she stood in for him on regular occasions whilst he was President. She was also a veteran activist in her own right and she championed issues like women’s rights and African-American civil rights. Her commitment to the cause of freedom gave her credibility in the eyes of the audience before she stepped on stage.
For most people credibility isn’t an issue – if you’re an expert in your subject people will count you as credible. It’s a much greater challenge for people representing professions which people already mistrust – politicians, bankers, realtors – I’m looking at you! If you’re worried about credibility highlight the education or experience which makes you credible to speak on the subject.
In her speech Roosevelt makes a passionate case for freedom, she opposes the USSR’s system of government, and she gives a powerful critique of the propaganda of totalitarian states. She takes on big meaty subjects and tackles them deftly and eloquently.
Logos is the logic of the argument. You’re more likely to persuade the audience if you make a logical argument they can clearly follow. This sounds obvious but if you’re speaking about something you’re already passionate about it’s easy to forget that not everyone agrees with you. I used to do a lot of debating and it was a wise person who told me that it’s always easier to win a debate when you’re forced to make a case for something you don’t believe in. It sounds counterintuitive, right? But actually, when forced to make a case for something you believe in, you have to think through the argument much more carefully.
Pathos roughly translates to ’emotional appeal’. This is the MOST IMPORTANT element of your persuasive speech. In fact, building an emotional connection with the audience is the most important element of every speech, you’ll ever give, in your whole life. Are we clear?
Roosevelt knew her audience well. Her audience (Parisians) had suffered badly during the war. In order to build a connection with them, she consistently put herself in their shoes. She uses the pronoun ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and she reflects the experience of the French people during the war back to them. This quote is a particular favorite:
‘We know the patterns of totalitarianism — the single political party, the control of schools, press, radio, the arts, the sciences, and the church to support autocratic authority; these are the age-old patterns against which men have struggled for three thousand years.’
Next time you write a speech or prepare a presentation, forget the Greek and ask yourself:
- Is it clear to the audience I’m an expert in this subject?
- Is there logic behind my argument?
- Have I appealed to the emotions of everyone in the room?
If the answer to all these questions is YES, you can be confident you’ve nailed a persuasive speech.
Did you miss the other stops on my tour of rhetoric in Washington DC? Find them here:
3 Things Abraham Lincoln taught me about speechwriting
3 reasons Martin Luther King Jr. was a master of rhetoric
Great Speeches of our Time, Hywel Williams
Eloquence: The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth