This book was written with one goal in mind: to help you to win your next speech competition.
Hundreds of books have been written on public speaking, from Cicero in ancient Rome to dozens more in the last few years alone, on how to “master your voice” or “talk like a TED speaker.” Of course, there’s always the classics too, like Dale Carnegie’s “The Art of Public Speaking.”
So…with all of the books out there already, why did I write this one?
Well, for starters, I came at it from a different perspective than any other author I’ve read so far. I started enrolling in public speaking competitions, week after week, and didn’t stop until I won a world championship at age 18. I didn’t get to rely on ideas that might sound great on the page, but not work in the real world–at the end of each competition, you either won or lost, period. And with that kind of “trial by fire” feedback, over and over again, I gained a level of practical insight into how to connect with a huge range of audiences and judges from all walks of life.
It was only years after winning the world championship for impromptu public speaking in the UK that I started to study speech from “professional” sources–classic authors or textbooks teaching public speaking in terms of “principles” and “theories.” Since I had always just “winged it” in building my approach to creating and delivering speeches, it was fascinating to look at my world from a completely foreign perspective.
Some of the content was genuinely helpful–even revolutionary for me. It helped to create a clear roadmap and definitions of things I might have known on a “gut” level from practical experience, but was never able to communicate as a “blueprint” to others effectively. Other authors inspired me to look at some of the speeches that seemed to be the most impactful and better understand why certain lines had connected so well with the audience.
On the other hand, much of the material I read was so theoretical that it barely seemed connected to the reality of giving a solid speech in real life. Making matters more complicated, most of the books covered a huge range of speaking environments: office presentations, wedding speeches, pitches to a possible investor, media interviews….you name it, they covered it, trying to appeal to the widest possible audiences for their books.
But, in trying to offer a guide to people in so many different situations, the advice had to be general enough to apply to all possible people in all possible situations at all possible times. As a result, even though several of the books absolutely had some great takeaways and ideas, nothing I read gave a clear “step-by-step” guide–especially to someone in your shoes.
My plan with this book is to combine all of my personal experience, with a boiled down version of everything I’ve taken away from all of those years spent going through every textbook, online course, and bestseller I could get my hands on. I want to take the sum total of all of that content, and streamline it into something that can take you, step-by-step, to winning your next speech competition.
This book is specifically designed for someone who is preparing to give a 5-10 minute speech in an upcoming competition. That’s the environment I was in for years, and I’m a firm believer that you should “write what you know.”
Now, by all means, for those of you reading this who aren’t planning to jump into a competition any time soon–I hope you’ll still be able to find a lot of useful takeaways to deliver clear and compelling speeches for any occasion. But for those who are looking to prepare for the next big competition; for high school coaches looking to prepare their students for their next speech contests; for Toastmasters looking to win their division finals; this book is written for you.
Because this is designed with you winning your next competition as the main focus, I’ve organized everything in the book to try to be as “to the point” and streamlined as possible. Compared to your average how-to bestseller on public speaking, this is going to be a lot shorter, with a completely different style than a traditional “public speaking book.” I’m gutting all of the long-winded stories about the gas station owner in Tulsa who changed his life with three magic words. I’m not going to drown you in five pages of stories for every one key idea I’m looking to share with you. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the stories in those books are fantastic, and do a great job of “making the idea jump off the page,”–but I’m treating you as someone who needs to get from A to B as fast as possible, without any of the usual fluff and filler.
That said, where appropriate, there will be specific examples of certain ideas and techniques. Especially when dealing with potentially complex ideas, we will illustrate them in ways that help you to avoid confusion and apply them effectively in your next presentation.
The content will be thorough where it needs to be–I want this to be the only resource you’ll need to succeed in public speaking, full stop. Too many books give great general advice or principles, but leave a “gap” between theory and reality that makes it difficult to actually know if you’re “doing it right” when applying what you’re learning. In this case, I want to avoid all of that ambiguity. I want you to feel totally confident applying each idea in this book by the time you close the back cover. You can expect a very step-by-step approach throughout, with specific instructions and guidance that might be much more detailed than you may be used to.
The book is divided into three main sections: content, rhetoric, and delivery.
For Content, I’ve organized our journey into five main sections:
Starting with Topic, we’ll look at how to choose the best topic or subject for your speech, and what sort of questions go into making that decision. I’ll also challenge you to consider the whole idea of your topic from a different perspective; starting off by giving less attention to the specifics of your topic, and more on the emotional core of your message (don’t worry, we’ll get into lots more detail to make everything clear shortly). This section is going to be a deep dive–I want to give you all of the tools and resources I would apply myself when trying to come up with a winning speech idea. It will also equip you with a specific process you can use for yourself to sort through different options to find your best choice, or to stir your imagination when you’re hitting a dead-end in your brainstorming.
Once you’re feeling confident in your ability to know when you’re on to a winning idea, we will move on to the layout: planning out how to take that winning theme and expand on or examine it in a way that feels smooth, logical, and easy to follow, while building up your audience’s interest and engagement higher and higher as you go.
With a subject chosen and a roadmap planned out, we’ll next focus on one of the most important sections of your entire presentation: your opening. Creating an introduction that jolts your audience into attention; immediately gives them a powerful, unexpected emotional reaction; and generally tells them in no uncertain terms, “Wow…this is going to be something worth listening to.” It will also set the tone for your entire presentation, and prime your audience to be absolutely engaged in everything else you say for the rest of the speech.
Connected to examining how to create a compelling opening, we’ll also cover how to complete your introduction to put you in the strongest possible position to move on to the rest of your speech. Specifically, we will discuss transition techniques that will help you to bridge your opening to other ideas and sections throughout the rest of your presentation.
Crossing that bridge will bring us to the body of your speech; how to construct each of your three main points for maximum impact, clarity, and emotional engagement. There will be specific layouts (and even templates!) you’ll be able to immediately apply to your next presentation–as I said, I don’t want to leave any chance for confusion or miscommunication!
We’ll conclude this section, naturally enough, by focusing on the conclusion of your speech. It’s the last thing your audience will take with them before judging your performance, so it needs to be incredibly strong, connect fluidly and clearly to your opening and key message, and generally offer a powerful, lasting emotional gut punch to your audience. You can expect specific examples of different ways to lay out and organize your conclusion, to make it quick and easy to integrate into your upcoming presentations.
Section two of the book will focus on rhetoric.
By “rhetoric,” we mean the words, phrases and expressions you choose to use as you create your speech. Rhetoric is probably the most overlooked area in public speaking–I’ve gone through dozens of books on public speaking that offer little to no advice on it whatsoever. That’s especially disappointing since it’s one of the areas where learning specific techniques and principles can be the most rewarding for the quality of your overall presentation. Not taking advantage of the fact that people have spent thousands of years studying what makes a sentence or an expression “pop” with an audience is like going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back. At the very least, learning some of the most effective tools and tricks in rhetoric can be incredibly helpful as a resource when you’re writing your speech as a roadmap to guide your writing choices and overall flow. It can be particularly powerful when you combine it with emotionally stirring content, making the overall message even more memorable.
In exploring rhetoric, we’ll go technique-by-technique, with specific examples for each. It’ll be quick, easy, and hugely beneficial for your future presentations.
At that point, your speech will be written, tuned up, and ready to go, right?
Not so fast.
Before you step up to the podium to accept your gold medals, we need to finish by focusing on your delivery.
Section three will look at how you present–your body language, voice, pacing, tone, and more. I’ve seen far too many potentially great speeches get annihilated by terrible delivery–too loud, too much anxious body language, too insincere, or too many distracting habits. Most of all, we will focus on the central importance of authenticity and congruency. It is absolutely crucial that you sound, look, and feel genuine–and it’s where 80% of speakers go wrong.
Throughout the book, I’ll provide you with practical tools and exercises you can use to apply what you learn immediately. You can feel free to skip them if you’d like; but the more of them you do, the more experience you’ll develop in building up the mental habits and processes that will dramatically improve your ability to create and deliver your presentations.
Outside of the exercises included in the book, I’d also encourage you to check out the website, at speakwithsimon.com, for additional resources, listings of upcoming seminars, or to request a 1-on-1 session.
I’m incredibly excited to begin this public speaking journey with you. For everyone who says that being a world-class public speaker is a “gift” or something you have to be born with….this book is determined to prove them wrong. This book is me sitting beside you, walking you through every step of the process as if you were a VIP client. My goal is to leave nothing to chance and provide you with the most focused, complete guide to producing a winning speech for a competitive public speaking contest. It’s going to be fast-paced, but if anything’s ever unclear, feel free to contact me directly–I’ll do my best to respond to as many of you as possible.
Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your story. I’m looking forward to playing my part in making your public speaking experience a successful and rewarding one.
All the best,
PART 1: CONTENT
Section 1: TOPIC
The first step in any speech competition is deciding on your topic.
In some contests, your choice of topics may be limited to a particular theme or subject area; in others, it might be wide open and entirely left to your imagination.
Regardless of whatever limitations you’re faced with, the topic you choose will be one of the single most crucial decisions you make for the success or failure of your presentation. It lays the groundwork for everything else that follows–picking a topic that doesn’t quite “click” or doesn’t connect to your audience puts you in an uphill position to win a competition.
So how to pick the right topic?
On the surface, it can seem almost overwhelming–in most cases, you’re given the freedom to speak about literally anything. So, how do you narrow it down–let alone pick an ideal subject?
Over this section, we’ll cover a comprehensive guide on how to do exactly that, to take all of the anxiety and guesswork out of the process.
THE BIG PICTURE:
The world championship that I won was in something called “Impromptu Public Speaking.” Most of you are probably already familiar with it, but just in case: impromptu public speaking is a type of competition in which you’re given a topic with no previous foreknowledge, and then allowed an extremely short time span (from a few minutes to 30 seconds or less) to prepare a speech on the topic you’ve been assigned.
Ironically, the experience I gained in an improvised field, that offered no choice in topics, provided me some of the best training I’ve ever had in deciding on an ideal topic for my prepared speeches.
With so little time to work with, the impromptu format forced me to build a reliable mental process for analyzing themes and subjects and quickly analyze how best to find a central message capable of resonating with an audience.
We’ll be borrowing heavily from this process when it comes to helping you decide on a topic and a core message, so it’s worth our time for me to walk you through an example of what that process looks like for me.
EXAMPLE: Ice Cream
Imagine you’re in an impromptu speech competition. You’re handed a piece of paper that says “Ice Cream.” You’ve got 30 seconds to prepare a speech. What do you do next?
90% of new speakers will take the topic literally. They’ll get on stage, blather on about their favorite flavor of ice cream, ramble on about why one flavor is better than another, talk about why ice cream is great comfort food after a breakup, and generally end up giving a performance that absolutely no one in the audience connects with in any kind of a meaningful way.
The sad truth is that no one cares what your favorite flavor is, and they’re not particularly invested in your post-breakup eating habits.
First and foremost, you need to find a way to make ice cream into something that your audience genuinely finds engaging. Cetral to sparking that engagement, you will need to give your audience a compelling reason to be emotionally invested in the topic. In my case, my mental process would look a little something like this:
1)Do I know any “amazing factoids” directly related to ice cream? Maybe it has a shocking or interesting history? Maybe it used to be made of something that would be shocking today? Maybe there was a famous historical court case that centered around ice cream, with surprising consequences for modern day? Maybe I could talk about the “Ice Cream Wars” in Glasgow, Scotland?
