2 key takeaways from Pope Francis’ speech to Congress

The pontiff employed a tandem of important techniques to engage his audience and convey a resonant message.

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Pope Francis’ first-ever papal address to Congress provides an artful example of two key elements of speech content: audience adaptation and speech structure.

Let’s look at these two vital components:

1. Audience adaption

Many leaders have stock speeches to which they add a few local references in the introduction as well as an anecdote or two that will resonate with listeners and support main ideas in the speech body.

In contrast to that superficial type of audience adaptation, the pope’s address clearly was crafted with Congress and the American people in mind. It was not a stump speech.

Careful consideration of the audience started with a reference to the national anthem in his the opening line, when the pope expressed gratitude “for your invitation to address this joint session of Congress in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.'” He continued to connect with American audience members in the introduction of his speech by noting, “I, too, am a son of this great continent.”

The pope also adapted his speech to his immediate surroundings, motioning to the relief portrait of Moses in the U.S. House chamber and saying of the lawmakers before him, “Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses.”

In the body of his speech, the pope adapted his address to help his message resonate with his audience. Rather than ticking off a list of values or priorities, he raised key issues by honoring four notable Americans:

“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self- sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. [. . . ] I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.”

The first two iconic Americans are memorialized on the National Mall, steps away from the U.S. Capitol, where the pope was speaking. By starting his discussion of broader ideals within the context of these vaunted Americans (neither Lincoln nor King was Catholic, of course), the pope built rapport with U.S. lawmakers and citizens of all faiths and creeds.

Building on this connection, he then discussed two lesser-known figures in American history—Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The Washington Post described them in its reporting Thursday as “two Catholics who are beloved by many but were controversial during their time.”

From the opening lines through the body of his speech, the pope carefully adapted his message to his audience. He even concluded by saying, “God bless America,” a closing often used by U.S. presidents and other political leaders.

Related: Create TED-worthy messages for employees, customers and the media at our Storytelling for Communicators Workshop

2. Speech structure

The pope also elegantly crafted his speech’s microstructure—the overt way in which a speaker previews and reviews primary themes of the talk. This technique gives audience members an overview of what is to come, helps them follow points in the body of the speech, and offers one last reminder to help them remember the central ideas long after the speech ends.

For many speakers, microstructure feels forced or awkward. Not so for Pope Francis; his skillful preview was included in the block quotation above. His brief, clear and well-integrated review was:

“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work; the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”

How can you imbue your next speech with the adaptive and structural lessons from the pope’s address?

Christine Clapp is president of Spoken with Authority, a presentation skills consultancy, and the author of “Presenting at Work: A Guide to Public Speaking in Professional Contexts.”


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