7 Steps to an Inspiring and Memorable Speech
Minutes last forever when you're stuck listening to a boring speaker.
We've all been there, and with the season of graduations and commencements upon us, many of us will likely be there again. So, I've pulled together the seven most important things I've learned about making great speeches.
These are the lessons I've learned from the best practitioners, and that I share with my ghostwriting clients. Learn them if you're giving a talk, and politely share them with upcoming speakers if you'll be sitting in the audience.
1. Have a point (but no more than a few).
How many times have you heard someone give a talk, and walked away asking yourself, "What was he or she even talking about?"
This is the cardinal sin of speeches. Even if your audience hasn't had to pay money to attend your talk, they're giving you something potentially more valuable: their time. Respect them by having at least one main point, but also remember that having too many messages creates the same problem as having none.
2. Think about structure.
It's a basic but oft-forgotten rule: A good story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. So does a good speech. You'll find that an audience reacts best if you tell them early on in your speech what you plan to tell them, and give them mileposts along the way.
Thus, don't just dive into your remarks. Tell the audience up front how you plan to arrange your talk, and even perhaps what your main points are. ("Today, I'm going to talk with you about three key things...") If all else is equal, also try to spend roughly the same amount of time on each section, and use verbal cues to let your audience know where you are in the talk ("That was the first point. The second point I want to share with you is....")
3. Connect, connect, connect.
Even though you're doing most of the talking, it's best to think of a speech as two-way conversation. Imagine that your relationship with the audience began before you arrived and will continue after you leave.
Add all of this up, and it means you need two things: confidence in your message, and a respectful understanding of your audience. Recognize that while you've ideally put hours into crafting your message, the folks in the folding chairs get a relatively short time to hear it. Don't talk down to them, but at the same time translate your words into language they're comfortable with.
4. Write poetry, not prose.
Written text works differently. Some things that look funny on the page work well when delivered orally, while other things that seem smart on paper fall flat when spoken aloud.
Therefore, model your text after poetry, lyrics, and of course, other great speeches. If nothing else, when you prepare your final draft, write it so that each new thought (and pause) begins on a new line. The final draft should look more like a poem than a page from a book.
5. Tell a story.
If you know anything about children, I can guarantee you one thing: Nobody has ever promised to go to bed if their parents agreed to give them a "bedtime lecture" first. We're simply wired to react better to stories than to recitations.
There are many great examples of this, but the one I always point clients to is the commencement address Steve Jobs gave in 2005 at Stanford. This was a masterful speech organized around into three stories: how taking calligraphy courses later impacted the MacBook (a story about connecting the dots), being fired from and returning to Apple (a story about love and loss), and what he learned from his first diagnosis with pancreatic cancer (a story about death).
6. Rewrite and practice.
Those who give speeches often reuse the same material. That makes sense, as long as you accept that continual revision and practice is your responsibility as a speaker.
Personally, I enjoy giving updated versions of my "standard" speech about the five key things any entrepreneur must understand in order to be successful: mindset, urgency, resources, people, and happiness. I've rewritten it many times, however, and frankly I was a few dozen drafts deep into it before I realized that I could keep the audience on track by organizing the whole thing around an acronym: M-U-R-P-H. Not coincidentally, that also happens to be the nickname I've answered to since I was about 7 years old.
7. Leave them wanting more.
When my publisher contracts with me for a 100,000-word book, I give them a 100,000-word book. When someone asks me for a 30-minute speech, however, I usually prepare something that will take about 20 minutes to deliver.
This is for several reasons. First, most events run long, and schedules fall apart, so it's better to be prepared to squeeze your remarks into a shorter time frame than anticipated. Second, I often find that no matter how long I think it will take to deliver remarks when I'm rehearsing, it usually takes longer when it's "for real." Finally, wrapping up a bit early forces you to involve the audience. And that's a great way to ensure that your speech is what it's supposed to be: a two-way conversation.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.