In this case, with the timer ticking before I have to go on stage, let’s say that I realize that I don’t have any immediate examples that jump to mind (but if I did, any of those might be an interesting foundation to try to build on!)
2)Do I know any “amazing factoids” somehow connected to ice cream? For example, maybe an inspiring story about Ben and Jerry, the founders of “Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream”? Perhaps a major donation they made could turn into a speech about how “ice cream saved a tropical rainforest?” Conversely, I might know a story of someone who overcame incredible odds to sell ice cream in the coldest place on Earth? For that matter, maybe the fact that you can buy ice cream in the coldest city on earth is itself a metaphor that could teach a valuable lesson about perseverance, not being discouraged by overwhelming odds or difficulties, or succeeding in incredibly challenging circumstances?
Any of those examples could be a great foundation for a speech. However, if no such factoids came to mind, I could continue my brainstorming to step three.
3)If I can’t come up with any themes for the speech that relates to the topic, or to subjects directly connected to it, I ask myself, “can I turn this topic into a metaphor?”
3a)When I’m trying to make a subject a metaphor for something else, I think of key words, phrases, or common associations related to the subject. In this case:
-chocolate and vanilla
-the huge variety of ice cream flavors
-everyone has a favorite flavor
Now, how can I make one of these about something? Conversely, what ideas do they stimulate?
In this case, I might combine the idea that there are far more flavors today than there used to be, with the idea that everyone has a favorite flavor.
- Using that premise, you could examine how we consume media–talking about how niche media and content creation have become, and the opportunities that might offer to each of us to become content creators and find success with our unique audiences, embracing our own quirkiness and eccentricities. Since I know of a few potentially interesting stories of content creators finding surprising success, this direction could be a strong choice as a theme for the speech.
- You could also relate the topic to the way we consume news media–in a world with more tailored options than ever before, how everyone is consuming their own flavors of truth–and the inherent dangers that presents (you can’t have a butterscotch flavored law of gravity, or a chocolate cookie dough flavored opinion on whether or not the Earth is flat). If I went in this direction, I can imagine there could be some concrete examples and harrowing stories that make the danger of “ice cream reality” really come home in an emotional way. Some examples might be the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists, who claimed that the death of children in a mass shooting incident was an “elaborate and phony conspiracy.” Another possibility, depending on the nature of my audience and the culture where I was giving the speech, could be a group of people being anti-science instituting policies that ultimately resulted in unnecessary deaths or tragedy.
Either of those last two possibilities would potentially make for a very strong direction for my speech–choosing which one I wanted to go with in particular might just be a matter of which theme I might happen to know more interesting stories or facts about.
One other factor that might help me decide which direction to choose: which “core message” offers me a chance to stir up more emotion from my audience? In this particular case, I can think of strong examples in both cases: heartwarming stories of people who had lost all hope who found a second chance connecting with an online audience who embraced them because of–not in spite of–their flaws and weaknesses, or cases where people’s denial of reality led them to shocking actions that would boil up the outrage of nearly any audience.
As a final element in deciding on the direction I wanted to run with the topic, I would look at both options, and quickly ask myself “how would I organize this into three main points?” and relatedly “do I have other stories, statistics, quotes, or other resources that I could use to expand this topic into three main sections?
For example, in the first instance of focusing on “niche content creation,” I would organize my thinking like this:
If the main idea is “the ‘1000 flavors of media’ in today’s world means that you can produce and find success as a content creator, then it would be important to find examples that would show off how drastically the world has changed (possibly a story about how four of the top earners on Youtube, generating a combined $200,000,000+, were each under 8 years old with a combined 100,00,000 followers), how low the barriers of entry have become (citing a heartwarming story or two about how someone in destitute poverty, or who had felt lost and hopeless, was able to find a “tribe” through youtube or social media and achieved incredible success), and close out by painting a picture showing that no matter how obscure their talents or interests might be, that there is an untapped audience hungry to connect with it (by listing out a string of cases of extremely obscure niche content creators achieving remarkable success, for example). For the final point, I might also (or instead) address any concerns the audience might have connected to the main theme of my speech. Some audience members, for instance, might be skeptical that the message of “anyone can find a tribe and create a community online” could relate to them. They might wonder “why would anyone care what I think?” or doubt that they could add new or valuable insight. “but what would I add to the table?”
To answer these concerns, I would include, somewhere in my conclusion, an acknowledgement of those uncertainties, and then offer a counterpoint. In this case, I could emphasize that each person’s unique life experience, combination of interests, and perspectives give them a unique voice that will potentially resonate with a unique audience (and then give some examples of that). It would be important (for reasons we’ll get into later in much more detail!) that the third point of the speech is the most personal to the audience (in this case, a direct call to action to inspire them to consider being content creators themselves).
If I instead chose to go with the second possible direction for the speech, focusing on the dangers of “100 flavors of truth,” I would apply the same process we’ve just worked through. After opening the speech by introducing the analogy, the first main point might be “setting the stage” and describing how search, youtube, and social media all push content supporting someone’s existing views and preferences, and how easily that can lead people down a rabbit hole in only seeing “their own flavor of reality.” If possible, I might get specific–for example, perhaps I could relate to an experience in which, after spending a few hours looking up a given topic for a school assignment, my search feed became filled with content promoting a particular idea or perspective related to it. I can imagine that being potentially chilling if the “recommended advice” is particularly dangerous or offensive.
As a second point, I might transition into exploring how those changes in how we consume “truth” are affecting the country–any statistics or data points I might know on the subject would be invaluable here. For example, maybe we’re 77% more likely to refuse to date someone with differing political views than we would have been 20 years ago? What if 60% of people believe that someone who holds opposing opinions on a sensitive topic is “a bad person”? Perhaps fewer and fewer people are making efforts to understand different points of view? All of those examples are purely hypothetical, but you can easily imagine how those types of data points could easily support the theme in a powerful way.
As a third main point, I’d want to give at least one or two tragic, real world examples of the impact that can have, to basically say “this isn’t a hypothetical problem; this is already creating real, shocking tragedies, from people who have become so deluded by “their own flavor of truth” that they conducted actions that will alarm and anger an audience regardless of their political or social beliefs. The closing of such a speech might be a call to action to remind people to step out of their bubble, and find opportunities to stay connected with their neighbors and their communities — reminding them that we still have more in common than we do things that divide us, as long as we can keep the dialogue open.
Now that I’ve been able to lay out three main points I could make for each topic, and I can see each of them offers up something emotional for my audience, I could feel completely comfortable choosing either roadmap as I prepare to jump on the stage to give my impromptu speech.
Thankfully, for most of you in competitions, you’ll be able to choose your own topic. However, the process I walked you through above is a blueprint for what I’d like to see you use in deciding on a good subject for your speech.
In reading through the process, a lot of the questions it asks come down to three main factors:
- Do I have stories to share related to this idea, or that illustrate my main point, that are shocking / surprising, and stir up an emotional reaction? (Which could be anger, laughter, disbelief, curiosity, anxiety, or self-reflection)
- Is the central message itself both relevant and something that has the potential to generate a strong reaction from an audience made of a broad range of personal and professional backgrounds?
- How can I use either particular stories, or metaphors, to ultimately make this topic something deeply personal and relatable to each and every audience member?
Any topic you choose has to be able to have a solid answer to those three points.
THE CHEAT SHEET: BRAINSTORMING MADE EASY
Even with everything we’ve gone over, I can imagine that choosing a topic might still feel difficult or overwhelming for some of you–so let’s make it easy!
The absolute best advice I can give you on deciding on your topic (in cases where you can choose your own) is to avoid the temptation to decide on the first topic first, then try to find content to support and expand on the theme. Instead, I want you to wok backwards; before choosing a topic, to instead perform a brainstorming exercise using the steps listed below.
IMPORTANT NOTE: We’re about to discuss several elements related to storytelling. Even though we’re currently exploring Topics, the process we will be applying will be a helpful tool throughout your speech–so you may want to bookmark this section and come back to it often!
A)Brainstorm a list of:
- Real-life stories you’ve read or experienced that affected you emotionally (they don’t have to be sad or infuriating–they could also be hilarious, unbelievable, shocking, or just plain weird!)
- Quotes that significantly impacted you or challenged the way you look at the world
- Facts or statistics that seem almost unbelievable (but true!)
B)Once you have a list of each of those, I want you to ask:
- Could this story, quote, or fact be the foundation of a speech? For example, suppose I had a shocking statistic about the number of children dying yearly from a preventable disease. In that case, I might be able to have that be the foundation for a speech, addressing the scale of the issue, making it “come alive” through stories or quotes from victims or parents, and then a clear call to action about what could be done about it.
- For each of these potential speech topics, ask yourself: does this topic have a clear call to action?In other words, does your potential topic lend itself to ending with a warning your audience can heed, a perspective they can adopt, or a next step they can take? If your theoretical topic lacks this, one solution can be to seek out a broader message.
C)If necessary, to find a broader message that might have a better call to action, go back to your story, quote, or fact, and now ask yourself: can this be turned into a metaphor for teaching an important lesson?
If there was one concept that has helped me more than any other in speech writing, it might just be this one.
The better you get at finding the metaphor in a story, the easier it gets to “find the angle” in every compelling story you come across, or any of the most emotional moments you’ve experienced.
Effectively, you want to be constantly asking yourself, “what could the moral of this story be?”
For example, let’s say you’ve read a sad letter about a very young soldier, writing to his mom and dad and scared for his life. What are all the “lessons” you could take away from it?
- In war, it’s always the young who die for the ambitions of the old.
- How easy it can be to do something you imagine will be glamorous or rewarding, without truly taking the time to consider the realities or the worst-case scenarios.
- It’s easy to imagine and exaggerate how brave or fearless you would be in the face of danger, until you’re experiencing it yourself.
- The human side / cost of war.
- The power of propaganda (what the soldier was told to expect vs. the reality)
Any one of these could be the backbone of a speech.
As another example, let’s say you once volunteered at a food kitchen for the poor, and you unexpectedly saw your friend’s parents.
- Maybe, if you had no idea they were poor, the experience might have made you reflect on how common it’s become for people to project a perfect life for themselves on social media. In this case, the story becomes a symbol of how removed what we see can be from reality.
- Similarly, it could be a symbol for how social media, while bringing us superficially closer together, has brought us further apart; perhaps you thought you really knew your friend well, based on how you connected you felt on social media, but seeing the condition of her family made you realize how disconnected you actually were from them. Your personal realization through your individual experience, in turn, represents the “bigger picture issue” that we’re all facing.
Both of these examples could be an excellent foundation for a speech. The next step in both cases would be to explore what other stories or data you could bring in to expand or support the main idea.
If you can train yourself to start to think this way–constantly trying to see a “lesson” in the stories you read about or the experiences you’ve had–you’ll discover a constant stream of inspiration for speeches. Even better, since you’re already extracting the ideas for the speech from emotional and memorable stories, quotes, or data, you won’t have to worry about the question of “do I have the material to make this subject connect with my audience on an emotional level?”
A few bonus tips on how to find lessons or metaphors:
- Context: When you’re reading or thinking about a story, always consider if the surrounding context might create a new or deeper meaning or lesson. For example, imagine you find a quote about the importance of protecting and caring about animals. On the surface, it might not be a great choice to build a speech around, since there’s nothing particularly surprising about it–and you never want to have a speech whose message an audience hears and says “well yeah, obviously, no duh.” But…what if this quote came from a murderous dictator? Suddenly, the context creates entirely new possible themes for the speech. For instance, with this example, we could craft a speech comparing the tendency to value human life more cheaply than other concerns. In this case, if we have data or stories to support it, we might compare the resources we spend on animal protection and preservation with the support we give to the destitute and starving, poor children at home and abroad, etc.
