If you work with a mission-driven organization, you may find yourself speaking at a political rally soon. (Maybe sooner than you think, the way things are going.)
You may be there to offer a short greeting and encouragement, or to deliver a rousing featured address, or something in between. Either way, there’s a lot you can do to ensure your rally speech stands out and makes a difference.
I’ve written plenty of speeches for rallies and protest marches over the years, and it’s taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t. And for this post, I’m supplementing my advice with insight from someone with an abundance of first-hand speaking experience: Tzeporah Berman, an internationally renowned environmental campaigner who has been speaking at rallies for a quarter century.
Planning your rally speech
Know your goals.
As with everything else you’re doing, your speech needs to spring from a theory of change. What do you and your organization want your remarks to accomplish? Do you want to introduce yourselves to an audience that isn’t familiar with you and your work? Reassure allies who may not be aware of your support? Ask people to donate money or volunteer their time? Inform the crowd of a major piece of news?
Whatever your goal, be sure it aligns with both your organization’s strategy and the rally’s overall purpose…and then let it drive your message. (And there’s a goal you know you’ll want to achieve: helping ensure the participants have a positive, engaging experience.)
Know the one thing you want people to remember.
A clear focus is helpful to pretty much every speech — but nowhere is it more important than at a rally. Your audience has an uphill battle in listening attentively to you: the acoustics are almost always less than ideal; they’ve probably been on their feet for a while, so they’re physically uncomfortable; and there’s probably a lot of background noise and chatter.
So give them every possible chance to understand where you’re coming from. And say it more than once: repetition not only aids memory, but increases the odds an audience member will hear your message at least once.
Advocate for the audience.
Time passes differently at a rally. Just because the organizers offer you 20 minutes after a long lineup of other speakers doesn’t mean you have to take it. “Short, short, short,” Tzeporah says; five minutes is a healthy chunk of time for a rally speech. Once they pass the 10-minute mark, only the most gifted speakers are likely to earn much goodwill from the audience — or giving them anything they’ll retain afterward. Work with the organizers to keep the timing humane.
Read — and heed — the agenda.
You can mention some of the speakers who have preceded you, or who are coming up — especially if they, or their organizations or missions, help underline a point you’re going to make. If you’re coming on right after a performance, you can refer to it and bridge to your topic. On the other hand, if three speakers before you are likely to cover the same ground you want to till, think about how you can approach it differently.
Writing your rally speech
Get right to the point.
Long preambles don’t serve anyone. There may well be things you need to say at the outset to thank and recognize people, groups and communities. But don’t dwell on these (especially if every other speaker is going to be saying the same thing). You’ll use up your audience’s attention long before you get to what you really want them to remember.
Keep it simple.
My friends at The NOW Group talk about a “connection, contrast, solution” structure: connect emotionally with your audience to establish common ground, draw a contrast with the point of view you’re opposing, and describe the solution you support. Many activists, including Tzeporah, draw on Marshall Ganz’s “Story of self, story of us, story of now” approach, which parallels NOW’s in many ways. (I first came across it through Jennifer Hollett, now head of news and government at Twitter Canada.) And classic storytelling covers three acts: establishing, developing and resolving a dramatic conflict.
Whatever structure you use, make it a simple one that sticks to your message — and ends on an emotional high note.
Establish who you are.
Tzeporah points out that there’s a good chance most of the rally audience won’t know you, and may not know your organization, Unless the rally emcee delivers a long introduction (which you don’t want them to do), you’ll want to begin by establishing who you are, what you represent and how you connect to the issue at hand.
And don’t be afraid to get personal here; your audience wants to know you share their passion.
Motivate, don’t educate.
The people at a rally are almost certainly already on your side. You want to motivate and inspire them with your speech, and build their sense of common purpose.
The most common mistake Tzeporah sees at rallies is speakers trying to educate and explain from the mic. Apart from the fact that listening to rally speeches is a dreadful way to try to learn, the time you spend explaining things your audience already understands is time you could be spending motivating them.
Honor the occasion.
Recognize and reflect the excitement of your audience over this moment, and what it means. If there are participants from more than one language group, you may want to offer a few words (or more, if you have some fluency) in those languages. And acknowledging that you’re meeting on traditional Indigenous territory is an increasingly established practice in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Live your mission.
One of the goals of many advocacy organizations (and rallies!) is to give voice to people and communities most affected by the issues they’re dealing with. You can advance that goal by amplifying their voices in your speech — for example, by sharing quotations and stories from those communities. But as Tzeporah points out, you’ll want to be sure you aren’t appropriating those stories. So ask for permission… as well as guidance in how to frame them.
She’ll sometimes take that idea so far as to invite a representative from an affected community to join her at the mic and address the crowd directly. If you do that, be sure to prepare together so you can each speak as effectively as possible.
Get the details right…and get them beforehand.
Learn the correct pronunciation of everyone’s name you intend to mention, even if it’s just in passing. That’s triply true if you aren’t familiar with it; stumbling over a name comes across as thoughtless at best. (And by the way, saying “Did I get that right?” doesn’t help.) Write it out phonetically in your text if you have to, and practice it.
And find out the preferred name of any organization you mention. One group may prefer to have its acronym spelled out letter by letter, while another may have just rebranded. And be sure to get any social media account names or hashtags right; don’t be that person who gets half the crowd using “#17demo” when the official hashtag is “#demo17.”
