Of the 204 speeches that were delivered at the 2016 Republican and Democratic Conventions in the United States—71 by Republicans and 133 by Democrats—one has stood out. I refer to the speech by Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in Iraq.
Mr. Khan spoke on the final day of the Democratic Convention. With his wife standing beside him, he delivered a short, but powerful speech in which he strongly rebuked Donald Trump and many of his policies. Trump has responded by criticizing Khan and, in so doing, has drawn harsh criticism, including from within the Republican party.
Given that the speech has received so much attention, it is worth taking a closer look at it. The video of the speech is below and the analysis follows.
What was good about the speech?
- The fact that Khan was able to speak about his deceased son in front of millions of people (at the convention and on television) took incredible courage. It could not have been easy for him to maintain his composure the way he did.
- Before beginning to speak, Khan waited almost a full minute while the audience was applauding. James Humes calls this the “power pause”. “[S]tage some silence before you speak,” writes Humes. “Much like an actor might convey a character of stature, you can enhance your credibility through the way you act. … Every second you wait will strengthen the impact of your opening words.”
- I respect his wife, Ghazala Khan, who stood beside him but never spoke. Normally, you don’t have someone standing beside you when delivering a speech because it can be distracting. However, given that the speech was about their son and about Muslims in the United States, I thought it appropriate that she be there. Of course, Donald Trump has tried to make political gain about the fact that she did not speak, but his ploy has hurt him more than it has helped.
On that note, the reason why Ghazala Khan did not speak was because, 12 years after her son’s death, it is still too painful for her to talk about it without breaking down. So she did the right thing by not speaking. It is perfectly OK to show emotion when you speak; however, if you are going to fall apart when speaking about a particular subject, you should until you can do so while remaining in control. A good example in this regard, is Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk.
- Before Khan spoke, the Democrats showed a two-minute video in which Hillary Clinton told the story of their deceased son. Yes, it was carefully scripted. Yes, it played on emotion with the images and music. But it is an emotional story. More importantly, the video helped put Khizr Khan’s speech into context and it spared him the need to recount the details of his son’s death, something that may well have been too hard for him to do. And, it allowed him to focus on the bigger message.
- Khan was authentic. He said afterwards that he had practiced “in my head and in my mind” and “spoken from the heart”. My friend and fellow speaker, Olivia Schofield, says that actors are experts at being someone else, but speakers are experts at being themselves. Khan was authentic.
- He made excellent eye contact with the audience and spoke without notes or a teleprompter.
- He used his worn copy of the United States Constitution as a powerful prop, revealing it only when he referred to it.
- He had some memorable lines which have been quoted thousands of times on social media and in the mainstream press, including a couple of powerful rhetorical questions (erotema) for Donald Trump:
Let me ask you: have you even read the United States constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.
Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America.
- Khan concluded with a clear call to action for the audience. He urged people not to take the election lightly, to get out and vote and to vote for Hillary Clinton.
What could be improved?
- Khan spoke in a strong, steady voice, which is important. However, at times he spoke so slowly that people thought his sentence had come to an end and began applauding. This obliged him to wait a moment, repeat part of the sentence and then give the missing conclusion. The clearest example of this can be seen from 1:10 to 2:05 of the speech. The sentence that Khan wanted to say was:
Tonight we are honoured to stand here as parents of Captain Humayun Khan and as patriotic American Muslims, with undivided loyalty to our country.
However, he spoke so slowly that people began applauding after “Muslims”. When he then completed the sentence, the subsequent applause was not nearly as powerful. It’s too bad, because the sentence, as written above, is powerful. Speakers should not speak too quickly, but they should not speak too slowly either.
- From 4:25 to the end of the speech (7:10), Khan gestured repeatedly by pointing his index finger at the audience. In fact, he did it 50 to 60 times! Given who he is and what he has been through, I don’t think it detracted from his speech. However, I would not recommend the same approach with your speeches. Repetition of a gesture can be powerful, up to a point; beyond that point, the gesture becomes more diluted and distracting. And, pointing your finger is something that must be used with caution because in many cultures it can cause offence.
- At 5:00 of the video above, Khan challenged Donald Trump to “look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law'” as he held out his copy of the Constitution. Trump will have no trouble finding “liberty,” but the phrase “equal protection of law” does not appear in the United States Constitution.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Emphasis added.)
It is equal protection of “the laws” not “law”. The misquote was minor and did not detract from the meaning of the Amendment. But if you are going to quote a person or a document, you have to get it right.
- Khan ended his speech by urging people to vote for Clinton instead of Trump. This is what he said:
And vote for the healer. Vote for the strongest, most qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton, not the divider.
With this structure, the speech ends on a negative, telling people what not to do and giving Trump the last mention. It would have been stronger to flip it around to finish on a positive note with Clinton:
Don’t vote for the divider. Vote for the healer. Vote for the strongest, most qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Your final words are important. Whenever possible, frame them in such a way as to end on a positive tone, with the emphasis on what you want.
You can read the text of Khizr Khan’s speech here.