According to Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You For Arguing, the key to any great speech is 12 seconds of inspired language. As with everything related to the origins of rhetoric, this inspired 12-seconds goes back to the ancient Greeks, who correlated the length of a human breath (about 12 seconds) with the length of a human thought or memory.
The Greeks believed that this breath came from the gods, principally the Muses — the goddesses who personified all knowledge of the arts, science, geography, mathematics, and drama (Zeus was the father of the Muses, and Mnemosyne — the goddess of memory — was their mother). To be “inspired” by the Muses meant to have the breath of the gods breathed into you (in Latin “inspired” means “breathe into”).
Truly inspired words are not just any words. As Heinrichs explains, these words must be words that reflect not only the speaker’s ideas, but also the speaker’s character, and they must be words that come from the heart. Inspired words are also carefully crafted by the the speaker, using elements of rhetoric that give them the greatest impact. Finally, inspired words have the most power when they have a cause or purpose behind them, such as a call to action.
When you are writing a speech, consider the purpose of your speech and its main point. Then, carefully craft your Inspired Twelve Seconds (ITS) by writing down your words and applying your knowledge of rhetoric to revise them until they pack a perfect punch. Next, write the rest of your speech, and strategically place your ITS where it will have the most impact. When you are practicing your speech, memorize your ITS, and when you are delivering it, act as if your ITS is an answer to a really interesting question that someone has just asked you.
As an example, Jay Heinrichs sums up the ITS with his own ITS:
What inspires people to do more and to better their lives lasts twelves seconds, the length of a human breath. The ancient Greeks called this inspiration.
Watch Jay’s excellent video from his ArgueLab website:
When you are reading and listening to speeches, take note of the words that stand out, the words that seem to be inspired and that capture the character, emotion, and reasoning of the speaker. Record these exemplars, study them, and analyze them until you see how they work. Doing this will help you improve your own writing. Adding to your own rhetorical tool belt, you’ll have new strategies that will help you express and structure your own ideas so that they have the greatest impact on an audience.
One historical example of the potential impact of an ITS comes from 2004. A state senator from Illinois addressed the audience at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004. His name was Barack Obama, and the speech he made that night propelled him to the presidency four years later:
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America. (37 words)
In this space I’ll be collecting additional examples of ITS’s:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. -John F. Kennedy
This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. -Abraham Lincoln
To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge. –Nicolaus Copernicus (25 words)
When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge. –Confucius
Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper. They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable. -R.D. Walshe
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. -John Ruskin (28 words)
Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser (47 words)
Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. As by the one, health is preserved, strengthened, and invigorated; by the other, virtue — which is the health of the mind — is kept alive, cherished, and confirmed. -Joseph Addison (38 words)
President John F. Kennedy, our King Arthur, challenged the wizards at NASA to land men on the moon. When those wizards completed that quest, they wanted to reprise the achievement by sending humans to Mars. -Alex Roland, “Getting To Mars” (35 words)
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
-Emily Dickinson (43 words)