Conversely, we could take this same example, and go in a different direction. We could explore how ideology or extreme beliefs can radicalize us, to a point where the same person brought to tears over the abusive treatment of animals could casually murder and oppress their fellow men and women.
Regardless, just by considering the context, we suddenly have entire themes that jump out to us that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
As another example, let’s say you’ve read a story about a man being injured after trying to shoplift a lobster by hiding it in his pants in the supermarket (true story, by the way).
By itself, it might just appear to be a quirky story on a “stupid criminal of the day” website. But what if he was extremely poor, and trying to bring his family home a meal for the holidays?
Now… we’ve got a few new directions we can go.
One possibility we could explore could be how poverty and desperation leads to self-destructive behavior and decision making that might seem “ridiculous” to the outside community–and then lead into a speech examining this behavior on a larger scale, exploring how common and how destructive it can be for those who grow up in poverty, and perhaps closing by suggesting things we can do to “laugh less, and help more” to alleviate the issue.
Another possibility would be to frame the incident as an example of how people can be motivated to “do the right thing” (as they perceive it) without thinking carefully about their actions or their consequences, which can lead to extremely unfortunate results. Focusing on the intended results, and not on the methodology, is a critical error in judgment that can be linked to any subject from corporate strategy, to government policy, to our own personal lives and experiences. You could have the freedom of taking the theme of the speech in multiple directions at your preference.
D)Scope and Scale: Sometimes, when you’re thinking back to an experience you’ve had, or a story you’ve read, an understanding of the scope and scale of the larger issue can transform a single story into a powerful speech topic.
For example, imagine hearing someone describe a tragic incident that happened to someone, in detail that stirs us with strong emotion. Then, we learn that this is an incident which is occuring every 15 minutes in the country. Suddenly, our minds are racing–this is horrible! How is this even possible? What’s being done about it? How can I help? Addressing those questions is easily a full and powerful speech by itself.
E)Focus on Why: When it comes to stories, the “what” is rarely as interesting as the “why.”
When you’re looking at a shocking, memorable, or otherwise interesting story, and you’re trying to see if it can inspire any themes for your speech, one useful technique can be to ask as many “whys” about it as possible.
For example, going back to our “lobster” story earlier…
Why did he try to steal a lobster, by hiding it in his pants?
- Perhaps he didn’t have the money to buy the lobster.
Why didn’t he have the money to buy the lobster?
- Perhaps he was poor.
If he was too poor to buy a lobster, why did he feel the need for one?
- Perhaps he felt entitled.
- Perhaps he wanted to provide a holiday surprise for his family.
- Perhaps he felt compelled to give his family “what they deserved” for the holidays.
Why did he hide it in his pants?
- Perhaps he was in a rush, and not thinking clearly about the risks
- Perhaps he had a low IQ or had impaired cognitive function, and was not able to clearly cosider the consequences.
Then, as you look at the answers you brainstorm to those “whys,” you can ask yourself “what lessons can someone learn from them? What ideas do they draw attention to that we might overlook in our day-to-day lives? What larger issues might they raise?
Sometimes, the contrast itself between the first impression when we hear the “what,” and the deeper issues that come up when we ask the right “why,” can be a talking point in itself. An audience that laughs at the story when it’s first told, might have to reflect on itself when they learn that the man in our hypothetical story had a cognitive impairment–potentially leading to a speech about the correlation between untreated mental illness and incarceration.
E)Cut to the bone: When looking at a story, a fact, or a situation, cut away as much of the specifics around it as possible, and describe it to yourself in the most general terms possible, trying to repeat the process until you can’t continue. In doing so, do any universal themes or messages appear that might not have been obvious?
Again, we’ll refer back to the lobster case.
Stripping it down, we could look at the story as:
- Someone takes something they didn’t earn and pays a price for it.
- Someone is punished for making an impulsive decision without considering the consequences.
- Someone does something bad, for (what they consider to be) a good reason, resulting in a bad outcome.
- Someone is so focused on the ends (his goal) that they don’t consider the consequences of their means.
From this perspective, the lessons of the story are potentially much more universal, and it’s very possible that each of us have made these same errors in judgment, or that we’ve each been directly affected by others who have.
This technique can also help to make a story that might not have universal interest, like a basketball game you played in, speak to something more broad that the entire audience can relate to.
F)Does my topic, and the stories I’m going to share, genuinely stir up the emotions of my audience?
As we’ll go through later on, there’s always techniques you can apply to make almost any story or introduction create an emotional reaction from an audience. Most importantly, though, is the question of whether your central message itself is impactful enough to stir up your audience.
As a speaker, your central message needs to be something relevant enough to me, personally, as a listener, that I feel compelled to invest in your presentation. It could stir up outrage at some injustice, or generate anxiety or inspiration in me as I take your message and reflect on my own choices.
Too many times, I hear speakers talk about a subject that, frankly, doesn’t make me feel anything. Often, they’re just too inwardly focused–the speaker mostly talks about some personal experience they had, or on some of their hobbies or interests, without making it “about” something bigger, broader, and more personal or relevant to my experiences. These speakers confuse a story having dramatic elements with a story being emotionally impactful.
Similarly, another critical mistake I still regularly see are speakers whose entire presentations are based on a central premise that the audience can’t or doesn’t relate to. It’s the basketball fan whose entire speech is nothing but sports analogies; the speaker bitterly complaining about the quality of dating prospects, to an audience who might feel themselves to be marginalized or prejudiced against as prospective partners. When these failures occur, it can instantly make an entire presentation completely irrelevant to any members of the audience unable to relate to the speaker’s topic or stories, and it guarantees that the only emotion you will be stirring in them is boredom.
Avoiding this outcome is one of the reasons we stressed so heavily on finding a deeper “metaphor” in your stories and messages, to make the main takeaway of your presentation something that can be emotional, relevant, and impactful for a broad range of listeners.
G)Is there a “novel” or especially unique aspect of your core message?
A significant aspect of your theme’s total impact is the extent to which it makes me look at a situation in the world, or in my own life, from a new and meaningful perspective.
Too often, a topic effectively “writes itself into a corner”–no matter how good a storyteller the speaker is, and no matter how effectively they deliver the presentation, the takeaway message is so obvious or intuitive that it almost insults the listener’s intelligence.
Compare that feeling to how you react when you discover something shocking you had no idea of, and feeling inspired to do something about it. The moments that motivated you to reflect on your own choices and decisions. The stories that inspired you to look at something you’ve seen a thousand times in a fundamentally new way. The burning to share some new insight you’ve discovered through the speech with friends and colleagues.
Those sorts of moments are the reactions we’re looking to create in an audience. To achieve it, at least some central part of your main message should “rattle their cage” and be unexpected, shocking, counter-intuitive, almost unbelievable, and make them reevaluate their world or their perspective in some meaningful way.
H)Is the central message of your topic actionable?
Earlier, we touched on the importance of a topic to have a clear call to action. But why is it so important for your speech to be “actionable”?
One of the barriers to connecting or becoming emotionally invested in a message is when the size and scope of the challenge feels overwhelming.
A speech that addresses massive issue can stir up my emotions, but if the problem is ultimately something my actions can have little or no impact on influencing, it creates an emotional distance–I can say “oh, that’s terrible,” but I never fully “buy into it” as an active stakeholder who becomes personally invested in the cause.
On the other hand, if you stir me up to want to take action, and show me the very real possibility that the outcome of this situation is up to me–I’m suddenly even more fired up and invested in your presentation. Suddenly, it’s become “my fight,” and that personal investment makes it connect on a much deeper level.
Themes that directly speak to something I can do to change or improve my own life are even more resonant, since it’s often the most “actionable” of all –there’s typically no barrier to me implementing the idea outside of my own choice and desire to do so. If your speech can directly impact how I choose to reinterpret the world around me, my own attitude, or the decisions I make, you’ve given me an extraordinary gift and made a profound connection with me as a listener.
Choosing the right topic can be one of the most important decisions you make for your next speech contest, but it doesn’t have to feel like guesswork. If you can remember the principles we’ve discussed here, finding a subject that can connect with your audience in a meaningful way will be easier than you ever imagined.
A great subject offers an audience stories, information, or perspectives that are new, novel, and emotionally affecting. They’re also challenging–they challenge the listener to question or change their views or perspectives. Despite being challenging, they also present the listener with a call to action that feels “doable” and realistic. Speeches about society or global issues need to close out by focusing on the more personable, actionable steps each member of the audience can do in their own lives to address the problem. And of course, the subject needs to be broad enough that a wide range of audience members or judges can connect and resonate with the theme of your speech in an emotionally impactful way.
PART 2: Structure
So, you’ve decided on a topic, along the way, you’ve hopefully mapped out a general direction you’d like to take the presentation, and you’ve come up with the main “moral of the story” for your speech.
For the next step, we’ll focus on outlining the journey you’ll take your audience on along the way.
Many of us have heard general advice–common tips like “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you said,” or “stick to three points.” Unfortunately, while those tips are a great place to start, they’re not enough to get you to the finish line.
While deciding what structure will work best for a presentation, many speakers can feel overwhelmed by the seemingly limitless number of choices. In this section, we’ll overcome that “analysis paralysis” by exposing the patterns and layouts you’ll find consistently in well-crafted speeches.
This section aims to equip you with everything you’ll need to see those patterns and structures for yourself, and know which options offer the best fit for your topic–making the outlining and preparation process as painless as possible.
THE BIG PICTURE:
As soon as I’d decided on (or been given!) a topic, the next step was deciding on a structure–how best to organize my ideas.
By structure, I’m specifically referring to the way I choose to organize the three main points contained in the body of my speech. It is this section of the speech that offers the broadest range of possibilities.
Most of the overall format of your speech will be fairly static: nearly every speech will have an opening designed to “hook” the audience’s attention, followed by a “bridge” that helps to connect that opening to the broader theme or message of the speech. Each speech will also have a conclusion, which will reflect on the main messages and theme of the speech, and ultimately tie back to the opening.
What will be unique, however, are the choices you make for the format of your three main points.
Depending on the speech, I might choose to organize my three main ideas chronologically; in other cases, the right choice could be to look at an issue from a small scale, then a global scale, and finally an individual scale–making the final point something deeply personal, emotionally resonating, or extremely relatable to each audience member. We will cover a broad range of options momentarily, and discuss which options best fit which subjects and topics. As a general rule, I usually decide on a final format by asking myself, “Which structure lets me close with the most emotionally impactful of my stories or key messages?”
As you become more comfortable with experimenting with different types of structures for your speeches, you’ll appreciate more and more how powerful a tool the experimentation can be to help you find the “best” version of your speech, or even to discover when a speech that sounded great in theory might not flow as well as you might have imagined.
Let’s go back to our earlier ice cream example.
If I had decided to go with the “100 flavors of truth” direction for the speech, how would I plan the outline for the presentation?
1)Foreshadow the issue in the opening while stirring up intrigue and curiosity: paint a picture of just how outlandish (and widespread) certain opinions and beliefs have become. Drop in some facts and figures that seem almost hilarious and completely unbelievable. End the opening with one last twist, to pique the audience’s curiosity (“And who’s at fault? Not Democrats…not Republicans…ice cream.”)
