In Praise of Long Sentences in a Speech

Christopher Witt —  July 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

 

Lincoln used long sentences in his speeches.I often hear it said that speakers should keep their sentences short.

Such advice is, in my opinion, a mistake.

It’s true that short sentences tend to be simple, and simplicity can be the servant of clarity. But clarity is the goal, not simplicity.

If you say speakers should keep their sentences clear—immediately comprehensible, able to be understood by their audiences on first hearing—I’m in total agreement.

But I believe in the value, beauty, and usefulness of long sentences in a speech.

Consider some of the masters:

Lincoln:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” (75 words)

Churchill:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (141 words)

Kennedy:
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” (67 words)

Long sentences piled one on top of the other can grow tedious, so it’s best to intersperse them with shorter sentences.

But long sentences have several benefits.

1. Long sentences are better able to address complexity.

The world we live in and the problems we face are complex, and we do ourselves and our audiences little justice by reducing our response to them to short and simple epigrams.

2. Long sentences are more pleasing.

Short sentences have a certain pizzazz. (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”) But they quickly grow tiresome. And they lack the pleasure that longer sentences make possible, sentences that add detail and richness, step by step, sentences that have a rhythm and build to a satisfying conclusion.

3. Long sentences are more revelatory of a speaker’s character.

Long sentences provide more information, and in doing so give greater insight into the working of the speaker’s mind, into their reasoning, their values, their understanding.

Agree or disagree? (Feel free to respond in short or long sentences.)

 

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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