How to write a great speech

A great speech puts the occasion, the audience, and the speaker together in an unforgettable way. All three pieces of the rhetorical puzzle are important.

When Churchill was going to give his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech after WW II, he didn’t go over to the House of Commons, where he delivered most of his orations. Churchill knew that the speech would be controversial, since the post-war world was not in the mood to hear that war-time ally Stalin was launching the Cold War. So instead, Churchill traveled to Fulton, Missouri, Harry Truman’s home turf, with the President in tow. He wanted the imprimatur of the U. S. Presidency so that people would be forced to take the speech seriously.

The gambit worked. The speech took a pasting in the press, as Churchill knew it would, but it began a discussion that alerted the world to the dangers of the USSR. And Churchill’s prescient words remained relevant until the Berlin Wall came down, more than 4 decades later.

But what if you have to give a speech and you want it to be well-received now, not forty years after the fact?

You need to consider the audience’s needs. A great speechmaker possesses great tact. You have to be prepared to speak to a particular audience on a particular occasion. Ultimately, then, a great speech is only partially about you. It’s also about the audience and the occasion.

If you keep that rule in mind, you won’t go wrong. Ask yourself, who is this audience? What does it want? What does it fear? Why has it invited me to speak to it? What aspect of my message is relevant to it?

And then ponder the occasion. What’s happening right now that will be on the minds of everyone in the room? What should I not talk about? What does that audience need to hear?

The first rule of great speechmaking: consider the audience.

The next thing to think about is how am I going to get that audience’s attention? You need a great hook. The idea is to frame the talk in the first 1 – 3 minutes, in a way that draws the audience in, but doesn’t simply give them an agenda. That’s boring. No one pays attention during the presentation of the agenda slide, so don’t do it.

Instead, tell a compelling story, one that shows (rather than tells) the topic you’re going to be discussing. If you’re giving a speech on trends in customer satisfaction with your premier line of products, and the trends are down, then tell a quick story about a particular customer and how she was unhappy with the product. That gets the audience’s attention, lays out the problem (without suggesting the solution, yet) and suggests the agenda for your talk rather than spelling it out.

Another way to start is to ask a question, either rhetorical or real. I started a recent talk to a group about authenticity and branding by asking them what the following famous brands had in common: K-Mart, Sears, Old Navy, AOL, Circuit City, and Dodge.

I let the audience guess the answer, and they did, without too much trouble. Each of those brands is in trouble, and will probably be gone within a year or two.

That was enough to hook the audience, and suggest that the topic of the morning was to be something about how strong brands go wrong.

A statistic can also get things going, providing that it is startling enough. Big numbers don’t hook us as much as numbers that we can process in human terms. “Look around you. You are seated in rows of ten. One of you in each row will be diagnosed with cancer before the year is out.” Or something like that.

You need to find a way to encapsulate your talk vividly and quickly, so that you get the audience’s attention, and hold it long enough to get started, in an era when attention is a scarce commodity. Think of it like the way filmmakers start movies these days. In an action movie, there’s at least one big explosion before the opening credits are done. Or, in a murder mystery, at least one body turns up. We may even start with a murder. Gone are the days when a movie would start with credits that went on, over cheery music, for 3 minutes or more, without any plot at all.

That’s the opening. How do you keep the audience’s attention for the next 15 minutes or so?

There’s only one way that works reliably, and that involves asking yourself one simple question: What’s the problem the audience has for which the information I’m ready to talk about is the answer?

So for example, let’s say you’re a world-class expert on bees and their diseases. You’re ready to go crazy on the subject. All you need is a problem.

Fortunately for you (and unfortunately for the bees) they’re dying of some mysterious disease that some say has to do with global warming, and some say has to do with viruses, maybe from Israel, and still others say has to do with a combination of the two.

That’s what you should spend the next fifteen minutes (of a 45 minute speech) talking about. The only prerequisite is an audience of people who care about bees.

Or at least, an audience that cares about what the bees can do. If it’s a general audience, in other words, the problem becomes, what are you going to do in a world without bees, where crops don’t grow, flowers don’t bloom in spring, and honey is gone forever? Different audience, different problem.

The point is to shape your talk to the audience’s problem. Talk about that, because that’s the only topic that answers the question the audience has – what’s in it for me? – with sufficient punch to hold their attention for the next while.

Go crazy, because audiences love a speaker that understands and talks about their problems.

Next comes the solution of the problem you’ve just talked about.

