How to give history-changing speeches: top tips from Shakespeare

Why is “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” one of the most famous quotes of all time?

shakespeare twitterOne reason is that this line is a masterpiece of speech engineering.

Shakespeare is still relevant today, 400 years after his death, because he was a public-speaking genius who knew exactly how to use words to inspire people to do things. Good and bad.

9 Powerful Speech-writing techniques

While researching this idea, I found a checklist of nine techniques that Speechwriters today use to engage, seduce and bamboozle their audiences.

  1. Make your opening dramatic with a challenging question.
  2. Start your sentences with a verb.
  3. Use contrast.
  4. Use repetition.
  5. Use the rule of 3.
  6. Use metaphors and vivid images.
  7. Tell stories.
  8. Make historical and geographical references.
  9. Use humour.

Shakespeare used them all, but “To be or not to be? That is the question.” contains no fewer than  five out of the nine speech-writing techniques:

hamlet teenage tshirtTechnique 1: Make your opening dramatic with a challenging question.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 2.   Start your sentences with a verb.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 3.   Use contrast.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 4.   Repetition.

Repetition can take the form of repeating rhythms, sounds, and even pauses. But simply repeating the same thing, over and over again, is a powerful technique politicians use to make what they are saying sound true.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 5.  The rule of 3.

You should arrange information in threes (points or beats)  because

  1. We are wired to remember three pieces of information even more easily than one piece of information
  2. Information arranged in a list of 3 sounds like a story, with a beginning a middle and an end.
  3. Arranging what you say in this way has been shown to hypnotise an audience.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

A speech that changed the course of history

hre0009_hi.jpgShakespeare used all 9 of these techniques throughout his plays. But Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius like a textbook demonstration of  three techniques in particular:  the rule of 3, contrast and repetition.

In this scene Brutus and his gang of senators have just assassinated Julius Caesar, because they thought Caesar was becoming too ambitious and a threat to democracy. Brutus has just delivered a competent, but pompous and professorial speech to the Roman people, more or less persuading them that Caesar’s death was in Rome’s best interests.

Then Brutus invites Marc Anthony, one of Caesar’s generals, to show his loyalty to Brutus by telling the Roman people why Julius Caesar had to die. This is in spite of Brutus’ confederates insisting this is a terrible idea (“Are you crazy? You’re inviting Marc “Tony Robbins” to speak after you? This is public speaking – and literal – suicide!”) In fact, Marc Anthony intends to incite the people of Rome to rise up and avenge Caesar’s death. But he has to do this while pretending to support Brutus’ actions.

How does Marc Anthony set about demolishing Brutus’ reputation, without seeming to?

First of all, he grabs the people’s attention with the rule of 3 and a few, well-chosen words: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears!”, in stark contrast with Brutus’ ponderous opening: “Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe;…”

Then, he uses contrast again. He reassures Brutus and the Roman people by telling them: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” And then he spends the next fifteen minutes praising Caesar.

Throughout the speech Marc Anthony repeats three main ideas, over and over again.

  1. that he, Marc Anthony, is a simple man, no good at public speaking and is just speaking from the heart, (a beloved technique of politicians like Berlusconi and Trump – the “I’m a man of the people” tactic);
  2. that yes, Caesar was ambitious, but he did many great things for Rome and the Romans, which Marc Anthony illustrates with plenty of examples, saving the best till last – Caesar’s will and bequests to the Roman people;
  3. but 3, that Brutus must have been right to kill Caesar because Brutus is an honourable man. We know Brutus is honourable because Brutus kept going on and on about honour during his speech.


Throughout the speech Mark Anthony repeats “But Brutus is an honourable man” no fewer than 10 times, contrasting Brutus’ honour with the powerful visual aid of Caesar’s still warm, dead body lying there in front of everybody in a pool of his own blood, covered in stab wounds, inflicted by Brutus and friends.

When Mark Anthony finishes his speech, sure enough, the people of Rome riot, civil war breaks out, and Brutus and his followers commit suicide. And we know that Mark Anthony (or Shakespeare) knew exactly what he was doing because at the end of his speech he says, to himself

“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot”

(I have played my trick – now let it work)

So if you want to learn public-speaking techniques for inspiring people  – to do good, or bad – look no further than Shakespeare, the master of verbal manipulation, and especially how he uses the rule of 3, contrast and repetition.

In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at Shakespeare’s most charismatic supervillain: Richard III, and how he exploits cognitive dissonance to get what he wants.

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