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Repeat after me … and then do it again

Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill – they all knew the power of restatement

I'll only say this once, or maybe twice: IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva in full flow at the World Economic Forum meeting in Riyadh Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed
I'll only say this once, or maybe twice: IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva in full flow at the World Economic Forum meeting in Riyadh

To sound like a leader, you need to sound enthusiastic. You need to sound like you mean what you say. You need to sound like someone that others want to follow.

So, you should repeat yourself.

Why? Because when we get excited, that’s what we do. If you deliberately choose to repeat words, phrases or entire sentences, you will sound excited. And excitement is infectious: the people listening will feel excited too.

This technique was on show a lot a few weeks ago at the World Economic Forum event in Riyadh.

And it is to be seen in almost any inspiring speech by any inspiring leader you care to mention.

Think of Barack Obama’s, “Yes we can”. Or Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream”.

Think of Winston Churchill. “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 think of the most famous speech ever given: the Gettysburg Address. You probably remember the repetition, “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

But Lincoln also uses repetition in multiple other ways in the speech. The word “nation” appears five times, for example, while “dedicate” or “dedicated” appears six times. There are also six further synonyms for “dedication”.

For a speech that is less than 270 words long, that is a lot of repetition. But the speech does not feel repetitious – it feels passionate and it feels persuasive.

That was also the effect when Faisal Alibrahim, Saudi Arabia’s minister of economy and planning, welcomed attendees to the WEF event in Riyadh.

He said: “There are moments in history that must be captured when the stakes are high. This is one of those moments. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this moment, to this place, to this land… this land of dreamers, innovators, risk-takers and doers. Welcome to the Global Growth Platform. Welcome to Riyadh.”

Try reading that out loud yourself and experiencing how it sounds coming off your tongue. Doesn’t it feel smooth? Doesn’t it just feel right?

Can you feel how the repetition builds and then flows on? We have “moments… moments… to this moment… to this place… to this land… this land” and we have “welcome… welcome… welcome”.

Shortly after Alibrahim spoke, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, provided a simpler example when she said: “Unless we tackle these two problems… we may end up with the decade being remembered as the turbulent 20s, or the tepid 20s, and what we actually want is the transformational 20s.”

Obviously, we have the repetition of “20s” here, and we also have the alliterative repetition of the words beginning with “t”. 

In addition, by combining the repetition with a “rule of three” Ms Georgieva makes her statement feel complete and satisfying. Combining techniques like this is the very essence of the soundbite.

And then, at the same event, HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, carried the audience with her as she spoke with great passion and energy about Saudi cultural heritage.

She said: “The cultural heritage is the people and that is our wealth. And when you look at the cultural heritage of the kingdom… for many, many years we had it… we just never used it, appreciated it or loved it. And right now, what you are watching is a renaissance of this country falling in love with its heritage… this country discovering its heritage. And inviting people into that discovery is what changes minds.”

Again, try reading it loud. Don’t you feel carried along and carried away by the words?

A bit like the Gettysburg Address, there are four instances of “heritage” in 73 words – and a further four references back to heritage through the word “it”. Then there is “many, many”, “loved… love” and “discovering… discovery”.

So, if you have something worth saying, make sure that you sound like you believe that it is worth saying.

Say things again and again. Repeat words, repeat sounds, repeat structures – create a flow that sweeps people up, and carries them along with you: their leader.

Lech Mintowt-Czyz is a multi-award winning speechwriter who helps leaders with all their thought leadership needs through his company Speech Success: He used to be a journalist for British national newspapers the Daily Mail and The Times

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