2)Bridge to the main subject / creating context (aka “Why did you tell me that?”): Explain the ice cream analogy–how we went from a world of “chocolate and vanilla,” where everyone might have a favorite, but where even the most diehard vanilla fan had at least tried chocolate at some point, to a world with hundreds of flavors, where each of us could have so many customized choices that we no longer had shared experiences. Elaborate on how we can now go our whole lives without having any exposure to the ice cream that our neighbors were consuming; and no matter how particular our tastes were, there we would never have to compromise our preferences, since there would always be some new flavor to cater to our preferences. Transition into how truth is becoming the new ice cream of the 21st century–and while it might seem sweet at first, too much of it is quickly becoming a serious health risk for this country.
This bridge answers multiple questions: what is the central idea or premise that your opening is connecting to? What’s the central premise? Also, note that it hints clearly at the direction the speech will take: after generating a clear picture of the current landscape (as referenced in the opening), it looks like we’ll be following up by showing how we arrived at “100 flavors of truth” in the evolution of news or media consumption (paralleling the description of how ice cream consumption changed over time), and then show the potential dangers and consequences (how it’s “bad for our health”).
Body Paragraphs (AKA 3 main points): Here is where we expand on these points in more detail. In this case, I’m going to choose to organize my ideas into 1)Where are we now, and how did we get here 2)What are the consequences / dangers if we don’t resolve this? 3)What actions can we take as individuals to push back against these risks?
Conclusion: “Tell them what you said,” summing up all three main points, focusing on the call to action, and ending on a line that in some way is a direct callback to the opening.
CHEAT SHEET: OUTLINES MADE EASY
The structure we used in the example (opening, bridge, body paragraphs, and conclusion) can apply to any competitive speech you’re giving on any subject.
We’ll go in-depth into how to write each individual section shortly. For the moment, let’s focus on how to plan out your overall outline.
Opening: As we’ll explore in much more detail in the next section, there are a huge variety of options and tactics for crafting an effective opening. At this stage, I just want you to realize that this is where you would create a story or share facts or quotations that draw in your audience; shock them, anger them, make them laugh, etc. It doesn’t give the full picture yet–you’ve piqued their interest, but you haven’t necessarily given them the full picture of exactly how that story directly reflects or connects to your main message. In the case of the earlier lobster theft story, this might be where you tell the story of the man smuggling the lobster, without yet diving into how the story applies to the theme or subject of your presentation. (That would come in the next section, the bridge).
Bridge: This is where you “fill in the blanks” and answer the question “why did you tell me that” in response to your opening. Here, you give the additional context for the audience to connect your opening to a larger issue, more directly relevant and emotionally engaging to their own lives and experiences. (“Sure, that opening was hilarious…but here’s the thing…..”)
Body Paragraphs / 3 Main Points: This section requires a little more detail, so strap in.
As we’ve discussed, you’ll want the body of your speech to consist of three main points or sections. Why three? Because human brains are simply wired to find it to be an ideal number–it’s enough to feel thorough, but not enough to become overlong and distracting. Entire books have been written on the subject, so in the name of staying focused and getting you ready for your next competition as quickly as possible, I’ll just say “trust me on this one.”
In our earlier example, the structure of those 3 points were:
1)The status quo and how we got there
2)The consequences of the issue we’re addressing
3)What we can do about it
This structure can be applied to a huge number of speeches about a broad range of subjects.
There are also some important variations that you should be thinking of when considering this approach.
One option could be to build up to the status quo issue in 1) by first addressing some facts on a bad habit that each of us do, and then showing how our “harmless habits” is scaling up at a community, national, or international level into a major problem.
Another choice could be to flip the order, from 2) to 1). Here, we could first show how something negative is happening on a worldwide scale, before possibly surprising us with how each of us is individually making the situation worse with our actions and choices. We could then illustrate how the consequences of those choices are harming us on a local level as much as they are on a global level. (This isn’t just something “affecting the world”…this is something that will shorten the lifespan of your children.)
Similarly, you could first look at your issue from a local perspective, then a national perspective, and finally a “kitchen table” perspective (the effect or impact of the issue on a family-by-family basis).
As you can imagine, there are any number of minor variations that can be applied here, but the underlying principle is to draw attention to the issue (and potentially how we arrived to the status quo), and then to the repercussions or dangers (aka, “why do I care” / “what’s in it for me”).
Outside of this overall structure, there are also other patterns you should know and use where applicable:
1)Beginning of the journey
2)Midpoint of the journey
3)End of the journey & “moral of the story”
You’ll see this approach applied in many speeches focused on the story of someone’s life, or describing some element of their own life that led to change or growth that the audience is meant to learn from. In most cases, there should be some challenge or obstacle introduced in the beginning of the journey that gets addressed or resolved by the end, which in turn should lead directly into “moral of the story” that makes the topic particularly relevant to each listener. The lesson should offer the audience something they can take away and potentially apply in their own lives, or makes an observation or insight that will influence how the audience sees the world in the future.
“Three steps to overcoming anxiety”
“The List” can be both the simplest and the most nuanced way to organize a speech. The cases where you should apply it are generally pretty intuitive–you’re typically giving advice to your audience on how to overcome an issue with very specific actionable steps. However, it’s obvious that you can’t fill up an entire speech by simply saying “step one, do this, step two, do that step three, do this. Thank you very much, goodbye.”
Instead, for each section, you’ll need to create stories, data, quotes, and vivid descriptions to make each point “come to life” in a way that will be memorable, emotionally engaging, and persuasive. We’ll cover various techniques to do that when we reach the Body section.
The goal at this stage isn’t for you to break down, on a line-by-line basis, all of the content that you’ll be integrating into your speech, but rather to be familiar with which overall framework is the best layout for expanding on your theme or central idea. The layout should help you to inspire you, and give you some motivation on the sorts of additional stories and content you may need in order to fill out the outline in the direction you’ve prepared.
Conclusion: You’ve developed an outline for your three main points / sections — congratulations! Now for the last step…sticking the landing with a strong conclusion.
Conclusions will have their own entire section later on, but for now the most important takeaway is for your conclusion to accomplish three things:
- Summarize your key points (in a way that emphasizes why this is incredibly important to me as a listener!)
- Drive home your call to action or “moral of the story”
- Concludes in a way that is a direct callback to your opening (We’ll get into more details on that when we get to our “conclusions” chapter.)
Having a clear, well thought-out structure will be incredibly beneficial to the quality of your speechwriting. Following the process we’ve covered can help give you a foundation to explore and experiment, and find the format that helps you to present your topic in the most engaging and impactful way possible.
Section 3: Openings
It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of a strong opening in a speech. After all, it’s like they say–“you’ll never get a second chance at a first impression.” In fact, out of all of my years in public speaking, I could consistently tell which speakers would deliver the best presentations after listening to just the first thirty seconds of their speech.
What made it so easy to judge each speaker so quickly? If you’ve ever read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, you’ll be familiar with it’s opening–one of the most famous and quoted book introductions of all time:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I have seen more than my share of terrible openings, often delivered in ways I couldn’t have imagined until I actually witnessed them for myself. But the best openings, the ones that commanded my absolute attention, and assured me that I was in store for an incredible performance….every single one of them followed the same consistent patterns of effective public speaking.
First and foremost, they engaged me emotionally. This is so important that we need to focus and double down on each one of those three words to really encapsulate the full message.
The reason we need to engage an audience with our opening is that it’s not their default setting. By default, all day long, most of us are only ever really partially engaged. When someone asks you “how’s your day?” you say, “I’m fine,” “I’m doing well,” or “I’m good.” Someone opens the door for you and you say “thank you,” typically without even thinking about the words you’re about to say. All day long, our days are filled with “autopilot” interactions with the world around us. The majority of our real attention is inward; we’ve got so much on our minds at any given moment that we are incredibly selective about what we allow to divert our attention.
That default state of “passive engagement” is why being presented with something unexpected can be such a powerful trigger. We’re so accustomed to predictability that those few moments when we’re presented with something unexpected are like a jolt to the system. Think back to the last time you asked a question and received a response that completely caught you off guard. That moment when you were just going about your day, and suddenly got the text message “we need to talk.”
That is the power of an effective opening. It takes a room full of people who might be lost in their thoughts: they’re sitting politely, they’re listening attentively, but they’ve got a hundred other things on their mind–and then boom it snaps them into absolute attention.
Truly understanding how to create an impactful opening also requires accepting an uncomfortable truth; it isn’t your audience’s responsibility to be engaged, it’s your responsibility to be engaging. You cannot and should not, ever, assume you have your audience’s attention–attention needs to be earned.
In a classic Dennis Hopper film, “Search and Destroy,” Hopper’s character offers up a list of four rules of success. His “rule 3” always stuck with me, and is especially relevant to our topic:
“Just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it interesting.”
This is absolutely one of the biggest mistakes I see over, and over, and over again. People tell stories that matter to them. They deliver openings that are funny to them. They talk about experiences that mattered to them. And…I’m sorry to say…99% of the time, your story isn’t nearly as interesting to me as it is to you.
That might sound a bit harsh. But I’ve personally seen that kind of thinking lose NGOs millions of dollars in potential donations when they presented to new prospects because they took for granted the emotion and the importance of their cause when they were presenting to people who didn’t have the same investment and the same experience in their field that they had.
Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of speeches from speakers with great energy, fantastic projection, and incredible confidence, that completely and utterly lost their audience in the first 15 seconds, because it became obvious to everyone in the room that the speaker was primarily performing to amuse themselves. In other words, it’s crucial that your opening is squarely focused on having a powerful connection or impact on your audience–at the end of the day, as your audience, the focus of your opening should always be on how you can engage me emotionally.
Whatever story you’re using to open your speech, whatever technique you’re employing to “snap me out of autopilot,” they all have to answer the basic question, “Why do I, as a member of your audience, care?” Why do I care about that crazy road trip you went on last summer? Why do I care about the time your best friend lost their job at the shoe store? Why do I care about what you wanted to be as a child?
None of that is to say that you can’t give a great opening or a great speech that tells an audience about a personal story, or a journey you’ve experienced. But before you do, you need to give your audience a reason to care. To feel personally invested. To be directly, personally engaged.
That’s obviously true for your speech as a whole, but it’s even more true for your opening. Right away, it immediately tells your audience “I need to pay attention to this; this is going to be worth my time and my engagement.”
And by now, you’ve probably caught on to something else–the key importance of using your opening to stir up a strong emotion in your listeners. Making them feel excited, or curious, or incensed, or incredulous.
That also ties to the last piece that brings it all together; Engage me emotionally.
Think back….have you ever heard a speech that you had a really powerful, personal emotional reaction to?
On one hand, yes, you need an opening that catches an audience off guard, and yes you need to present something that is of personal value to your listener–but the absolute best way to do that is to give them an opening that engages their emotions. You need to make them feel. In fact, the stronger the emotion you can draw out of someone in your opening, the more willing they will be to forgive and ignore minor mistakes you might make in the rest of your presentation.