This is the fun part for most people – it’s where you get to jump into your expertise. The audience will be thrilled to hear about it, because they’ve been prepped sufficiently by wallowing in the problem long enough. They want a solution. And because you’ve tailored the problem to the audience and to your expertise, you’re the exact right person to give the audience what it wants.

You get roughly as long as you spent on the problem to present your solution – in this case, fifteen minutes. It’s important to understand that just as you can’t skimp on the problem (or else the audience won’t be emotionally ready to hear a solution), you can’t skimp on the solution either.

We want details. You get to show your knowledge. You will be confirming your credibility here, and you might as well enjoy it.

Problem – solution. It’s an ancient formula for persuading somebody of something. Unless you don’t want to be persuasive, it’s the best structure for a speech. The Greeks invented it, more than 2,000 years ago, and it worked well for them. It will work well for you today.

We’re getting ready to close out the speech. How do you end with a bang?

Remember what you’re doing: you’re trying to persuade the audience of something. Now put yourself in the audience’s shoes. It has just been presented with a compelling problem and a solution. Where is it likely to be? Fully or nearly persuaded. It needs just a little more help to push it into the comfort zone.

So now you’re going to spend a few minutes helping them along with a great example of the wonders of your solution. If you’re a consultant, for example, touting the benefits of a new way of managing customer service, it’s time to present a case study of a company that adopted your approach and succeeded magnificently.

Think of this section of the speech like the counterpart to the opening hook. If you used a 3-minute story there showing what happens when customer service goes horribly wrong, then this is your chance to close the circle logically and emotionally by telling a 3-minute story (or case study) where it goes right.

This section doesn’t have to be long, and in fact it shouldn’t be. Three to five minutes is optimal. The point is to give a concrete example of something that shows the benefits of your solution. Audiences aren’t very good at imaging new states, so help them.

If you’re discussing ways to stop global warming, this is the point in the speech where you tell a success story, or draw a picture of a world turning the global warming problem around. What would that look like? How would people feel, and what would the benefits to them be? Use specifics and concrete imagery as much as possible.

You’re close to the finish line. The best way to finish is to give your audience something to do.

Now, this step is hard for some to contemplate, you are about to lose control of the audience. But only for a short time, and it’s a good thing. Why? Because you’ve just forced normally active people to be passive for the better part of an hour, and it’s time to let them absorb your message actively. In this way, they’ll better remember — and even act on — what you’ve been talking about.

What should you get them to do? Ask them to do something that is the next (tiny) step toward buying into your message. If you’re a consultant, for example, and you’ve just been talking up the advantages of your 5-point system for transforming the supply chain, then get them to take a quick diagnostic (that you hand out) that will let them know how much work their own supply chain needs.

Or, if you’re saving the environment, ask people in the audience for a pledge to change one habit tomorrow that will improve their carbon footprints.

The best action step I ever saw was at a charitable event, where the speaker asked everyone to reach into their pockets and grab their loose change. He said, “Now hold it out at arm’s length.” Once everyone was doing so, he added, “Now, throw it on the floor.”

There were 5,000 people or more in the audience, and the sound was amazing. What’s more, the speaker had runners collect the money, and that audience raised literally thousands of dollars for AIDS in one or two moments.

It was a wonderful, vivid lesson in the power of abundant thinking, the message the speaker had just finished talking about.

Do you get the idea? Find something relevant, and connected closely to your message. Ask yourself, what’s the next thing I would want my audience to do, after the speech is over, say, back at the office on the next working day? Then, get them to do that, or a step toward that. The point is that what people do they believe. So if you get them to act, that will reinforce their belief in your message.

The step should be simple, it should only take a few minutes, and it must be relevant to your message. Beyond that, there aren’t many rules. You need to be prepared to put out the energy to make it happen, and to get people moving. Especially if you haven’t been interactive before in the presentation, it may take a few moments to get your audience up and moving. You have to persuade them that you mean it, and it’s for real. If you do that with sufficient energy, the audience will respond.

You will see a huge burst of energy from the audience if you do this right. Don’t be frightened. It’s a good thing. It’s active people doing what they do best.

Here’s where you need to expend some energy to get them back. They will come back, but you have to insist, politely and firmly, that they do. You’re asking them to sit down and become passive again, and that’s asking a lot, so don’t hold them for long and don’t try to do much.

Your goal at this point is to remind the audience, in a stirring and powerful way, of the central theme of the talk. Great closes are inspirational, and aspirational. Remind the audience of the big reason they’re all there, or point the way up the path to greatness, or quote some great words by some other orator if none will come to you.

