I’m continuing 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 penultimate seven, concerning conditions around speaking and speeches.
64.The most important factor for success in a speech is not the brilliance of the content, or even the persuasiveness of the ideas – it is the voice of the speaker. Ultimately, we humans want to connect with another human being. When a speaker’s authentic voice shines through the speech, we feel the reality of that human contact and find the speech unforgettable because it has revealed the human behind the speech.
65.Speeches reflect the tenor of their times. When we say a speech is destined to last down through the ages, we are really saying that it is the perfect reflection of its times. This paradox is much easier to see in retrospect. We can see the hopefulness in the Reverend King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or the expansive optimism in President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address more clearly in each case now that many years have passed. The current era is an angry one and its great speeches may not last for many generations.
66.More important than the accuracy of a particular speech is the power of its narrative. Since most speeches are forward-looking, they are usually either attempting to bring an idea into being, or to change the trajectory of human action in some way. As such, their predictive force is bound to be less important than their emotional conviction and the story that they tell.
67.A great speaker is the vehicle for a great message, not the message itself. Speakers need to keep their egos in check, in spite of the inflating tendencies of the stage, and remember that whether the message is acted upon is ultimately a more important test than whether the speaker is admired.
68.A great speech induces the audience to believe that it owns the ideas therein rather than the speaker. A successful speech transfers ideas from the speaker to the audience. A great speech makes the audience believe that it is at least a co-creator, if not the creator of the idea. Ultimately, people will not embrace what they do not feel they own.
69.Create a speech from back to front. Start your ideas for a speech by asking yourself, what do I want the audience to do as a result of having heard the speech? Start from that action, and ask yourself, what do I need to tell the audience in order to provoke that action? Then work backward to your beginning.
70.Always remember the context in which the speech is given. One final test of a great speech is tact: does the speech do honor to the occasion in which it is given, or does it dishonor the occasion? A great speech is sensitive to its context. A President should not lecture school children on the hazards of nuclear war. Even if the topic is important in the moment, another venue with a more appropriate audience can be found.
My goal in these principles is to explore the implicit rules of public speaking, the kind people rarely bring up in lists of the 10 rules for public speaking, which almost all start with “follow your passion” and end with “always end on time.” Both are true and good bits of advice, but they don’t help speakers much beyond the absolute beginning steps.