Mandela’s “I Am Prepared to Die” Speech (And What You Can Learn From This Great Storyshower Presenter)

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Nelson Mandela inspired millions during his crusade to end apartheid in South Africa. Here, we look at what made him such a great influencer.

Born to the Madiba clan in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 1918, Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspiring figures of modern times.

He grew up listening to stories about the brave accomplishments of his ancestors. And these stories inspired him to do what he could to spearhead the fight for freedom for his own people.

In the 1940s, he became politically active as he had a large hand in forming the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). In the 1950s, he was a partner in the first black law firm in South Africa.

It was during this time that his activities started coming to the attention of the lawmakers in South Africa. In 1956, Mandela got arrested on charges of treason. Though he earned an acquittal in 1961, it was clear that his dedication to the freedom fight would land him in more trouble.

Mandela left South Africa in 1962 under an assumed identity after helping to launch Spear of the Nation. He returned towards the end of the year and immediately went on trial for having left South Africa without a permit.

A year later, he faced more legal issues due to his work with Spear of the Nation. Along with 10 others, Mandela faced charges of sabotage during the infamous Rivonia Trial.

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The Speech That Shook a Nation

All that Mandela had done up to this point had the aim of achieving freedom for black South Africans.

Now, he stared the death penalty in the face. Many would have chosen to launch a defence to clear themselves of their charges.

But Mandela took a different approach.

Renowned as an inspiring speaker, it was his voice that had stirred so many into action in the first place.

It was his voice that had brought him to the attention of the ruling parties of South Africa in the 1960s.

And it was his voice that Mandela put to amazing use as he stood at the dock to defend himself. Instead of launching into a legal argument, Mandela gave an impassioned speech that showed everybody what he fought for.

He declared that he would die to see a free and democratic South Africa. And his speech became a turning point for the struggle against apartheid.

He became the figurehead of the cause, despite spending the next 30 years in prison. Just four years after his 1990 release, he became the first democratically-elected President of South Africa.

A bold and talented speaker, Mandela’s most famous speech has a lot to teach to any aspiring influencer. Here are just some of the things that you can learn from him.

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Lesson #1 – Seize Your Opportunity

Prior to the Rivonia Trial, Mandela rarely had the chance to speak in front of a national audience. It was particularly rare for him to have the opportunity to make his arguments in front of his own oppressors.

The Rivonia Trial was his opportunity.

As a lawyer, he could have launched a defence against the charges. But Mandela chose instead to speak. He perhaps felt that his conviction was an inevitability, regardless of what defence he created.

Thus, he aimed to inspire an entire nation to continue the work that he started.

The lesson here is that every speaker should seize any opportunity presented to them. At times, your career can feel like a grind, especially during the early days. You’re constantly on the hunt for opportunities to stand up in front of people and show your story.

When that opportunity finally comes, seize it with both hands. Use it to showcase who you are and what you have to offer to an audience.

Lesson #2 – Always Close Strong

At Speakers Institute, we emphasise the importance of the closing passages of your speech. Your aim is to nail down the key thread of the speech and inspire the audience to take action.

You’ve spent the rest of the speech building an emotional connection.

Now, you want to inspire the audience to do something.

Mandela had this technique mastered way back in the 1960s. And it is in the closing moments of his speech that his defiant air came to the fore:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

In his closing passage, Mandela brings all of his key threads together. He shows his audience exactly what he stands for, which is an ideal that many aspire to achieve.

That alone inspires action.

He then injects emotion into the speech. His hope to live to see his ideals achieved builds an instant connection with the audience.

But it’s his final line that resonates the most. Mandela makes it clear that these aren’t shallow beliefs that he holds. He’s staring a possible death sentence in the face at that very moment. And he faces it with dignity and passion.

As an influencer, you’re not going to give speeches under such dire circumstances. However, there’s plenty that you can learn from the way Mandela structures his conclusion.

His first few statements bring his key threads back into focus. He establishes exactly why he’s standing in front of his audience at the moment.

His final lines show his passion. They highlight the emotions that his cause inspires in him and they show just how important the fight for a free Africa was.

Mandela makes the ultimate commitment. He lays his life on the line in the hope of inspiring others. Again, you won’t need to go to such extremes. However, it’s crucial that you fully commit to your ideals if you are to create the authenticity that engages audiences.

Lesson #3 – Temper Emotion with Undeniable Logic

As a lawyer, Mandela was a master of influence. He was able to mix emotion with logic to engage an audience and show that his points actually made sense.

That’s a powerful combination. The emotional punch is what hooks the listener. But it’s the proof that you provide that convinces them of your point.

Take this passage of Mandela’s speech as an example:

“The present Government has always sought to hamper Africans in their search for education. One of their early acts, after coming into power, was to stop subsidies for African school feeding. Many African children who attended schools depended on this supplement to their diet. This was a cruel act.

There is compulsory education for all white children at virtually no cost to their parents, be they rich or poor.”

Here, he’s appealing to the audience’s emotions. He’s showing them the devastating effects of the government’s actions on black South African children. Mandela then drives that point home by comparing this treatment to that of white children.

Mandela didn’t do this to claim that white children didn’t deserve this treatment. He argued for equality in all aspects of life. Mandela wanted the audience to see the disparity and recognise the harm that it caused.

After pulling at this emotional thread, Mandela sought to establish the truth in his words:

“In 1960-61 the per capita Government spending on African students at State-aided schools was estimated at R12.46. In the same years, the per capita spending on white children in the Cape Province (which are the only figures available to me) was R144.57.”

He cites official studies and statistics to prove his points. In doing so, he proves that white children had 12 times the amount of money spent on them than black children.

This mixing of emotion and logic leaves his opponents with no room to argue.

You shouldn’t see your audience as “opponents”. However, you can use this same technique to overcome scepticism and offer the proof that backs your story.

The Final Word

In the 1950s and 1960s, many saw Nelson Mandela as little more than a trouble maker. He fought against an established system that his opposition hoped to maintain.

But it was with his words that he highlighted the depth of South Africa’s inequality. Mandela was a master at engaging emotionally while using logic to support his points. He also had a great passion for his cause, which dripped from every word that he spoke.

This made him an authentic figure for people to latch onto during such troubling times. Ultimately, he didn’t just live to see a democratic South Africa.

He became its first leader.

Power, courage, and eloquence defined Nelson Mandela’s speaking style. The above are just a few of the lessons that you can learn from him as an aspiring influencer.

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Samuel Cawthorn