Keep it short (under 3 minutes, closer to 1 minute is better), keep it inspirational, and then NEVER FORGET to say ‘thank you’. That’s the universally understood signal that a speech is done and the audience should applaud. If you’ve done well, they’ll leap to their feet.

By the way, if you’re going to take questions, then save this ending segment until the very end. If you end with Q and A, then you’re at the mercy of the last question. Often, the last question is not the best one, and it may even be asked by a crank who has been waiting, and fuming, for some time. So deal with the questions, but then close with your own statement. Audiences tend to remember best the last thing they hear, so make it yours.

So you’ve written a persuasive speech, with a structure that respects the audience’s need to hear your message in a certain order that makes sense to them. All you have to do is hit the print key, grab the pages, and you’re off to the podium, right?

Not quite yet. First of all, never hide behind the podium, but that’s for another day.

Second, there are a couple more things that it would behoove you to think about.

I like to apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to a talk to see how viscerally it’s going to grab the audience.

Start by turning the hierarchy upside down. Maslow’s whole point was that people work their way up the pyramid by satisfying their needs in the order that he describes. So, if you’re worried about food and shelter — basic physiological needs — you’re not going to be thinking about whether or not you’ve got the esteem of the local flower club. That comes later, after a good meal and the prospect of more to come.

Turned upside down, Maslow’s hierarchy becomes a way to gauge whether or not someone will pay attention to your talk. Most people don’t start attending closely until their personal safety or the safety of their business is at stake. So try to find a way to express your message in safety terms.

Don’t make it up or distort things to accomplish this feat. Make it real. But do your best, because your audience is probably going to be thinking about the critical issues nagging at them, and to cut through that clutter, you have to be at least as low on the hierarchy as they are.

The other way I like to think about speeches overall is to apply one of the great stories of our culture to them.

There are only five basic stories — the quest, rags to riches, the love story, stranger in a strange land, and revenge. These are powerful stories that we learn from the cradle, and we know them deeply and respond to them powerfully. So if you can fit your message into a quest for profits, say, or a chance to beat the competition at a new product launch, or a merger that is a love story, then your audience will ‘get’ what you’re saying more powerfully than otherwise.

Don’t be obvious about it. Don’t say, “Let’s go on a quest.” Instead, say, “Today, I’d like to ask you to begin a journey with me. We’ve got difficult terrain ahead, and there will be many obstacles to overcome. But at the end of the journey, we will achieve something that very few other companies ever get to achieve, a …..” In other words, tell the story, don’t announce it.

Let’s wrap up this speech tutorial with a quick look at visual aids.

I can always tell a speech that’s been prepared using Power Point. Each slide is an equal unit of thought, in effect, and thus using PP has a tendency to reduce the speech to a series of concepts with no particular beginning, middle, and end. But that is exactly what speeches need. They are not a series of equal concepts. Speeches need a clear structure that audiences can follow and not all the parts of the structure are created equal. Use PP as a creative device at your peril.

It’s far better to structure a great speech, and then look at it with an eye to what particular visual aids could bring this section or that idea to life in a way that words can’t do as well.

And there are other visual aids as well that can add a lot of interest to your speech. Video clips are wonderful for creating emotional moments. Keep them short — much more than a minute or two feels like an eternity — and keep them relevant.

I once saw a conference begun with that amazing video Shift Happens. It’s certainly an arresting video, but it had nothing to do with the conference, and it went on too long. People watched it for a while, then tuned out, because it wasn’t relevant for them at that moment.

And don’t forget the lowly white board, flip chart, and so on. When you’re interacting with an audience, these simple tools are great ways to capture their thoughts and make them part of the discussion.

Finally, don’t neglect to think about props.

We live in a virtual world of email, computers, and white noise. It’s astonishing how a simple prop can suddenly bring real life into a room. I once saw a discussion of mergers and acquisitions enlivened enormously by a discussion of the Mattel-Fisher Price merger. Here’s the kicker. In a brilliant move to show how difficult the merger was going to be, the speaker had wrapped Mattel and F-P toys under the chairs of the audience. At the right moment, the audience was told to open the ‘presents’ and look inside. It was suddenly a holiday, and you should have seen the excitement in the room. And it made the point brilliantly: the Mattel toys were urban, edgy, and in your face, whereas the F-P toys were primary colored barnyard animals. Everyone suddenly got that the two cultures of the two toy companies were entirely different, with disturbing implications for the merger.

Visual aids can be a powerful way to bring parts of a speech to life. Just don’t think of them as a speech outline. That’s deadly dull for any audience.

Use them in service to the main idea of a speech: to move people to action.


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