I’m developing a series of public speaking principles in the next few blog posts that are a summation of what I’ve learned about this fiendishly difficult art and science over three decades of practice, coaching, learning from others, and research, especially neuroscience.  Here are the next seven.

8.A good speech is a contract that exchanges attention for insight.  The audience owes the speaker its attention.  The speaker owes the audience insight.  ‘There is no other contract express or implied’.  Lots of other things may go on during a great speech, but that is the minimal contract offered.

9.A speech should be particular to a certain audience, time, and place. Of course speeches may have wider applicability of audience, and be relevant to times other than the current one, but the speaker should focus on making the speech about the people in front of her.

10.The organizer of the speech should arrange to have the speaker introduced to the audience. A speaker should not have to introduce himself; it sounds arrogant if the speaker does a good job, and insecure if the speaker fails, out of modesty, to mention salient points. The audience needs the framing and the explanation of relevance that a good introduction provides. A good introduction should answer the questions of who the speaker is, why the speaker is qualified to talk about the topic at hand, and what the relevance and importance of that topic is to the audience.

11.A great speech foreshadows, teases, anticipates, and builds suspense. Each of these helps the audience navigate its way through the speech; this is an important part of comprehension and retention of the speech. The speaker needs to offer signposts and indications of progress like these to the audience.

12.A great speech addresses a particular problem that the audience has. All too often a speaker forgets the needs of the audience in her eagerness to share her knowledge. But audiences are only interested in a speech insofar as it offers something that’s useful to that audience.  Speakers must begin with the audience and end with their expertise.

13.A speech begins with a point of view. As I’ve noted many times, the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. You can’t change the world unless you have a point of view about it. Speeches that try to claim objectivity or disinterestedness are merely poorly framed and lacking in clarity.

14.Nonetheless, that point of view should be heartfelt, credible, and supported by the facts. A public speech asks a good deal of attention, time, and effort from its audience and so owes that audience at least a minimal effort of tethering to reality. Making stuff up wastes everyone’s time.  Speakers are not licensed to lie.  Nor are they excused from research, understanding, or expertise about a topic.  What they don’t know they should disclose.  Audiences need to know where they stand, and speakers need to be clear about the terrain they’re leading the audience through.

I’ll continue with this exploration of the underpinnings of public speaking in my next blog post with principles fifteen through twenty-one.


  1. Hi Nick

    Excellent points and thank you. One small point, you state, “The audience owes the speaker its attention”, yes I get that but is it more of the case that the speaker most earn the attention of the audience? What the audience giveth they can soon take away if the speaker is not fully focused and in flow with them. I tend to feel the audience pay up front with their time, their most valued commodity and the speaker is the one who owes the audience.

    I am pinning these points on my wall and looking forward to what is to follow.

    Kindest regards
    John Keating

    1. Hi, John —
      Thanks, as always, for your comment. Strictly speaking, I think we could agree that the speaker must earn the continued attention of the audience. But the audience has to provisionally grant that attention as a first step, otherwise the conditions for a speech are not met. Absolutely, the audience can soon take away its attention if the speaker is not delivering.

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