Speaking for Change

Learning Objectives

Describe how public speaking can create change in a community.

Your Soapbox

Old black and white photo of a speaker addressing a crowd

A speaker addresses a crowd in 1908. Maybe he’s standing on a soapbox….

Have you ever heard someone talk about “getting on their soapbox” (or telling someone else to “get off their soapbox”?) The term comes from the days when a speaker had to stand on something in order to be heard by a crowd. A wooden crate for shipping soap would have been a convenient platform for this. Hence, the “soapbox.”

In the past, if you wanted to get on your soapbox and persuade a crowd about something, your influence was limited to the reach of your voice. The rise of radio and television provided access to a wider audience, but limited who could share their ideas using that platform. These days, however, we all have access to the biggest soapbox of all: the internet and social media allow us to share our ideas and opinions with the entire world.

Whether you’re speaking to a few people, a local crowd, or the entire wired world, the principle of the soapbox still applies: if you want to make your voice heard, you have to stand out from the crowd. Here are some ways you can use your voice to create change in your community.

Action 1: Unify those who feel the same way. If your goal is to turn a moment into a movement, you need to use memorable, concise, and repeatable messaging to gather and motivate like-minded people.

Action 2: Develop specific calls to action for each type of audience. Change can seem overwhelming. Everyone can contribute, but not everyone has the same power to move the dial. If you only advocate for actions beyond what most of your audience can accomplish, they may feel more helpless than empowered. Create actionable steps for audiences that are attainable within their sphere of control. The average citizen can call their representatives, speak to neighbors, drum up support, help to register voters, and donate money. Business owners can change their policies, investment practices, and community outreach. Civil servants can set policy in line with the vision for community change. By thinking carefully about the levers available to various stakeholders, you’re more likely to create the change you want.

For example, Barack Obama and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance have identified eight specific policies that each city and police force should adopt. They have also created specific behavioral steps for mayors, city councils, and police in asking them to pledge to review, report, engage, and reform the existing policies within their cities. Citizens are called upon to urge their mayors to take the pledge as well as provide them with the specific policies for which to advocate. In this scenario, everyone is able to participate and take action to be a part of change.[1]

Action 3: Research who needs to hear your speech. While social media allows your voice to be heard by more people than ever before, we tend to only include people in our social network that think and feel the same way that we do. Therefore, we find ourselves speaking into an echo chamber. Find out who might be impacted but unaware, who might be aware but apathetic, who might oppose you, and who might have the power to enact what you are advocating for.

Action 4: Put yourself on the agenda. Make appointments with decision makers and seek out opportunities to speak to each type of audience through committee hearings, union meetings, open forums, and town-hall meetings.

To Watch: Emma Gonzalez

After the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a number of student-survivors felt called to advocate for stricter gun-control measures. Overnight, Parkland students like Emma Gonzalez went from high-school students to speakers and activists with a worldwide platform. In the clip below, Gonzales speaks at the March for Our Lives demonstration on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Please note that this video contains an intense description of gun violence.

You can view the transcript for “Emma Gonzalez’s powerful March for Our Lives speech in full” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

This speech is famous not just for its powerful words, but for its heartbreaking silence. During the speech, Gonzalez stands silently for 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the time it took for a shooter to kill 17 people at her school.

To Watch: Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg (born January 3, 2003), is a Swedish environmental activist. In 2019, she came to the world’s attention when she fiercely rebuked world leaders for their inaction on climate change.

You can view the transcript for “Greta Thunberg Young Climate Activist at the Opening of the Climate Action Summit 2019” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

One of the actions described on this page is to “research who needs to hear your speech.” From the beginning of her statement, Thunberg makes it clear that she knows who needs to hear her. “We’ll be watching you,” she says to the world leaders gathered in New York for the UN’s Climate Action Summit. “You are failing us,” she says, “but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you.” Her blunt words and righteous anger made headlines all over the world.

Try It

  1. “Commit to Action: Addressing Police Use of Force Policies.” Obama Foundation, http://www.obama.org/mayor-pledge/.