For the Novice: Putting Poetry in Your Performance

How to incorporate a piece of verse into a larger presentation.

By Celia Berrell, ACB, CL

Poems can be powerfully moving, evocative and even funny. Using a piece of poetry within your speech can add quality and depth to your message.

Throughout history, prominent leaders have incorporated poetry and lyrics into their speeches. When William Lloyd Garrison, a 19th-century American social reformer, gave his speech “On the Death of John Brown” – in tribute to Brown, an abolitionist – he included his own lines of verse: “Onward, then, ye fearless band/Heart to heart, and hand to hand/Yours shall be the Christian’s stand/Or the martyr’s grave.”

Speaking to an audience about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy quoted the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop, upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” The late Edward Kennedy, longtime senator of Massachusetts, gave what is regarded by many as his finest speech ever when he delivered the keynote address at the 1980 Democratic Convention in New York City. Titled “The Cause Endures,” it included bits and pieces from the Tennyson poem, “Ulysses”:

“I am a part of all that I have met…
Tho’ much is taken, much abides…
That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts...strong in will.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Poetry is for Everyone, Including You
Adding poetic segments to your speeches provides a great opportunity to expand your gestures and vocal techniques. It’s an excuse to become more theatrical in your delivery. As a prolific writer of rhyming verse, I have incorporated poetry into my speeches since becoming a Toastmaster more than four years ago. Audiences have offered plenty of positive feedback and encouragement. They’ve said my face lights up, and I grow more animated and enthusiastic.

To effectively present a piece of poetry within a speech, it is best if the poem is fairly short (maybe a couple of verses at a time). It is possible to fit more than one example of poetry into a five- to seven-minute speech, but you need to maintain a balance between the poetry and your prose so that the poem doesn’t take over your speech.

Rehearse the Verse
Memorize the verses thoroughly and you’ll enjoy many benefits. They become an anchor-point within your speech, making it easier to remember the other parts of your presentation. Thus, you become less dependent on your notes and freer as a speaker. Most important, when you memorize the poetic section of your speech you feel more confident, which energizes your presentation.

When you have a poem that encapsulates the sentiments of your speech, it’s tempting to place it at the beginning – and start with a bang. Unfortunately, this is like giving a stranger an enthusiastic hug before you’ve been introduced. It may be appreciated, but your audience is left wondering, “Wow. What was that about?” A good speech needs an introduction – and so does a poem. Prepare your audience so they will be able to savor its subtle flavors when it’s delivered within the body or conclusion of your speech.

If the poem is not of your own creation, you need to acknowledge the author. This is best done before reciting the poem so that the factual information doesn’t interrupt the momentum and emotional impact of the poetry. 

The Beauty of Poetry
Reading poetry on your own can benefit you in many ways, whether or not you incorporate it into your speeches. If you are struggling to find a topic for your next speech, poems can provide what you’re seeking. Many poems can be interpreted in different ways and touch our hearts and minds with their revelations. When you find a line of verse that positively resonates within you, it will help to fire up your writing for that next dynamic speech.

Poetry is not to everyone’s liking and can be an acquired taste. But you must start somewhere to acquire that taste. Through your speeches, you might be the ideal person to introduce poetry to your club members, providing them with the opportunity to enjoy this diverse and inspirational art form. 

Celia Berrell, ACB, CL, is past president of Mt. Sheridan Toastmasters in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia, and she writes educational science poems. Visit