The other great thing is that the more you focus on the question of “what am I making my audience feel” when you’re putting together your opening, the more you’ll naturally start to lose a lot of bad habits that ruin 90% of most competitive speakers. Immediately, it stops you from telling a story that’s funny to you, but doesn’t really offer a gift that your listeners can take with them; it will stop you from potentially boring your audience with stories they can’t relate to or don’t impact them. If you stop and genuinely ask yourself, “how does this opening engage my audience emotionally”, you’ll find the entire thought process you employ in developing your openings will change in incredibly positive ways.
Effectively, it forces you to reframe the dynamic of your engagement with the audience–you’re no longer here to speak, or to perform; you’re here to give me something that will make me feel thankful and grateful for the time I had in your presence.
THE BIG PICTURE
Coming up with the opening of my speeches is typically my favorite part of the entire speechwriting process. In fact, I’ll even confess that there are several times where, as soon as I start to consider a given topic, or have a vague idea for a speech, my mind will immediately go to “what sort of openings could I use for this?”
Sometimes, as soon as I think of a topic, or a “general lesson / theme,” my first goal will be to come up with a funny or powerful quote or story that perfectly captures the spirit (or teaches the central lesson) of the overall speech.
Other times, I’ll have read a story that’s just so powerful, or so hilarious, that I work backwards, and ask myself (as we addressed earlier!) “how can I turn this into an opening?” In those cases, I employ the techniques we’ve discussed (and others we’ll touch on shortly) to ask myself “how can I tell this story, get a laugh (or a sob) and then add context that will make my audience see how the story or the quote reflects or teaches a lesson or idea that might make for a good speech topic?” Those sorts of brainstorming sessions let me keep certain openings “in my back pocket” until the opportunity comes to give a speech with a related theme or topic.
Regardless of the circumstances around when I start considering my opening, however, the real fun comes from creating something I know will get a powerful emotional reaction out of my audience. And not a “phony” one either–not a case where I act melodramatic or just speak loudly or shouty or use a voice that suggests some dramatic scene. No–I mean creating an opening where the audience really, deeply feels something intensely on an emotional level for themselves.
I know I’m on to something when I can close my eyes and picture the faces of my audience once I’ve delivered my opening–shock, laughter, outrage, held breaths, or something equally dramatic.
Frankly, if I can’t close my eyes, imagine myself delivering my opening, and sincerely picture my audience having a major emotional jolt, an intensely hungry stare awaiting to hear the answer to the mystery I’ve laid out for them, or a HUGE laugh that transcends whatever differences in race, class, gender, culture, or other distinctions might exist in my listeners, I go right back to the drawing board.
The good news (for you!) is that over the years, I’ve been able to isolate different structures and styles of openings, so that I can experiment with different frameworks to see which might be the best model for integrating a particular story, quote or idea as an opening, or conversely to find which types of quotes or stories might best fit into any given style of opening, based on the theme of my speech and the structure I’m planning to follow. In the “Cheat Sheet” section, I’ll be breaking down each individual approach, step by step. STUDY THEM WELL. The skills you learn in being able to quickly and consistently create strong, emotionally engaging openings are going to carry over to nearly every other part of your speech writing journey.
In our last example section, we laid the groundwork for the opening; sharing a few outrageous modern opinions and beliefs, including some absolutely ridiculous statistics, before culminating in blaming ice cream as the culprit for all of this insanity.
As a first step, I’d search for “crazy but true” things that a surprising percentage of people believe in. Thankfully, that search is MUCH easier today than it was when I first started out in public speaking (Ask Jeeves, Excite, and Yahoo weren’t nearly as effective as Google).
A quick search for “craziest things Americans believe in” loads up pages with more than enough “hilarious and slightly frightening” facts for me to use for an opening.
In filtering through the statistics to decide on which ones to use for an opening, there’s a few considerations I try to be particularly careful of. First of all, I need to recognize that there are facts that might be crazy to me, but that might be particularly sensitive beliefs to members of my audience. As a result, I would rule out any religious, political or cultural beliefs that might be deeply personal to my listeners.
As a side note, I would also rule out matters of simple ignorance–some large percentage of people who simply don’t know something. While the data may be funny, or even shocking, it wouldn’t necessarily match the larger theme of the speech, focusing on groups banding together to support ideas or beliefs that are demonstrably untrue.
Thankfully, even with these filters, a quick review of the first few results from the Google search still leaves me with a treasure trove of possible examples: nearly the same number of Americans (approx 30%) believe in Bigfoot as the Big Bang; 12 million Americans believe that the government is secretly run by lizard people; 20% of Americans allegedly consider scratch-and-win tickets to be a genuine plan to become wealthy; 50% believe that Saddam Hussein potentially planned the 9-11 attacks; among Americans, 12% supported the statement, “The global dissemination of genetically modified foods by Monsanto is part of a secret program, called Agenda 21, launched by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations to shrink the world populations.” 46% claimed to be “undecided”. As many as 3 million Americans (and 11 million Brazilians) believe the earth is flat.
I could keep going and continue to dig up more data points, but the odds are that these would already be more than enough to do the trick. That said, depending on the nature of my audience, I might go in a slightly different direction–quote from a few of these “crazy-but-silly” statistics, but have the last few I list gradually become slightly more dangerous or sinister–for example, a disturbingly high number or percentage of Americans who might believe that the holocaust was a hoax, or who believe that people with opposing beliefs should be jailed or placed into camps, etc. In that way, I can start to hint at one of the larger messages of the overall speech, that there is a very real and potentially dangerous consequence to the “100 flavors of truth” world we’re living in today. The technique would also help to give an extra emotional jolt to the audience; taking them from laughter and disbelief to shock, fear and disdain. As a general rule, that “emotional whiplash” can be especially effective, whenever you can rapidly and unexpectedly take an audience from one emotional state to the opposite (generally working best when you go from light to heavy, since telling a joke or a fun story right after something tragic might sound like you’re “making light” of the earlier topic).
From there, I would continue on to the “bridge” of my speech, as we’ve already reviewed earlier.
CHEAT SHEET: Openings Made Easy
More than almost any other section in this book, the opening section is going to be a MASSIVE deep dive–you’re going to be getting over two dozen possible types of openings you can directly apply for your upcoming presentations. Different types of openings will often be a better fit for different types of topics or presentation styles, so you can pick and choose the opening that works best for any occasion.
On the website reddit (the world’s largest message board), there’s a section called “No no no yes!” for people to post videos of situations that ALMOST go disastrously wrong, before turning things around in the last possible second.
Along with having some incredibly stressful–and amazing–clips, they also have a great philosophy you can use for yourself in your opening, to generate huge amounts of emotional engagement with your audience.
DREAD, DISCOMFORT and ANXIETY are extremely strong emotions. The “no no no yes” approach will help you to tap into it in a powerful way.
In Brief: Tell a story that seems to be leading somewhere that makes your audience extremely uncomfortable, or (seemingly) introduce a topic that would be a very bad fit for your audience…then, at the last minute (without waiting TOO long!) end the story or the message in such a way that makes it obvious that you were talking about something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than they had previously imagined, giving them a massive sigh of relief and forcing them to laugh at themselves for their concern.
That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start with an example that should help to clarify things.
Example: I once saw a speaker, who was giving a keynote speech in the US. She was from Eastern Europe, and had moved to America fairly recently.
The speaker shocked and horrified the room by opening up exclaiming that “America was the laziest, most selfish country in the world, full of people who only care about themselves, and are good for nothing.”
Needless to say, the audience was absolutely mortified, and the organizer was starting to frantically look around to decide what to do next.
Then, suddenly, she announced “This is what my teachers in the Soviet Union would tell us every morning about America.” She then pivoted to how every negative stereotype she had been raised from birth to expect was shattered by the warmhearted, compassionate friends and colleagues she had met since moving to the US and experiencing America for herself.
In an instant, the mood of the room changed, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief, smiles could be seen across the room, and most of all, the audience was absolutely laser-focused on what she had to say next.
Why it works: As we discussed earlier, it’s critical for your opening to “snap your audience out of autopilot.” They think they know what to expect, they’re prepared for “yet another typical presentation” and they’re often already only half engaged by the time you start speaking. You need to do something that IMMEDIATELY wakes them up and says “wait…wait…wait…what???” If they think they’re you’re about to dive into something completely unacceptable or wildly outside the norm, you won’t have to worry about having their absolute attention. From there, when you end it in such a way that relieves them “oh, thank goodness, I was worried there for a second,” you basically get to “have your cake and eat it too” by eliciting all of the emotions of panic and dread, but with a message that’s ultimately perfectly in line with what’s socially acceptable by the group.
A few VERY important notes:
When using this technique, to quote Walter White from Breaking Bad, “Tread lightly.” Don’t actually get into any crude or offensive topics, or use crude or offensive language. If you push the discomfort too far, it can be seen as a cheap and potentially offensive gimmick, and your audience won’t get past it. Even if it’s a misdirect, making your audience think that you’re going to give a presentation that is highly offensive, deeply prejudiced, or totally inappropriate for your setting will go badly for you, full stop. In the worst cases, you may simply get cut off entirely by your judges before you get to the “punch line” of your misdirect. For the same reason, you should keep the misdirection quite short–if it’s too long, it will both create an impression that you’re “milking it” too hard, and/or give more time for a judge to potentially worry that the fake-out subject is the real topic of your presentation, and potentially call on an early end to the speech.
The “swerve” needs to fit organically and seemingly innocently into your story. In the earlier example, it’s important to appreciate that the story was real, and the progression (from being indoctrinated in school, to overcoming prejudice and learning the truth) felt very genuine and heartfelt. It was a logical and natural way to tell the story…it just also happened to give us a bit of a jump when we first listened to it and jumped to conclusions. You want to make sure that, if you use this opening, the same is true for you.
I’ve often seen this used in ways that seemed like they were just for shock value, without seeming like the story was coming from an innocent, heartfelt place, and it almost always bombs. When it’s done right, it should feel like your audience has to laugh and blame themselves for misreading where the speech was going, and not that you’re winking to the audience and showing off how clever you were by making them confuse your lurid description of hand washing with something inappropriate.
Final Thoughts: This opening isn’t the easiest to execute, but it can be EXTREMELY powerful when done well. It also needs to be used VERY sparingly. Even when you pull it off brilliantly, the next time your audience sees you doing it, they’ll be in on the act, and it might feel a lot more contrived and lose a lot of its charm. But used rarely, or with new audiences, it can be an incredibly strong tool in your toolkit.
2)Be a Bad Comedian
Most people already know that humor is a great way to connect with people, and a fantastic way to start a speech when done well, but many speakers are concerned that they’re not “naturally funny” enough to feel comfortable using humor in their presentations.
But there’s good news–you don’t need to be funny to get huge laughs and heartfelt chuckles from your audience. While it’s an unforgivable sin of a bad standup comedian to “borrow a joke,” you’re not doing standup. You can” borrow” a funny story, to handle the comedy for you.
In Brief: Search online for “funny news stories” or “hilarious but true news,” or similar sources. Save the stories that you find to be absolutely hilarious–whether it directly relates to the subject of your presentation or not. Ideally, create a large collection of such stories somewhere you can come back to.
When the time comes for your upcoming presentation, and you’re planning your opening, review each of the stories you’ve collected. For each example, ask “is there a ‘moral of the story’ or a ‘lesson’ this particular story can reflect?” If it was a criminal who did something hilariously foolish, you could ask “what was the root cause of their mistake? Carelessness? (An extreme case of) Not paying attention to details? Getting distracted? Thinking short term? Being sleep deprived? Blowing a conflict out of proportion?
