Captivate Tough Audiences with Activist Dick Gregory’s Speaking Formula

Want to know how to capture your audience’s attention? Here are 5 strategies you can learn from comedian and political activist Dick Gregory.

Holding a university audience’s attention would be tough in any decade, yet doing that in the late 1960s was especially difficult. That was the era when students demanded unprecedented rights and involvement in university decisions. Student movement leaders even held sit-ins for days at a time in administration offices. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the campus mantra.

Yet on February 11, 1968, when comedian/civil rights activist Dick Gregory spoke at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, Memorial Auditorium filled long before Gregory’s introduction. Even more significant: students remained spellbound by Gregory’s speech for 90 minutes. No one left, and when the speech ended, applause indicated the audience would have remained for another hour. 

Why? Though he had been discovered and promoted by Hugh Hefner and then featured by talk show king Jack Paar, Gregory’s reputation as a speaker fell far short of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. So what made Dick Gregory so mesmerizing that day?

FIRST: He was the living example of his message. Rather than accept the comfort of his wide acclaim and solid income, he risked his career and his life in calling for justice for black people at all economic and social levels. Just prior to the famed march on Selma, Alabama, Gregory spoke there for two hours to foster participation. Daily, he endured slurs, threats, and rejection.

SECOND: He spoke without bitterness, and issued no summons for revenge. While some other black leaders demanded reparations and total upheaval, Gregory remained a calm spokesman for reason and for change through the legal system.

THIRD: He appealed to students through his trademark humor. Audience members roared with laughter when he told about ordering chicken as a customer in a segregated restaurant. When his order arrived, three white young men told him, “Whatever you do to that chicken, we’ll do to you.” Without a second’s delay, Gregory put down his knife and fork, picked up the chicken. . .and kissed it. 

FOURTH: He could switch the mood from funny to very serious with a quick, smooth transition. Example: “How would you feel,” he asked, “if that ‘cracker’ (term used widely then for a white racist) had thrown you to the ground, held you down with his foot on your neck and a shotgun pressing against your head?”

FIFTH: Gregory created “the illusion of the first time.” Though certainly he had given this same speech to dozens of audiences previously, his lively conversational style–seemingly “off the cuff”–suggested that all he said was coming to him spontaneously without rehearsal or memorization. University students, he sensed, got their fill of lectures daily in their classes. That made his “let’s chat about this” style that much more welcomed.

Yes, when Dick Gregory ended his speech to thunderous applause, he left us eager to hear more. I say “us,” because I was one of those fortunate students in the auditorium–possibly the one who clapped loudest and longest.

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