7 Secrets for a Great Speech

7 secrets for a great speech

I’m watching a video of someone who has purportedly studied great speeches for 30 years and is sharing the 7 secrets of the greatest speakers in history. The video has over 1 million views.

He’s pacing like a caged animal. And he's using bad info.

He referenced the widely accepted wisdom that words only comprise 7% of a message's impact, while vocal tone accounts for 38%, and body language is responsible for a whopping 55% of a message's impact.

One problem: the study from which this information is taken and is most often cited as its source is so oft misrepresented that its author, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, has a disclaimer on his website that these equations only apply to messages regarding what a person likes and dislikes and said as much when he and I communicated on the subject several years ago. 

7 Secrets for a Great Speech microphone

While using this common, yet misguided application of the study, the speaker attempts to make the point that body language is much more important than words in delivering a great speech. Granting him the misuse of the study, I find myself wishing he would apply that idea to his pacing.

He also mentioned that bad speakers are so intent on pumping out their information that they miss connecting with the audience. Interestingly, I'm finding him doing that very thing as he’s rifling through references and talking at a pace to match his feet, which haven’t planted for more than 2 seconds.

I'm not telling you this to bag on another professional. 

No, I'm sharing it because as a truth seeker and truth teller I feel compelled to call this out. I'm disappointed in our worship of what we deem experts, many of whom trot out vapid and worn out information and platitudes with no regard for the integrity of the information (like the 7%, 38%, 55%). I'm tired of our consumer culture which is ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth. 

I’m sad that this is held up as an example of a “masterful speech” (that’s what the YouTube description says about it), yet the audience is given inaccurate information and there is dissonance between the information's intent and its application, as in it isn't being applied by the one giving it.

I guess what frustrates me most about it is that many people with a REAL message to share, a powerful story, aren't being heard because they aren't as flashy as those who know how to market something mediocre. I'm sad that many who could have a real impact are being drowned out by popular yet unvetted clichés and the self-adulatory bombasticism of others. 

7 Secrets for a Great Speech: Authenticity

Where the speaker is correct is that nothing can hold a candle to authentic passion. So though your feet may never stop moving during a speech, although I hope they will, and your mouth may move at 4,000 words per minute, although I hope they don't, if you focus on the audience and giving them value, from your HEART, you may be on the path to a great speech.

Let me share with you, from my own observations, training, and experience (thousands of hours), 7 secrets for a great speech.

1. Focus on the audience

Many studies report that public speaking is more feared than death for adults. That's because so often speakers are focused on their own perceived inadequacies, lack of knowledge, lack of speaking ability, or dislike for public speaking. If they would stop focusing on themselves and instead focus on what they know and how to give the audience value, they can relax. It all starts with wanting "to bless, not impress" as Stephen Covey put it. 

Study the topic, organize the information simply, and deliver it in your own unique voice. You were asked to give the speech to impart valuable information to the audience, not to hear yourself talk. In other words, you're not there for you, you're there for them. Focus on them.

A common misnomer when giving a talk is that you've got to be Jimmy Fallon funny. Indeed, a great speech is entertaining, but not always because the speaker has Tina Fey good looks and wit or this gentleman's down-home charm and humor. Most often it's because the speaker realizes what is most important to the audience and delivers it in a way that makes sense to them, while letting their natural passion shine through.

2. Connect with individuals

You've heard the popular advice that to avoid getting nervous when speaking in public you should imagine the audience in their underwear. I'm guessing the thought behind doing so is that it puts the audience in a more human light. Though I understand the supposed intent, it promotes the wrong focus.

Rather than reduce the audience, almost denigrate them as it were, why not imagine them as friends, as people who want your speech to go well? As people genuinely interested to hear something on the topic you're about to share.

Virtually no one, and certainly no one whose opinion matters, walks into a speech hoping the speaker will be boring or embarrass themselves. Most audiences arrive ready for the speaker to succeed and are willing to give them their attention (the other 6 secrets will allow you to hold that attention).

I received some excellent training years ago about connecting with individuals. I used to scan, not even look at, the audience at a pace to rival Usain Bolt's fastest times. I didn't look at people. I just scanned the audience at large. I'm sure that made audience members feel special and helped them connect with the material, just as I am sure a shark bite feels like a feather tickle. 

The person coaching me suggested I pretend I'm pouring tea (or lemonade) into a person's cup. Look at that person for the length of time it would take to pour a cup of tea, or to complete a thought. Then move to the next person with your eyes, make eye contact, and fill their cup. Next person and so on (not moving down the row sequentially, but moving to another person in the audience). In this way, you are connecting with individuals, real people, one on one, which is what master teachers and speakers do. You are sharing a piece of you with them. It's the best way to be present in your talk.   

Focus on one person at a time. Fill their cup. Move to the next.

Focus on one person at a time. Fill their cup. Move to the next.

3. Stories

Stories are a perfect way to connect to people's imaginations and emotions. If you can tap into those thoughts and feelings that resonate most with the audience, the message will have a greater impact for a longer amount of time. 

