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The first three minutes.

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

What you can learn from Nelson Mandela’s Harvard address about public speaking.

At the tender age of 80, Nelson Mandela accepted an honorary doctoral degree from Harvard University.

In his acceptance speech, in September 1998, he addressed a packed audience at the prestigious American university.

It’s an uplifting address that can leave you feeling emotional, but more than two decades on, it’s still a great example of public speaking.

Given that it’s difficult to find 20-minutes to watch the entire address, in this article I spot and share some speaking techniques Mandela employs in the first three minutes that anyone can use to their advantage.

Minute 1

Mandela shows mastery of pace and presence without saying a word.

Notice he doesn’t rush his walk towards the podium or his desire to speak upon reaching it.

Indeed, he doesn’t speak at all for the entire first minute.

What he does is acknowledge his audience by looking up and making eye contact with them.

He also gives a slight nod of the head (00:34). It’s a tiny gesture that screams ‘I hear and see you’.

He doesn’t rush the warm welcome from his audience. Instead he reciprocates with his warm smile.

He looks happy to be there and happy to wait until his audience is ready to hear what he has to say.

He owns his entrance and his position at the podium and that gives him great presence.


Minute 2

In the second minute Mandela beautifully demonstrates how verbal and nonverbal cues reinforce each other.

If you want your messages to resonate with your audience, your body language must match what you say AND how you say it.

From the outset Mandela’s vocal pace mirrors that of his physical presence – unrushed and precise.

His South African accent is apparent, so he greatly slows his pace to ensure we don’t misunderstand a word.

But he’s doing more than slowing his pace and effectively using pause.

Just listen to his very first opening remarks (from 1:15)…

“Mr President” (long pause).

“Members of the congregation” (long pause).

“Members of the university” (long pause).

What he’s doing here is employing what I call vocal energy. That is, finishing both his words and sentences with the same, if not more, vocal energy then he starts them with. It’s a technique that signals to his audience that he is committed and confident in what he has to share.

And after his introductory remarks what is it he has to share? As it turns out (at 1:41), it is one of the most powerful tools for any public speaker… a story.


Minute 3

It’s that personal story that spans the entire third minute of his speech (1:41 to 3:01).

Given what we know about Mandela’s life, when his story opens with the words: “When I was in prison,” we might be forgiven for thinking this is going to be the start of a sad story. For surely this is a man who had libraries of sad stories he could share. Yet he does not.

Instead, he tells a story that surprises - another great device for keeping your audience engaged. For when someone thinks they can predict what you are going to say, it makes it much easier for them to stop listening.

Many might say what Mandela’s doing in this third minute is using humour. Yet, while he certainly makes his audience laugh, I’d suggest he’s employing something far more powerful for any leader… humility.

The first few moments of every speech communicates volumes about its speaker. And, as I hope this article demonstrates, there’s plenty to learn in just three minutes by studying a master of oration like Mandela.


Susan is an International Coaching Federation (ICF) Professional Certified Coach (PCC). She’s one of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching. Her unique approach sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work.

Susan’s new two-hour voice and presentation skills workshop explores the importance of what you say and how you say it. Covering message simplification & structure, storytelling, and vocal & physical energy it’s valuable to those at every career stage.

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