John Drescher

Hunt v. Helms: Two pros on what makes a good speech

Paul Farmer, an internationally known physician, lost much of his audience when he spoke at Duke’s graduation. A few days later, Jason Brown, a football player turned farmer who spoke at a Triangle YMCA banquet, captivated his.

Farmer is a physician who’s done remarkable work in Haiti and elsewhere. He was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” Perhaps because of modesty, Farmer didn’t tell the graduates any stories about his work. Some graduates said they wish he had.

Farmer spoke for about 40 minutes. It seemed longer.

Brown played at UNC and for seven years in the NFL. He retired even as several teams expressed interest in him. He felt called to farm – even though he knew nothing about farming – so that he could give away food to people who need it. He told his story, which included the death of his brother in Afghanistan. As his voice caught, the audience was silent, still, spellbound.

Brown spoke for about 30 minutes. It seemed shorter.

The difference in the reaction of the two audiences got me thinking: What makes a good speech? I turned to two Raleigh consultants who have advised politicians and others on communication strategies: Gary Pearce and Carter Wrenn.

Pearce, a Democrat, advised former Gov. Jim Hunt. Wrenn, a Republican, advised U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. They blog at

‘An ephemeral thing’

I asked them: What makes a good speech? What advice have you given to people before they speak? When it comes to North Carolinians, who are the three best speakers you’ve heard?

Wrenn said it’s vital a speaker have an authentic voice. “It’s an ephemeral thing to describe,” he told me. “Reagan had a voice that was all him. When you hear one, you know it. Churchill was the same way. A great speaker has a voice like a writer does.”

Good speakers, Wrenn said, tell people something they didn’t know or get people to look at a problem in a new light. They tell a story rather than giving a lecture.

Wrenn advises speech makers to not read their speech to the audience. “Talk to people, don’t speak at them,” he said. “And a speech that isn’t entertaining – that’s just a recitation of facts – is just a dud.”

His top three speakers:

▪ Sen. Helms. “He had an authentic voice that was all him.”

▪ Billy Graham. “He had a message and he explained it clearly and simply.”

▪ Ira David Wood. Wrenn heard the actor speak about a play. “He was very natural. It was like he was talking to you.”

Pearce said brevity is most important. “There is no such thing as a good 40-minute speech. Period,” Pearce said in an email. He cited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one of the great speeches in American history, delivered in less than three minutes.

‘Writing to be heard’

A speech needs a clear message, he said, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, in which he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Also, Pearce said, “Writing to be heard is different from writing to be read. It calls for imagery, good metaphors. You have to draw a picture.”

Pearce advises speakers to keep it short, know your audience and be hopeful and optimistic.

His top three:

▪ Gov. Hunt. “His sincerity and belief in what he said always came through.”

▪ Jim Valvano. “He was always funny, provocative, perceptive and uplifting.”

▪ Betty McCain, a Hunt pol known for her wit: “Because she had the single best line ever in a commencement speech, to my daughter’s graduating class at St. Mary’s: ‘You think this is a small school? The high school I went to was so small we had to use the same car for driver’s ed and sex ed.’”

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or