Stories are so powerful because we can imagine ourselves there, in that moment, under those circumstances. It's the most effective way to feel the same feelings, experience the same things, and learn the same lessons as the one in the story.

Think about it, what is a movie or TV show? It's a story in which we can take a shared journey with the characters, experience their thoughts, feelings, and motivations and learn from what they encounter. We remember those experiences and feelings long after we forget the specific dialog of the moment. Indeed, the dialog only has meaning in the context of its connection to something that resonated with us. Stories tap into that emotion and reasoning. 

Ty Bennett does a nice job of discussing the power of stories and how to use them to connect in an impacting way and a friend recently recommended The Art of Storytelling by John Walsh.

Think about those experience you've had that meant something to you or taught you something. Think about funny experiences you've had. When you hear or read an impacting story, verify it and figure out how you can use it to teach something to others. For many years, Thomas Monson has kept clippings he's found interesting and has used them decades later.  

4. Appropriate use of humor

For the love of all things under heaven and earth, DO NOT tell a joke to start your speech simply because you've been told that it will put the audience at ease. Sure, if you have a humorous anecdote or story (see secret #3) that relates to your topic, DO use that.

But don't tell a joke completely unrelated to what you're talking about as your opener. All it does it set you up for failure if you can't deliver anything humorous related to the topic because that's the expectation you've set. It's a cheap laugh at your own expense and doesn't prep the audience for value, it only preps them for humor. 

Throughout your talk, interweave humorous or ironic thoughts. Use your natural sense of humor as a guide, keeping in mind that nothing is a distasteful or ruins your credibility as fast as an inappropriate joke. 

As Gina Schreck, past president of the Colorado Speakers Association once noted, you don't have to be funny so much as notice funny. Again, when you hear a funny story, note it. Or think of those funny experiences you've had that relate to your topic. Use them to reinforce the point you're making. 

5. Plant

Stop and stand in one place

Stop and stand in one place

I'm sure the reason that the above noted speaker's wandering feet grated on me so badly is that I was guilty of the same offense years ago and have since become hyper aware of how annoying it is. If I was looking around the audience as fast as a 100-meter dash sprinter, you can be certain I was pacing the floor like a gazelle. 

At the specific training during which I gained a testimony of one's desire for a fork to the eye when the speaker has happy feet, the coach taught me to plant, deliver a full thought, then move with purpose. Very few things will enhance the audience's ability to follow your message like that little trick there. Plant, deliver, move with purpose (don't wander), then plant again. Not even some of the 'top' professional speakers are disciplined enough to do this and once you notice them pacing, it becomes your focus and not the great value in their message or the entertaining story meant to teach you something meaningful. 

Stop in one place long enough to make the audience glad you did. You connect better when you are stationary, looking at individuals, then moving to the next spot and doing the same. 

6. Visual aids are just that

Powerpoint, flip charts, handouts, videos, any media or visual aid is there ONLY as an enhancement to the presentation; it is not the presentation! 

Don McMillan nails the misuse of Powerpoint in his hilarious presentation. Steve Jobs was a master at using visuals to paint a picture and not using them as a crutch. Guy Kawasaki has rules for using Powerpoint and while they don't apply to every presentation, they can serve as general guidelines.  

You are the great conveyer of the information. You are the delivery vehicle. There is no passion emanating from a bullet point and paragraphs are overwhelming and ineffective. Use pictures that evoke emotion and tell a story while remembering nothing can replace your ability to paint the picture with your words (see secret #3). Visual aids enhance, but don't replace that. Choose them wisely and your ability to connect to the audience multiplies. 

7. Be authentic

The most important of them all.

Your story, your insights, your research, your conclusions are what set you apart. Don't regurgitate or too closely emulate. Your natural passion for the topic and your ability to be you while delivering it are the most important elements to a great speech. 

Does that mean you can't give a great speech about something about which you are not passionate? To a degree, yes. The best, most impacting speeches come from a place so deep within the speaker, a place so integrally connected with who they are, that when they speak it creates a visceral reaction within the audience. It's as if spirit is speaking to spirit, soul is communicating with soul.

Authenticity also means telling the story like it is, no embellishment. Authenticity is honesty, vulnerability, and sharing of self. It's that sharing of self in a speech that connects the audience to the message in a way that can't be replicated in any other setting. It's the sharing of self that defines a great speech. The speaker giving unselfishly to educate, inspire, motivate, or invite. 

Not manipulation. Not appealing to ethos, pathos, and logos simply to get what you want. Authentically sharing your experience, wisdom, thoughts, and heart so the audience will be better for it. Now that's a great speech.

By implementing the 7 secrets of a great speech you can move audiences to experience things they never have before or only remember in some fleeting corner of their soul and wish to experience again. You can raise awareness for something about which you care deeply. You can inspire others to take actions that lead to self-improvement, bless others, and create a better world for you and them. Most importantly, you can share yourself in a way like no other to help shape and change others, the reward of which is inestimable. 

7 Secrets of a Great Speech impacting lives