Go beyond the same-old same-old.
Every cause has them: the venerated anecdotes, quotations, statistics or phrases that get repeated so often they lose their power and meaning. Give your audience something new. Surprise them with a perspective they haven’t heard before, a new story with an ending they won’t see coming, a startling fact that hasn’t already been made into a thousand memes and bumper stickers. You won’t just hold their attention; you’ll equip them with something new that they can use in conversations long after the rally wraps.
Think rhythm and repetition.
More than any other speech, an address to a rally begs for you to use tools like rhythm and repetition. Tzeporah’s a fan of a repeated sentence frame — for instance, “It’s not okay that [example 1]. It’s not okay that [example 2].” And if you have a repeated element at the end of your sentence, your crowd may well take it up as a chant — especially if you prompt them. Tzeporah prefers yes and no questions: “Are you with me? Are we going to let them [x]?” Or “If they say [y] we say no! If they say [y] what do we say?” “No!”
Rehearse and revise.
You should be doing this for any speech you give, of course. But it’s amazing how many people get to the mic, pull out the pages and proceed to read lifelessly, stumbling over phrases and even losing their place. Even if you don’t have time to commit your speech to memory, the time you spend reading it through out loud—and fixing the parts where you trip over awkward wording—will make an enormous difference in your delivery.
And if you can commit your speech to memory, at least enough that you’re working from bullet points instead of a full text, you’ll have a dramatically stronger connection with your audience.
Delivering your rally speech
Take pity on your audience.
There aren’t many more uncomfortable ways to hear a speech than standing around for hours while speaker after speaker harangues them. So inject gentle levity where it’s appropriate. Use concrete examples and sensory details that engage their imaginations and let them forget for a few minutes how much their feet hurt. Go easy on the statistics and factoids. Vary your pace, tone and volume. Strive for clarity, and don’t make them strain to hear you.
And again: don’t go over your time.
Talk to the sound crew.
Introduce yourself and ask for any advice they have about how to use the mic. Let them know in advance if you tend to be a loud talker or a quiet one, and if there are any points where you’re going to abruptly change volume. If you’d like to be remembered for saying something other than “Is this thing on?”, have a brief conversation with the tech team.
Look for obvious actions.
Here’s another tip from Tzeporah. Find out when you arrive: is there a petition or a signup sheet circulating? A rally website where people can register to stay informed? A mobile number to text to show support or make a donation? If there’s an obvious tangible action available for people to take on the spot, and it doesn’t detract from your call to action, add it to your speech.
Listen to the organizers.
In particular, take their scheduling advice very seriously. Many events have to hit particular marks on a clock: if they don’t start marching by 5:00 p.m., have a featured speaker or dignitary on-stage by 6:30 and clear the park by 8:00, they may pay a hefty penalty or miss a news deadline. You may tell yourself it’s only five more minutes, but if all the other speakers do, too, then there’s trouble. Run over time, and you may not only inconvenience your audience — you could cost the organizers money and news coverage, while causing a logistical migraine.
Stick to your message.
It can be tempting in the moment to talk at length about an outrageous news item from the day, or something a previous speaker said that got a huge crowd response, even if it has little to do with what you’re there to say. And if you’re getting riled up yourself, you may find it hard not to crank your rhetoric up to 11.
But there are serious risks in going off-message. At best, you may find your key message — the one your organization is counting on you to deliver — overshadowed by your off-the-cuff remarks. At worst, adversaries may seize on something you say in the heat of the moment to hurt your organization’s reputation and your personal credibility.
Remember the larger audience.
These days, you aren’t just speaking to the audience in front of you. Thanks to smartphones and social networks, your words may be able to reach a much larger audience. Think about how you can phrase your key points to make them as easy as possible to share, and signal to your audience that something worth sharing is coming: for instance, “If we take nothing else from today, I want it to be this…” Have a staff member or volunteer capture your speech on video and in photos, and share key moments on your channels immediately. (And be generous: where another speaker’s points resonate with you, share those as well, giving them full credit.)
Let your emotion show.
You’re almost certainly here because you care deeply about your organization’s mission. You and your audience share an emotion in a way few other occasions allow; channel it in what you say and how you say it. Use emotional words that, yes, capture anger, sorrow and frustration, but also uplift and offer hope. Construct your speech with an emotional journey in mind. And aim for genuine emotion, not forced sentiment or whipped-up demagoguery. Let it show in your voice and your words, and you’ll connect with your audience at a profound level.
Don’t sweat it if you don’t have their attention.
Even at the best rallies, you’ll face stiff competition for your audience’s attention. Participants shooting selfies, tweeting updates, talking with each other — and that’s not even considering factors like an underpowered sound system or ambient noise. Some folks are still listening to you; concentrate on delivering your message to them as effectively and powerfully as you can.
End when it’s over.
As soon as you’ve said what you came to say, finish. Give a thank-you and a wave to the audience if you like, then step back from the mic. Take a moment to receive and acknowledge their response (that may feel like you’re basking in their applause, but really you’re just showing appreciation). And then hand it over to the emcee or the next speaker. Lengthy thanks or acknowledgements at the end will just sap the energy from what you’ve just said; this is about leaving on a high note, keeping things moving… and a great rally experience for everyone.