Suddenly, it becomes easier to imagine how you start your speech by simply telling the hilarious story, and then explaining how, at the heart of the story, is (insert the theme of your speech!)
At that point, you’ve got the audience laughing, you’ve introduced your subject in a creative way, and you’ve used humor to forge a positive emotional bond with your audience.
Example: I wanted to test out this advice in real-time, with a live example. To do this, I started off with a google search of “Hilarious news stories” “crazy but true news” and searched Reddit (the world’s largest message board) on its “Offbeat” section, which compile lists of amusing headlines and news stories.
I found a story involving police being called in, by an apartment resident petrified in fear, after spotting a bizarre, headless beast clinging to a tree outside her window. When the police arrived, they discovered that the monster was, in fact, a discarded croissant that had gotten stuck between two branches.
I was happy enough with the story–it wasn’t overly graphic, violent, discriminatory, or had any other components that might risk losing my audience if their sensibilities are different from mine, had an amusing twist of an ending, and had some potential to be genuinely funny if it was delivered well.
Next, I asked myself, “what can the ‘moral of the story’ be?”
Off the top of my head….
-How fear leads us to jump to conclusions without taking the time and effort to develop real understanding.
-How being too far away from a thing can make it easy to be afraid of it, which in turn could be related to anything from racism and prejudice to irrational fear of emergent technologies
-How, in today’s world, when something makes us upset, it’s easier to report it and demand that someone get rid of it, than to have the courage to confront it yourself–and possibly, for that confrontation to challenge your assumptions and your preconceptions. This could be used for everything from a speech on “cancel culture,” to the fall in civility in a world of social media, to the need for activists to stop just complaining about their causes online, but to actually go out and take action.
From there, if I can find a “moral” that matches the theme of speech, I can easily use the opening to introduce the idea, then explain–after I’ve gotten some laughs out of the story from the audience–how the story connects or reflects on my main point.
Why it works: Laughter is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience. It instantly lowers our defenses and builds a sense of connection. Additionally, over an average day, it’s rare for most of us to experience true opportunities for “laugh out loud” experiences. So if you can create that opportunity for your audience, you’ve given them something that’s novel, enjoyable, disarming, and deeply connecting. Starting off a speech with your audience feeling those sorts of emotions will make them much more invested in you, and much more inclined to be “rooting for you” as a speaker.
A few VERY important notes: As mentioned, avoid the sorts of stories that might risk alienating your audience. It’s important to know your environment well enough to know what sort of humor will fly, and what won’t. If there’s any uncertainty, or any concern that a story might be too explicit, or could be taken in a way that might offend or turn off part of your audience, you’re always better off playing it safe and finding another story. After all, there’s an endless number of humorous stories to be discovered, but only one chance to make a first impression.
Not every speech calls for a dramatic opening–but that’s no excuse to not generate an emotional engagement from your audience.
Over the course of our life, many of us will inevitably have to give very matter-of-fact presentations that don’t seem to lend themselves to tear-jerker openings or hilarious, over-the-top openings.
Nevertheless, remember that curiosity and suspense are emotions–and will most often be your go-to as an opening in these sorts of presentations.
In Brief: Open your presentation with a promise of value to your audience, offering them something they will genuinely be excited and eager to receive or learn.
Example: Actually, this technique is one of the most commonly used in youtube advertising today: “In the next 60 seconds, I’m going to teach you three ways to improve your Facebook advertisements that will significantly increase the number of clicks your ads receive.”
Effectively, you can apply the same structure to your audience with your speech.
“Good afternoon. In the next seven minutes, I’m going to help everyone in this room reduce their risk of cancer by 40%.” (Possibly for a speech related to diet and nutrition)
Why it works: The main function of an opening is to get an audience emotionally engaged with the speaker – curiosity can be a highly effective way to do that. This opening also serves a secondary benefit of informing the audience of exactly “why they should care about what you have to say.” It explains why they should be personally and selfishly interested in your content, effectively answering the question of “what’s in it for me.”
Every speech needs to answer that question, but most other openings break these steps in two–first generating a strong emotional reaction, then (as we’ll discuss in much greater detail later), giving a context and follow up for the opening that relates it to the theme, and in doing so explains why that theme is of personal interest or benefit to the audience.
In the case of this opening style, however, you answer that question immediately, and so can dive directly ahead into the next part of your presentation (namely your thesis, aka introducing the answer to the question you’ve raised in your opening).
A few VERY important notes: We mentioned how this sort of opening is often used in social media advertisements, but we all know how often we close those ads after only a few seconds. When they don’t work, the reason is almost always the same–we’re either not interested in the benefits being offered, or we don’t believe in the ability of the speaker to deliver the results they’re promising.
The same is true for a speech that uses this opening technique.
Is it believable that you are a source of expertise on the problem, so that I can take your promise to help me with the problem seriously? If you’re a teenager speaking to an elderly audience about how to live a long and fulfilling life, or a speaker struggling with obesity giving a speech on how to be in the best shape of your life, it may cause a disconnect for your audience. To overcome these sorts of hurdles, you need to address them openly and frankly (“Now, I know what you’re probably thinking….but…”) in a way that helps to overcome the skepticism of your audience.
4)How to Open With Quotes Effectively
“The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of the ages, may be preserved by quotation.”
Starting a speech with a quotation is one of the most common openings in public speaking. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most misused.
Quotations are often seen as a great way for a speaker to “borrow the authority” of the original author, especially when its source may be a famous or celebrated figure. What often goes unappreciated, however, is that “sounding authoritative” is not the same thing as being emotionally resonant.
Instead, quotations are best used as a kind of “add-on” to a second, follow-up introduction, that is designed to resonate emotionally with your audience.
In Brief: Find a quote that captures the spirit of your topic, introduces a key element of your topic in an interesting way, or goes against the spirit of the theme of your presentation, allowing you to draw emotion and attention from the contrast. Then, follow the quote up by telling a story or sharing additional information that gives that message emotional weight, relevance, and context with the audience. Also importantly, the quote should connect in a meaningful and logical way to the story, so that it feels like you’re following a more natural, organic transition between the two parts.
Example 1: (A quote that introduces a key idea or discussion topic in your speech)
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Many may recognize those words as a famous quotation about the lack of action taken by ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and the consequences of that apathy. What many of you here today may not know, however, is that the man associated with those words–Martin Niemöller–not only never said them, but was, in fact, a staunch supporter of Adolf Hitler.
At this point, we’ve piqued the audience’s curiosity. Suddenly, questions pop up in their minds–“If he never said that, why is he connected with it?” “One of the most famous quotations about the holocaust, came from a Hitler supporter?” etc. The audience is primed and anxious to hear what you have to say. (In fact, Martin did eventually drop his support of Hitler, and gave a famous speech which was, in my opinion, far more raw, emotional, shameful, honest, and ultimately human than the poem it would later be transformed into.)
In this example, I might use the opening as a door to open the discussion on a topic like the potential of each of us to radically reform ourselves, and to encourage the audience never to give up on the belief that people can become better. After all, “If a supporter of Hitler can ultimately be connected with some of the most powerful words spoken against the Holocaust, then the potential for profound change in each and every one of us cannot possibly be denied.”
The speech itself might also reference cases like Daryl Davis, the African American who converted several members of the notorious, racist KKK organization in the United States to abandon the movement, and in some cases even become his close friends. Ultimately, It could focus the audience on doing what they can to do their part to open the door to help engage and influence the lives of people they know who might, at first, have views radically different from their own.
Example 2: Quoting with Irony
In another example of this, I might find a quote that seems ironic. In one case, I gave a quotation about the importance of gentleness and softness, and then closed by revealing that it was from Mike Tyson (in a speech delivered a few weeks after he had bitten off a piece of another man’s ear in a boxing match). In that instance, the “lesson” of the quote, as I explained to the audience, was that the messenger can have a huge impact on how we respond to the message itself–but should it? The speech centered around the dangers of dismissing or closing ourselves off to a message if we’ve decided we don’t like the messenger, and more broadly, on the risks of ignoring legitimate points of view when they come from a source from outside of our “team” or “bubble.”
Example 3: (A quote that captures the spirit of your presentation)
“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”
That’s the kind of quote you hear where the whole foundation of the speech nearly writes itself. You could use that as a jump-off point to discuss the importance of stories that inspire us, the importance of reading, of creative imagination…the sky’s the limit. And by introducing your speech with such a quote, you both prepare and prime your audience for your topic, but also–with good delivery–create positive emotions in your audience. Delivering “books, time, and silence” slowly, and with good pauses, you can create a sense of inner peace and calm; “Once upon a time” delivered in a wistful tone can create a feeling of childhood memories and nostalgia.
Why it works: Quotations in speeches can be a great way to “borrow” brilliant expressions or vibrant imagery, that express an idea in a memorable or profound way. In cases where the quotation is particularly well-spoken or poetic, the novelty alone can sometimes grab the attention of the audience. In other cases, as we discussed, a quotation can be a great way to play with your audience’s expectations, such as in Example 2. In these cases, it works in a way you’ll find similar to “No-no-no-yes” openings, generating amusement, relief, or interest based on how the quotation and its follow-up introduction subvert the audience’s expectations. When used in these cases, it almost always works best to do a “cold open,” directly reciting the quote before allowing for enough of a pause to make the audience initially either wonder who the quote came from (if the actual source might affect how the audience feels about the words), or even suspect it’s your own opinion (which will leave them confused and slightly worried, like the “No-no-no-yes” openings).
A few VERY important notes: Whenever possible, you want to try to connect not only the quotation to your speech, but also the author of the quote, for it to feel as organically connected as possible to your presentation. If you find a quote about believing in impossible dreams by the Wright brothers, for example, and this is also the topic of your speech, it can make the opening quotation much stronger if you follow it up with story that makes the Wright brothers uniquely relevant at this particular moment, to this particular topic (at the time of this writing, for example, a piece of the Wright brother’s plane was placed on Mars–truly an unimaginable dream at a time when flight was barely possible).
Additionally, if you’re quoting someone else who might be saying something contrary to your own perspective or the theme of your speech to “subvert expectations,” (and only clarifying it was actually a quotation spoken by someone else after you’ve given the audience a chance to think otherwise), be mindful of the circumstance and environment around the speech. For example, if the speech is being recorded, you can imagine a scenario where only the quotation is aired, making you look as though you are personally endorsing this position. Conversely, if the opinion is wildly incendiary, it’s possible that the speech itself may be completely cut off in certain environments, before you even get a chance to show that it was not you, in fact, who harbored this opinion. Nevertheless, used carefully and with caution, effectively as a variation of “no-no-no-yes” this can be extremely powerful.
5)Shock and Aww
Speaking of “subverting the audience’s expectations,” another technique to do this extremely effectively is Shock and Aww.
With a Shock and Aww opening, you’re opening with a story that seems extremely bleak, nerve-wracking, or heartbreaking, only to end with an unexpectedly upbeat or positive conclusion. It can be a great way to draw in your audience and leave them with warm, positive emotions as you continue onward into the subject of your presentation.
In Brief: Opening with a tragic story, or a story involving insurmountable odds. Increase the feeling of hopelessness as you tell the story, to prepare the audience to expect a tragic conclusion. Then, at the very end of the story, surprise your audience with an unexpectedly positive outcome. Such openings are ideal for motivational, inspirational, or persuasive speeches.
