First, Get their Attention: Public Speaking for Socialists

Some of us are more outgoing or charismatic than others, but no one is born a natural public speaker. Even Eugene Debs, the fieriest of the firebrands, had to stutter before he could shout. Can you imagine that the famous agitator himself once gave terrible speeches that left him mortified? Getting over nerves takes time, but we shouldn’t be shy. As Debs said, “The most thrilling and inspiring oratory, the most powerful and impressive eloquence, is the voice of the disinherited, the oppressed, the suffering and submerged.”

In February, DSA’s National Political Education Committee (NPEC) hosted the first of a recurring training on speech writing and public speaking. A few dozen members from across the country met on three consecutive weekends to learn how best to present their ideas to their comrades and not-yet-comrades.

The U.S. socialist movement is marked by historic speeches, all the way back to the times of mass meetings and soapboxes on bustling street corners. Above all, the ability to communicate is vital, because over time we must convince our coworkers and neighbors that there is a way out of the crises of capitalism.

Being a better communicator is immediately practical, too. Talking well makes canvassing and 1-on-1 organizing conversations easier. Participants in the NPEC sessions agreed that spreading speaking skills throughout our organization will empower new voices to speak up at chapter meetings. These new voices may in turn offer new perspectives, enriching DSA’s democracy and encouraging all of us to strengthen or alter our arguments.

We began with a session on writing speeches. A short presentation shared suggestions: 

  1. Write clearly and simply, without unnecessary complications
  2. Announce the parts of your argument at the beginning and briefly recap them at the end
  3. Don’t include too much so as to not distract from your main points
  4. Use relevant statistics or quotations as evidence, and
  5. Humanize your talk by including stories familiar to the audience or from your own life.

Subsequent sessions offered tips for actually giving speeches (see the video below), after which participants drafted and presented their own original speeches of up to ten minutes. Comrades’ passion and niche interests shone through the widely varied topics, ranging from the importance of the Pullman Strike of 1894, to the relationship between capitalism and the state, to the function of public education in capitalism.

One former warehouse worker argued that the Inland Empire area in California was an important logistics chokepoint for socialists to prioritize organizing because of the volume of cargo that passes through it. Another comrade explained to us how the conservative anti-abortion movement learned from the successes of the New Left and that we should reclaim our tactics. Both the anti-war and anti-abortion movements used important single issues as gateways to broader worldviews: The anti-war movement went from demanding peace abroad to critiquing poverty at home. Later, anti-abortion activists hooked supporters with a religious appeal and converted many to other right-wing issues. Today, think about the Medicare-for-All-to-Marxist pipeline!

Speaking is a skill, and practice makes perfect. If you can, rehearse your remarks and your timing more than once. If you lose your place or forget a phrase, a brief pause is better than a “like” or “um.” Remember to change your tone and volume to emphasize your subject and keep listeners engaged. Your comrades want you to succeed, and they also want to know what informs your strong beliefs.

Participants in the NPEC speakers’ training felt very positive about the feedback they got and the opportunity to practice with peers. Equipped with new experience, one comrade even introduced Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Austin, Texas!

You and your comrades can find out more about the next speakers’ training by emailing [email protected].

Daphna Thier, National Political Education Committeee member