How to Give a Great Speech
The late Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford University has been viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube. Seven years after he delivered it, a text version still flies around the Web. The speech is as powerful for its message–stay hungry, stay foolish–as it is for its structure and delivery. “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life,” says Jobs. “That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.” And with that, viewers (and readers) are hooked.
Future public speakers of the world, take note. You don’t have to be a Silicon Valley billionaire to deliver a great speech. The best speeches include a clear, relevant message and a few great stories to illustrate it.
Forget fancy PowerPoint presentations and loads of data. Instead, keep your speech simple, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Focus on one theme, and eliminate everything else. “Speeches are an inefficient form of communication,” says Nick Morgan, the president of Public Words., Inc., and author of Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma. “People don’t remember much of what they hear, so focus and keep it simple.”
Use anecdotes. “People would find speechwriting much easier if they realized that all they needed to do was find a key message and three great stories to support it,” says Jane Praeger, a Columbia University professor and the president of the speech presentation and coaching firm Ovid Inc. “Those kinds of speeches are also easier to deliver because they don’t have to be read. If you’ve lived a story, you can tell it from memory and with genuine feeling. And stories stick in people’s minds. When you tell people a story, it arouses their emotions and releases dopamine in their brains, which makes that content sticky. In other words, if you make people feel what you are talking about, they won’t forget it.”
Be relevant to your audience. Ask yourself what problem the audience wants to solve, and talk about that problem first. “Then and only then, talk about your area of expertise as the solution to that problem,” says Morgan. “Audiences start off by asking why. Why am I here? Why should I care? If you answer those questions early, then they’ll ask how. Your job is to answer the why question first and then address the how.”
Ditch the thank-you(s), and jump right in. People often make the mistake of starting speeches by thanking the introducer or expressing their happiness at being there. Instead, jump right in with a framing story that suggests what the topic is without giving it all away, a statistic, a question or some kind of interaction with the audience. If you know what your speech is about–and it should be about one thing–you should have an easy time deciding on an opening. Get right into the story and let the audience know what your talk will be about.
Use body language that makes you appear comfortable. If you show signs of nervousness, like crossing your arms, or clutching your hands in front of your stomach, your audience will sense your trepidation and be less open to your message. “You have to pretend that you’re having a good time and are open to that audience so that they can have a good time and be open back to you,” says Morgan. “Successful public speaking is all about passion and emotion. If you’re excited, then your audience will be, too.”
Stand up straight. Whether you walk across the stage or stand behind a lectern, try to maintain good posture. “Imagine that your head is being held up by a string,” says Praeger.
Articulate your words, regardless of your natural speaking style. “Authenticity is key,” Praeger says. “You can’t be someone you’re not. On the other hand, you can be your best self. Softness doesn’t detract from a speech if you’re committed to what you’re saying. Passion, commitment and conviction are critical for delivery, and you can do that whether you’re soft-spoken or not. Any number of delivery styles will work.”
Practice your speech beforehand. “You would do better practicing in the shower and running the speech in your head rather than practicing in front of a mirror, which is distracting,” Praeger says. “You do have to practice out loud, hopefully with a small audience.” Practice replacing deadening filler words like “um,” “so” and “like” with silence.
Work the room. Try to speak to audience members before your speech, so that you can focus on few friendly faces, particularly if you get nervous. “If you’re making eye contact with a friendly person in quadrant one, everyone to their left will think that you’re talking to them,” says Praeger. “Then do the same thing in quadrant two. You want to see your talk as a series of conversations with different people throughout the room.” Only look at one person at a time!
Most importantly, try to enjoy the experience. “The real Zen secret is to love what you’re doing in that moment,” says Morgan. “If you can relax and be happy about being there, the audience will feel that way, too.”