Nelson Mandela: Expert on Adapting a Speech to an Audience

Suppose you are a politician who needs to unify a diverse coalition at home as well as gain the support of the international community on behalf of your people, who are suffering under the rule of an oppressive minority. A worldwide speaking tour is arranged with audiences as varied as African miners, African journalists, the United States Congress, young people in Harlem, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Oxford dons, Irish concert goers and the British Parliament, to name a few. The challenge is obvious.

How does a speaker adapt a speech to a specific audience without changing his message?

Nelson Mandela knew how to do this. In the four years following his release from prison in 1990, he toured not only his own country but the world, speaking to all sorts of groups, urging support for his program to end discrimination in South Africa and bring democracy to the country. During this tour he gave an object lesson in how a speaker can skillfully adapt his speech to an audience without compromising the message.

Even as a boy Mandela was a rebel, impatient with restrictions. As the son of a tribal chief, he was groomed to take his place in the tribal hierarchy. But the boy had grander plans for his life. Running away from home, he made his way to the city of Johannesburg, found work as a clerk in a law firm and became a lawyer. He was soon ­active in the protest movements to improve the lot of blacks in the country. South Africa was dominated by a white minority who was increasingly placing restrictions on races they considered inferior, in particular black Africans. Mandela’s opposition to this policy led to his arrest in 1962 and a sentence to life imprisonment.

For the next 27 years he was held in a succession of prisons, often at hard labor. By the late 1980s the violence and turmoil in South Africa had become so bad that the “radical” Mandela seemed like a moderate. Hoping to win points for its goodwill gesture, the government released him in February 1990. Speaking at a rally, Mandela told a crowd of supporters, “On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.”

His remark was significant, since it shows that Mandela wanted support – not only from the diverse groups in his own country, but also from the international community. Over the next four years he traveled throughout the world, rallying support for the African National Congress (ANC) and urging continued pressure on the government of South Africa. During his speaking tour Mandela showed that he was a master of the art.

In June 1990, he arrived in the United States. Speaking to a crowd of 100,000 in Harlem, New York, Mandela was quick to find common ground with his audience:

Whilst my comrades and I were in prison, we followed closely your own struggle against the injustices of racist discrimination and economic inequality. We were and are aware of the resistance of the people of Harlem and continue to be inspired by your indomitable fighting spirit. I am able to speak to you because of the mass resistance of our people and the unceasing solidarity of millions throughout the world. It is you, the working people of Harlem, that helped make it happen...

In Harlem, Mandela spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters who had experienced many of the same sufferings and would appreciate the emotional close to his speech. A few days later Mandela spoke to a very different audience: the United States Congress. In this address Mandela adopted a more dignified tone and, borrowing language from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, stated that his country “thirsts for the situation where those who are entitled by law to carry arms...will not turn their weapons against the citizens simply because the citizens assert that equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental human rights.”

Less than a week after his speech to Congress, Mandela was in Dublin, Ireland, addressing a crowd at a concert sponsored by the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. After paying homage to an organization that “has been a consistent and staunch partner of our people in the struggle against the infamous system of apartheid,” Mandela closed with words likely to resonate with an audience of music lovers: “Soon, we shall gather in a free South Africa with our music, our dance, and with our poetry resounding throughout the world with the simple message: Amandla!” [i.e., “power to the people”].

Early the next year Mandela gave two speeches in South Africa in front of two very different audiences. Accepting an award from the Johannesburg Press Club, he noted that the ANC had stood up for freedom of speech and fought alongside “editors, writers, musicians and others whose work has been suppressed and banned.” Mandela finished his speech with some literary prose appealing to a crowd of journalists. “What is required of every South African today is the simple recognition that his/her fellow citizens, like himself, are at root simple, uncomplicated human beings. We are ‘warmed by the same summer’ and ‘chilled by the same winter,’ and it is recognition of that common humanity that shall bond us into a nation.”

A few months after this speech, Mandela was made an honorary life president of the National Union of Mineworkers. He spoke to the miners in language they understood about matters that concerned them most, their “work in the heat deep in the bowels of the earth... fear of being buried alive...being treated like worthless cattle...the loneliness of hostel life, the control of your every move...painful death that comes from inhaling the dust that destroys your lungs...Yet it is your sweat and blood that has created the vast wealth that white South Africa enjoys.” Mandela wisely portrayed himself as one with his audience, using inclusionary words to indicate this. “We want a national culture of respect for each other, for our customs and traditions, for our different skin colors and religions. We want this not only in law but in the very fabric of society...Long live the National Union of Mineworkers!”

The desire for freedom and independence lies deep within all cultures and Mandela was creative in appealing to it. In a message to the South African Jewish community, he praised it for having made a contribution second to none to the development of South Africa and referred to the religious rite at the heart of the Jewish faith: “the Passover festival, commemorating the emancipation from slavery of the children of Israel in ancient times.” Mandela continued his theme of a shared commitment in a speech before the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, noting that those of Jewish descent were “disproportionately represented among our white compatriots in the liberation struggle.”

Mandela was no less complimentary to the Muslim community in his country, referring to “the Koranic injunction to rededicate ourselves to the resolute fight against any and all forms of injustice, tyranny and oppression.” Mandela’s ecumenical viewpoint toward religion is illustrated in a passage from a lecture he gave at the Oxford Center for Islamic studies. “When the Prophet Mohammed sent his oppressed followers to the African Christian King Negus of Abyssinia for safety, and they received his protection, was that not an example of tolerance and cooperation to be emulated today?”

Mandela’s speech to a Hindu audience preparing to celebrate the Festival of Lights continued this theme of unity in the face of oppression. He recalled an incident that occurred in the notorious Robbin Island prison when the inmates were visited by Hindu priests bringing presents. “The authorities were insistent that these parcels were only for believers in the Hindu faith. Through our struggles we were able to challenge the authorities on this narrow conception and we insisted that all the embracing philosophies that Hinduism is based on extended a hand to all of humanity.”

The year 1993 once more found Mandela on the road, this time speaking to the British Parliament. Mandela urged Britain to use its influence and contacts to speed the transition to South African democracy, invoking the great tradition of his host country in both politics and poetry.

We are conscious of the fact that the buildings where we are today represent a political history which reaches back through many centuries. They symbolize past heroic struggles against tyranny and autocracy...a determined striving to ensure that the people shall govern...
The much-used words of one of your great poets, John Donne, speak to what we are trying to say:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

The next year Mandela’s long struggle was rewarded when the first truly democratic election in South African history gave his party a majority in parliament and made him president of the country. This victory was made possible by the efforts of countless people working over the course of a century, but surely Mandela’s skillful oratory played a large part in bringing together the diverse groups in South Africa and gaining the support of the international community.

Not all of us will lead a nation into the future, but we can all learn a lesson from Nelson Mandela, one of the most creative speakers of the 20th century.

William H. Stevenson, III, is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama. He was formerly a member of three Toastmasters clubs in the Huntsville area. Contact him at