If you're worth your salt as a leader, you'll probably have to get up in front of others and talk at some point. But equally important is listening to others give speeches. Every time you do this, you should listen for a few key components that signal that the presentation is worth your time and cognitive energy.

1. What everybody's going to get

In a great speech, the intended gains for both the speaker and audience are clear, ideally framed in the first few moments of the address. You should be able to answer, "What does the speaker want for themselves?" and "What does the speaker want for me?"

A great example is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech. The central ideas of freedom and equality are reiterated throughout, and while King describes what he dreams for Negros and the collective people of the United States, he also makes it personal by talking of how his own four children might live in the better world.

2. Emotional energy

While we usually associate speeches with upbeat motivation, speakers can try to drive their points home through a full range of emotional connections. The feelings a speaker attempts to engage, usually by stories, can give significant history about the speaker. But they also say tons about the assumptions the speaker has about the people in the audience. Ask yourself not only what those assumptions might be, but also what the underlying purpose is for getting the audience into that emotional state.

Whatever the emotion, it should be obvious and consistent in the speaker's vocal tone, expressions and body language. This is a huge signal about the speaker's authenticity. While some emotional pleas might warrant awed or respectful silence from listeners, you usually can tell that emotional energy is high by the spontaneity and vigor the audience responds with.

3. Slowness

Speech tends to quicken if you are overly excited, stressed or nervous. A speech with a super fast rate of talking thus can make listeners think the speaker is not trustworthy or prepared. By contrast, slower speeches have a calming effect and offer the listener more time to comprehend what's being said.

4. Proper lingo and word choice

In some instances, such as King's speech, an abstract concept (e.g., freedom) will be central to the speaker's main point. But the speech itself should be conveyed with simpler, digestible ideas and action verbs. For example, King masterfully uses simile and other tools to help listeners "see" his vision. He describes the Negro situation with concrete-based phrases like "bank of justice",  "bad check" and "vault of opportunity" and says civil rights supporters won't be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Steve Jobs also knew simplicity and concreteness mattered. He routinely used language judged appropriate for third graders.

5. Facts and figures

This doesn't always mean a bunch of statistics. It simply means that the speaker gives you relevant information that you can verify on the spot or later. Being able to determine whether what the speaker says is true or false tells you whether they are credible and establishes trust. It also usually communicates that the speaker has prepared well to understand their topic, provided that they've kept the information within the proper contexts. Whatever the data set happens to be, it should match the emotional message the speaker tries to convey and support the assertions made about how everyone can take benefit at the end of the day. It shouldn't merely repeat or confirm what the audience already knows.

6. Next step(s)

Feeling emotionally charged based on truthful information that can yield real benefits is fabulous. But what do you do with it all? The best speeches don't leave you there as a mere absorber. They also show you how to get involved or what to do after the speech is over. This moves you from being a passive outsider to being an active part of the speaker's group.

Some of the most exaggerated examples of this might be in the ancient speeches kings and other leaders would give their armies before battle. These leaders energized those under their command by painting pictures of their warriors charging the field, capturing heads and committing other acts of notorious victory. The warriors not only knew what to do, but could envision themselves beforehand having success.

Even today, calls to action--for example, someone asking you to march to the capital building for your state or to take 5 extra minutes a day for yourself--routinely serve to wrap up good talks. If the call is for you to persevere, the speaker still should make it clear how to do so.

Published on: Apr 2, 2019
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