Example: I have occasionally used my own early story as an opening. I was born with a rare heart problem. At that time, many doctors considered it to be a death sentence. My mother was actually told that any attempts at surgery would likely be a waste of taxpayers’ money–and that she should instead appreciate being given a few hours to hold me before dying, rather than putting the doctors through needless extra work. It was one of the most painful moments I can imagine any mother being put through…but “needless” to say….her decision is the reason I’m able to be writing this book for you today.
Such a narrative could easily be connected to a speech about perseverance, faith, hope, or the pursuit of any goal that requires overcoming insurmountable odds.
Why it works: By opening with a story that is emotional, depressing, vivid, and personal, you should be able to elicit a very strong emotional reaction in your audience. Done correctly, your story should be relatable enough, and told vividly enough, that the audience is picturing themselves in the situation you are describing. How would they feel if they had heard that news at the birth of their child? What would it be like to endure the story you’ve just told?
Then, when they are already in a deep emotional state, and potentially filled with anxiety, you are giving the audience a “release valve” as you give them a happy, unexpected ending. The relief and delight to hear the good news is tripled, since it allowed them to instantly jump out of a state of emotional discomfort.
A few VERY important notes:
As mentioned, for this style of opening to be effective, it typically needs to be EMOTIONAL, DEPRESSING, VIVID, and PERSONAL.
The four elements heavily enable one another. If your opening is too broad or data-driven, it will be too hard for your audience to be able to actually picture in their minds while you speak. As a result, without a clear visual image in their minds, it will make it much harder for your audience to be able to imagine themselves in your story or to have a deep emotional connection to the story in general.
Even if the main topic you are discussing is massive or global in scope, this style of opening should be focused on a more intimate or personal story. The life of one person who has endured the hardships you will be addressing in your presentation; the personal ordeal your mother faced, that is a sign of a much larger system issue. By narrowing your focus, you can allow yourself to create a story that can be much more relatable, and therefore be small enough that your audience can easily picture and relate to in their imaginations as you tell the story.
Vivid and depressing also tie into each other quite closely. In order to achieve the desired results, you need to make sure your story is “emotionally evocative.” In other words, don’t tell me that “the doctors were doubtful and dismissive” of the child making a recovery; tell the story with dialogue. Paint the scene of the mother and child in a vivid description. “At that moment, the doctor came into the room, looked her in the eyes, and said: (something that will infuriate me or break my heart).” By including actual dialogue, and describing both the scene and the emotions, you can help to make the scene really “come alive” to your listeners, and imagine themselves in that moment. That can make any tragedy or frustration be felt far more deeply and personally.
The story needs to also feel very relatable and relevant. If your goal is to generate a strong emotional reaction in your audience, you can’t tell a story that they won’t be able to relate to or empathize with. Telling a story of moving to a new country and adapting might earn you sympathy, but not necessarily the gut-wrenching emotional connection you’re really looking for, because 1)your listeners may not have experiences that allow them to relate to your story, and 2)they might simply view the stakes as too low to inspire an emotional response. Your audience may react with a sense of “Yeah, that’s too bad to hear you had to deal with that, but glad to hear it worked out for you,” instead of the more intense emotions that would really pull them into your speech.
Instead, you need to find examples that are universal enough that everyone in your audience can imagine themselves to be in your situation, and share a common, powerful emotional reaction to that image. Additionally, if possible, the story should be outside of the control of the person who is enduring the difficulty–telling the story of how humiliated you felt when you weren’t prepared may leave many people in the audience being critical of your lack of preparation, instead of empathizing with your humiliation.
Similar to other openings we’ve discussed, it’s also critical that the story has an obvious and personal reason for being included. If you are selecting the challenge experienced by one particular person, as a sign of a larger issue that will be the focal point of your discussion, you should give the story a more personal connection by sharing your connection to this story, or the people involved. Create a clear reason in the minds of your audience why this particular story is meaningful to you personally, so that it doesn’t just feel like an “emotional trick” to get a response out of your audience.
Another way to compliment this is to refer back to the particular person or outcome later on in your speech, to make it feel more relevant and therefore more integral to your presentation. The referencing can help your speech feel as though it comes “full circle” as was very thoughtfully crafted.
6)Compare and Contrast, to Generate Frustration, Anger or Resentment
Anger and disdain are very powerful emotions. Despite seeming to be negative feelings, they can also be some of the most persuasive and effective tools to influence an audience to take action. Therefore, openings that can instantly trigger these feelings can be extremely impactful.
One of the fastest ways to tap into such feelings is to tap into the innate hunger each of us has for “fairness.”
When most of us see blatant, vivid, and gross contrasts between haves and have-nots, or extreme abuses of power amid poverty, it can be difficult to be left unaffected emotionally.
You can use this to give your speech a powerful emotional hook by creating exactly such a contrast. Find a contrast that captures your root message, and use it to set the tone for the rest of your discussion.
In Brief: Open with a “tale of two cities”– a story that contrasts two vivid examples, in a way that makes your audience particularly sympathetic to the plight of your ‘tragic’ example.
Example: Historically, this opening technique was very common among speakers protesting slavery and child labor. The speech would encourage audiences to imagine certain fond memories from moments in their childhoods, after which the speaker would describe the life of a young slave or a child laborer in bleak, descriptive language, drawing a horrific contrast to the sorts of memories and sufferings they experienced at the same age.
Why it works: Especially when the comparison involves contrasting the experiences of your audience with the experiences of the target of your discussion, this opening can generate deeply emotional and personal imagery. In a sense, it can literally strip away fond memories from your audience, or force them to examine an issue from a much more personal perspective than they had ever visualized before.
A few VERY important notes:
This approach only works if you can tap into a deep well of emotion in your audience. Of every type of opening, it may very well be one of the most commonly misused or misdelivered.
One of the least effective versions of this opening is comparing two groups that the audience is unassociated with. Comparing haves and have-nots in a foreign country, for example, may be “objectively” unfair or disturbing, but frequently leaves the audience feeling personally (and therefore emotionally) detached from the situation on all but a vague, intellectual level.
There’s another extremely common way these openings are misused, which you’ve likely seen many times yourself. It’s the opening that compares the sheltered, luxurious life of a child in your country to a starving child somewhere else; the speech that describes how the money you spent this morning on a cup of coffee could have paid for 5 children to go to school for a year.
Trying to use the comparison framework in these ways doesn’t work for two reasons. Firstly, because they don’t encourage the listeners to personally invest themselves emotionally in your storytelling, your comparison is much more likely to be met with the “rational” rebuttals of your audience–“How is my one cup of coffee going to fix a country with a broken economy?” “How do I know the money’s not all just being wasted, anyways?” “Nothing I do is ever really going to change the situation” and so on. At that point, by the end of your opening, your audience has their guard up, and some may have disconnected from you as a speaker completely.
Similarly, the second problem many of these openings can have, is that they appear to listeners as an attempt to shame the audience into action. When delivered poorly, they can carry the tone of “how dare you enjoy your life, while a problem exists somewhere in the world,” which is both uncompelling as an argument and immediately encourages a kneejerk defensive reaction from your audience.
To avoid both of these extremely common failings, it’s crucial to follow the old advice given to filmmakers: “Show, don’t tell.” In just the same way that a good director should let you notice on your own that a character is brave, or cowardly, instead of simply having other characters announce it in the script, your comparison should invite your audience to feel an emotion, a warm memory, or some positive reflection, while the contrasting example is delivered vividly enough to let the audience come to the conclusions of indignation or anger by themselves, intuitively, because you have primed them to literally picture themselves in that tragic situation. In this way, the emotions that come from imagining the negative scenario will be incredibly real, raw, and powerful.
7)Starting with Statistics and Data–Context
In some presentations, the nature of the discussion requires a presentation laser-focused on statistics and data. In these cases, many speakers may fear that using a more “emotional” opening may be inappropriate for the tone or setting of their presentation. In other situations, a speaker may be in a setting where they are giving daily or weekly presentations, and having a “storytelling” opening each and every week may seem excessive for an audience of repeat listeners.
Thankfully, these restrictions don’t limit you to boring, unengaging openings.
One effective way of opening a data-driven discussion is to “start with the end in mind.” In other words–what is the ultimate message you are trying to express? What is the goal of your presentation? Based on this, your introduction can capture the “spirit” or “theme” of that message in a variety of ways. Firstly, we will explore capturing it with an analogy.
In Brief: Determine, in a single sentence, what you want the main message or takeaway of the presentation to be for your audience. Next, open with an easy-to-visualize analogy that reflects or expresses that message.
Example: One of the most famous examples of this was a quotation by Robert Goizueta, the CEO of Coca-Cola:
A billion hours ago, human life appeared on earth. A billion minutes ago, Christianity emerged. A billion seconds ago, the Beatles changed music. A billion Coca-Colas ago was yesterday morning.
Why it works: In presentations in which we’ve been requested to share large amounts of data, it can be easy to imagine that the communication of that information is the goal of your presentation. In reality, that’s only half the story. The real goal of your presentation is to share the information in a way that will be impactful, relevant and memorable to your audience.
Painting a vivid picture that gets to the heart of the “real” message of your data, and using it to open your presentation, is a fantastic way to accomplish all three of those goals. In effect, you’re both “cutting to the chase” by using an example that clearly illustrates your main message, and also sharing that information in a way that makes its relevance and importance easy and clear to understand for your listeners. After such an opening, the data and details you share will simply help to add further clarity and support for your message, rather than serving as bits and pieces of data leading your listeners to a potentially unclear or uninteresting conclusion.
A few VERY important notes:
One of the greatest challenges of crafting such an opening will be finding an appropriate analogy. In deciding on an analogy, you’ll find several of the principles we’ve been discussing about openings directly apply.
*The choice of analogy should relate, directly or indirectly, to the product or industry being discussed. In Coca-Cola’s example, the analogy, in addition to showcasing the enormous volume of the company’s sales, suggested the idea of the company’s cultural and global impact, comparing it to other pivotal impacts in human history.
Naturally, if the same opening instead compared Coca-Cola sales to the number of chicken eggs laid per month, or the time that had passed since the invention of the washing machine, the analogy wouldn’t have made sense to its listeners, and the quote would have lost all of its power and clarity.
Lastly, it should be said that the Coca-Cola model proves an excellent framework to organize a similar pitch: It took (X product) (Y years) to (achieve some result). In (Z years–typically less than “Y years”), your product has achieved (some better result).
8)Starting with Statistics and Data — Contrasting Expectations and Results
For boardroom or other “data-driven presentations,” another low-key but effective opening can be to contrast pessimistic expectations with more positive results. In addition to launching the presentation with a positive, upbeat feeling, it can also be a great way to “get to the point” and share the most crucial information immediately, avoiding impatience and anxiety in your listeners.
In Brief: Open your presentation by sharing a quote that offered a pessimistic prediction, for something which had since been accomplished successfully. After this, share your positive results.
Conversely, a similar effect can be generated by taking more pessimistic data from a past year–when hope looked dim–and contrasting it with your more successful present reality.
Example: Quoting an industry magazine or media source that predicted, a year ago, that your product would be a failure, followed by contrasting it with your success this quarter in achieving an unexpectedly successful result.
Similarly, comparing last year’s sales figures, which saw your product line being heavily outmatched by your competitor, to sales figures this year, which show your product line in a now-dominant position.
Why it works: This opening allows you to both share key data, and frame how your audience should interpret it, in an extremely succinct way. Even better, it attaches a positive emotion of triumph and success, that can set your audience in a good mood to hear more of your presentation.
