Analysis of a Speech by Philip K. Howard

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer from New York and author of the books The Death of Common Sense, The Collapse of the Common Good and Life Without Lawyers. One of his great concerns is the manner in which his country, the United States, has become paralyzed by the proliferation of laws and lawsuits, and by the pervasive threat of litigation.

In this TED talk, Howard offers four suggestions for fixing the American legal system. It is an excellent talk. Following the speech is my analysis of what we can learn from it about public speaking.

So, what can we learn from Howard about public speaking? In particular, what can we learn about giving a speech where our general objective is to persuade our audience to agree with our position on a matter? Let’s take a look at what I thought were some of the key parts of his talk.

  • 0:30 – Howard states his objective right up front: The law is a powerful driver of human behaviour, and the US needs to overhaul and simplify the law to release the energy and passion of Americans to address the challenges facing their society. Straight talk with the audience at the outset is almost always appreciated. They know your position and now it is up to you to build your case.
  • 0:46 – He seeks out common ground with the audience early on by noting how the law has become a bigger part of their lives in recent years. In a persuasive speech, it is a good idea to start where there is agreement and move on to matter where there is, or might be, disagreement.
  • 1:20 – Howard begins the first of several stories that reinforce his point about the absurd state of the law in the US today. (Tell stories, tell stories, tell stories! You’ve heard me say it before; you’ll hear me say it again.) And the first set of stories are about the education system – something with which most people have direct experience.
  • 2:50 – He returns to his thesis: We have been taught that the law is the foundation of a democratic society, but in recent decades, the country has become a legal minefield and it has changed us (again seeking common ground with the audience).
  • 3:10 – He goes into another short story, this time about the medical profession. Again, something with which people can relate.
  • 3:25 – Howard gives an example of how this seemingly uncontrollable web of rules has even snared him, again establishing common ground with his audience.
  • 4:00 – He mentions an example of the crazy type of litigation in the US that we often read about. Now, this type of litigation certainly helps his case. But does Howard attempt to exploit it? No. To the contrary, he downplays it, stating that these kinds of cases comprise a small minority of cases and can be easily addressed. This is a brilliant move on his part, for it heightens his credibility when he gets to his main point: These laws have changed American society to such an extent that people no longer feel free to act on their own best judgement; the result is a stifling of initiative and problem-solving. This is an excellent example of focus in a speech. We usually cannot cover every point in our allotted time. We must prioritize. Unfortunately, most people fail to do so. They believe that it is better to try and cover everything rather than focus on the main points. As I tell the students in my public speaking courses, “You have to decide what your key message is and focus on it. If everything is important, nothing is important; if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”
  • 4:30 – Howard asks, “So what do we do about it?” By this time he has set up the problem and begins to look at solutions.
  • 4:55 – He introduces a terrific metaphor – looking at every problem through a “legal microscope”. It is one to which he exploits to maximum effect.
  • 5:40 – “Of course, this is Utopia. [pause]It’s a formula for paralysis, not freedom. [short pause] It’s not the basis of the Rule of Law; it’s not the basis of a free society.” Great line.
  • 6:00 – The first proposition for change.
  • 6:00 to 8:00 – He uses stories and statistics to support the rationale for the first proposition. Note the diverse fields from which the stories and statistics come: medicine; education; the environment; transportation; everyday items such as coffee and fishing lures.
  • 9:35 – Howard is not afraid to speak bluntly: “People are acting like idiots.”
  • 11:10 – The second proposition for change. And what a great opening line: “The challenge here is not just one of amending the law, because the hurdle for success is trust.”
  • 11:45 – “It drives us from the smart part of the brain … to the thin veneer of conscious logic.” Great line.
  • 13:05 – The third proposition for change.
  • 14:30 – The fourth proposition for change.
  • 16:50 – “You can’t run a society by the lowest common denominator.” Great line.
  • 17:00 – The beginning of his final call to action – a shift in our philosophy.
  • 17:20 – Note the effective use of the triple “if … then” series, said rapidly and building in intensity for effect.
  • 18:00 – The emotional ending. Howard’s commitment and passion for the subject were evident throughout his speech. However, the emotion in his voice for his final few words was poignant.
  • As a final, general comment, I thought that he sprinkled humour nicely throughout the speech to help lighten a serious topic.

How could Howard have made this speech even better? I have two suggestions.

  • It would have been wonderful to see him deliver it without notes, or at least with fewer notes. I appreciate that he had a lot of material to cover, but it seemed that, on occasion, he slowed up when he had to refer to his notes. Not having to hold his papers would also have allowed him to gesture much more effectively. When he spoke without looking at his papers (which was most of the time) he was incredibly engaging and persuasive.
  • He stood in one place the entire time. That is a shame. He had a wide stage and should have used it. Well timed, purposeful movement engages an audience. Moving about would also have allowed Howard to interact more with the people sitting along the edges of the auditorium.

My suggestions, however, do not detract from the fact that this was a wonderful speech delivered by a speaker who spoke passionately and eloquently on a topic of great importance. As a lawyer myself, I found it particularly moving and I agree wholeheartedly with Howard’s common sense approach to a significant problem.

If you want to learn more about Philip K. Howard, you can visit his site here.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Analysis of a Speech, Delivery, TED and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Analysis of a Speech by Philip K. Howard

  1. Pingback: A Public Speaking Alphabet | Manner of Speaking

  2. Gabriela says:

    What a great selection of speeches in your blog! And your analysis is ever so informative. Listening to the speeches and reading your comments is a great pleasure. Thank you!

    • John Zimmer says:


      Thank you for the comments! This is a terribly belated response. Don’t know how I overlooked it but better late than never.


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  4. Andy Thorp says:

    Hi John
    Great piece and really detailed analysis – wow!
    I ran a competition for some of my clients recently to analyze the TED talk of Sir Ken Robinson (How Schools Kill Creativity). A bottle of champagne went to the best entry and I think it stimulated some deeper thought on how to truly connect with an audience.

    I reached a personal milestone recently, talking at the TEDx event in Warwick University, England. It’s the independently organised version of ‘big TED’ and I consider it a stepping stone towards a lifelong ambition to speak on the main stage. I tend to talk about the human element of business and the importance of personal branding, something that’s taken hold in the US but not yet in the UK.

    Look forward to reading more of your posts.
    Best wishes
    Andy Thorp

    • John Zimmer says:

      Andy, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Much appreciated! And congrats on speaking at TEDx. That’s huge – well done. As for the speech by Sir Ken Robinson, it is one of my favourites on TED. In fact, if you search my blog, you will see that I also analyzed his speech. Have a look to see how it compares with the entries that you received. (If it’s good, I won’t hold you to the champagne. Perhaps a pint of beer together in the future.)



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