A few VERY important notes: Obviously, this approach only works when there is good news to share. However, it can be used to make bad news seem less bleak. For example, if sales figures failed to meet their expected target, but you can find a quote from an industry leader anticipating you to do much worse, the contrast may help to soften the bad news. That said, if it is truly disastrous news, it can be a bad idea to try to “put on a happy face” to the presentation, especially if it is to a senior board exclusively interested in hard data.
9)Telling a Bleak Story
Not every story has a happy ending.
Sometimes, you need to describe a bleak story to truly capture the current state of affairs about a particular topic. Other times, you may be discussing a particular dark historical experience. Either way, opening with a “feel bad story” can be highly effective, as long as it can be told in a way to is powerful, evocative, and easy for your audience to relate to on a deeply personal and emotional level.
In Brief: Vividly describe a singular incident that captures the message of your presentation (for example, if describing a war atrocity, tell the story of a particular victim of it). Descriptions should have a “cinematic” component to them, so that you are less “telling an event that happened” and more “bringing the event to life” for your audience. The story should, whenever possible, emphasize the emotions of the central character of your story.
Example: In one speech, whose goal was to criticize the current state of the health care system, a speaker told the story of a panic-stricken husband taking his wife to the hospital and described in detail his mounting fear, frustration, and rage as the hospital incompetently made numerous mistakes, spoke to him in ways that appeared to show little concern for his wife’s wellbeing, and ultimately failed to save her life from an ailment that could have been almost certainly healed elsewhere.
Throughout the presentation, rather than simply telling the audience “the doctors were incompetent” or “the hospital staff gave unconvincing excuses,” the speaker brought the story to life, reciting the dialogue to make the listeners feel as though they were living in that moment, with the result that they intuitively felt the emotions themselves.
Another story, describing a military conflict, told the story of a mother and child attempting to hide from enemy troops, before ultimately being captured and suffering terrible consequences. Like the first case, the speaker recited specific exchanges between mother and child, capturing the raw, unbearable emotions felt in her hopeless situation. After being captured, the speaker described not only what the mother endured, but the inner monologue and emotions she felt throughout.
Why it works: In an infamous quotation, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once declared, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.”
Despite being a ruthless quote from a man responsible for countless deaths, the observation perfectly describes the incredible difficulty in conveying tragedy and hardship on a large scale.
While an audience can listen and sympathize with an opening that describes how millions of civilians were displaced, or outlines widespread environmental destruction, they won’t truly feel the profound emotional impact a speaker may hope to generate. The reason for this is simple–as humans, we are hard-wired to think in visual imagery. As a result, where we can easily picture the suffering of a mother hiding with a child, or an innocent animal hopelessly seeking shelter in the midst of a roaring forest fire, our mind is simply incapable of picturing one million victims of war, or ten thousand animals killed in a brushfire. That inability to paint a vivid picture in our minds means that we lack an image that we can more deeply connect with and be personally affected by. Therefore, whenever possible, it is almost universally better to “humanize” or “personalize” a story to give it the strongest possible impact on your listeners.
Additionally, following the same principle we discussed in Compare and Contrast–to Generate Frustration, Anger or Resentment, such openings need to focus on creating a “cinematic” narrative that allows the audience to imagine themselves in the situation, and from that to organically feel the same emotions of the character in your story for themselves. This will always be more effective than simply telling your audience that “John had a frustrating conversation with the doctor that left him feeling hopeless.” If the situation was truly impactful, then allowing it to “come to life” as you recite the dialogue of the moment, and vividly paint the scene, should both make the emotions obvious to your listener, and allow your listener to internalize those feelings as if they had experienced it for themselves.
Once you have achieved this, even a story focused on a topic that may not have normally been of interest to a listener, may now become deeply powerful and personal for them.
A few VERY important notes: First and foremost, it’s critical to know the audience you’re speaking to, and to exercise judgment and restraint accordingly. While it’s crucial to recite a vivid, emotionally powerful story, going into detail that may be seen to be overly graphic, insensitive, exploitative, or inappropriate for your audience can cause some audiences to question your judgment as a speaker.
Additionally, as we have outlined elsewhere, it is crucial to personalize a story in a way that is genuinely focused on universal emotions, fears, hopes, and experiences. Try to avoid cases that allow too much of an opportunity for your audience to be unable to relate to the tragedy or challenges of your central character.
For example, if spiritual or religious reasons compel a speaker to avoid consuming pork, and it is a matter on which the speaker feels strongly, then a story in which a similarly minded prisoner is forced to eat pork as a punishment may seem deeply degrading and inhumane. However, if there is a risk that members of the audience may not share these beliefs, their reactions to the story may generate far less emotion or empathy. One can almost imagine an audience member thinking sarcastically to themselves, “He’s forced to eat a delicious bacon sandwich? Oh, boo hoo.”
Lastly, the example chosen should cast a shadow over the presentation. The particular case you feel should never appear to be “randomly selected for shock value,” and should instead whenever possible, be referenced in a meaningful way in the body and/or the conclusion of your presentation.
10)Asking Your Audience a Leading Question
Opening a speech with a question to your audience is, frankly, one of the most overused and poorly delivered tactics in public speaking.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, a lukewarm audience is made to feel put upon by a speaker they have not yet connected with emotionally, about a question they have little to no reason to care about at this earliest portion of the speech.
However, the technique can be extremely effective, if used with all of the above in mind.
In Brief: Open your speech by asking your audience one of six types of questions:
-A question that “breaks the fourth wall,” one that seems to almost turn the act of asking a question into something that is obviously not to be taken seriously.
-A question with an obvious and expected answer to enflame the feelings of an already emotional audience.
-A succinct question or questions, with a virtually guaranteed reaction, that will genuinely pique the curiosity of an audience and assure them of the relevance of your topic to their interests.
-A question anticipating a completely universal “no” response.
Example 1 (breaking the fourth wall): The term “breaking the fourth wall” refers to a moment in which a fictional character speaks or behaves in a way that recognizes the existence of the reader or audience directly, or acknowledges the un-reality of their situation as a fictitious character. As it relates to public speaking, this principle transfers to a wink at the audience–a sort of aside to the audience to show that the speaker is “in on the joke.”
In specific terms, you can imagine a speaker, giving a presentation to an audience about effective communication, starting their speech by asking, “By a show of hands, how many of you here today, get annoyed by speakers who open a speech by asking you to raise your hand about something you honestly don’t particularly care about.” From there, the speaker can go on to discuss how to avoid common mistakes in public speaking.
Example 2 (enflaming an already emotional crowd): This second case will come up much more frequently than the first. In these instances, you’re dealing with a “hot” crowd that’s already enflamed, upset, or excited. Going to a high-energy workshop, with an audience that’s already been “pumped up” by a previous speaker, and asking “show of hands, who’s feeling FIRED UP right now?!” or “show of hands, who here is hyped up and ready for the most powerful transformational week you’ve ever experienced!?”
Addressing a crowd feeling victimized, a speaker could open by asking for a show of hands, “Who feels like they have experienced discrimination?” For even more impact, this questioning could be repeated multiple times, driving the audience’s emotions hotter and hotter “Show of hands, who here is sick and tired of….” “Who here is fed up with…” and so on, until the speech transitions into a “call to action” for the now even more emotional audience to follow to address the root issue.
The feelings of this sort of crowd can be even more inflamed by “negative questions,” in this case most commonly asked in an air of sarcasm. One can imagine something like “A report issued last week issued a statement that systemic racism no longer exists, and that claims of racial bias are primarily exaggerated or imagined. Now, by a show of hands, how many of you believe that racism is imaginary? How many of you today believe that cases of racism reported last led to the shooting of Bob Smith was imaginary? How many of you believe that the reports of excessive force of the 15 shots he received were exaggerated?”
The audience, naturally, becomes angrier and angrier with each question, becoming more and more insulted as they imagine the perceived dismissiveness and ignorance of those with a contrary perspective.
Of course, not all emotional crowds are angry. This opening can also be used to create a strong sense of emotional solidarity among people dealing with a common fear, shame, insecurity, or concern. Speaking at a weight loss gathering, and asking “Have you ever experienced a time when you felt…” and then describing an emotionally draining, painful, or embarrassing experience that both you as a speaker and your audience have all endured, that may have made you feel insecure or ashamed. As the audience raises their hands, the members in the audience, seeing both you and other members raising their hands, realize that they are in an environment that deeply understands their pain and their struggles.
Example 3 (Asking a question that anticipates a universal “no” answer): While briefly touched on above, asking questions that expect a negative response is a technique with much broader use than inflaming an emotional audience.
For example, you could ask an audience a question like “By a show of hands, how many people here today have heard of (some highly influential person who is all but unknown today)?” In this case, you have now not only reduced the imposition you’re placing on your audience by requiring them to do nothing, rather than raise a hand, but you’ve also created an intentional state of anxiety in your audience. For a moment, people may wonder “Am I the ignorant one, for not knowing the answer?” Then, as they look around, they see that few (and preferably no one) do. Now, curiosity sets in….just who is this person? Should I know them? What did they do? In this way, you successfully pique the interest of the crowd.
Another example of this could be a presentation that begins by asking the audience to raise their hands if they have never committed an act they regret, feel ashamed of, or wish they could take back. By asking it in this way, the question becomes much less humiliating and uncomfortable than asking them to raise their hands if they *had* done something they were ashamed of. At the same time, the question forces them to reflect on their own experiences, reach into dark memories and emotional touchpoints in their own lives, and reflectively relive the emotions attached to them.
Why it works: Each of the examples given utilizes this technique in very different ways, and they therefore each work for somewhat different reasons.
In the first instance, in which a speaker asks a question jokingly, its primary function is to showcase your “EQ” as a speaker. You “get” your audience, and have enough experience that you can avoid the common bad habits of other presentations your audience may have found annoying or obnoxious. It lets you start the presentation by effectively “being on the same team” as your audience, and creating a sense of comradery.
In the second case, you’re asking questions to stir the emotions of your audience. Whether it’s sadness, indignation, anger, regret, joy, or other emotions, the answer your audience is responding with is attached to a very powerful feeling.
In the third case, there is an especially strong emphasis on solidarity and curiosity. As discussed, there is a mystery in the audience as to why you are asking this question that stirs the imagination; in many cases, an initial anxiety that each member might be hoping that they’re not the only one who doesn’t raise their hand is ultimately replaced by the reassurance in seeing a universal reaction.
A few VERY important notes: If you are one of many speakers to present to an audience, be extremely cautious to “break the fourth wall” by mocking the idea of opening with a question. It’s not hard to imagine you being caught in a position where a previous speaker may have opened in exactly the style you’re mocking, at which point your humor suddenly takes on an air of being extremely mean-spirited and rude.
When you’re opening with questions designed to inflame your audience’s pre-existing emotions, it’s obviously crucial that your audience does, in fact, feel those emotions. While it may seem to go without saying, many speakers frequently assume that an audience may already share their passion about a given subject, only to find a substantial disconnect that cripples the emotional power and connection of their opening.
In many cases, it may also be important to consider if you are considered an “in-group” when trying to arouse certain emotions from your audience. In other words, you need to be perceived to be as “fired up” and personally connected to the topic as discussion as your audience, or else you may run the risk of it looking like you’re “pandering to the crowd.” As a case in point, an extremely slim woman giving the opening listed above to the weight loss group may create a disconnect from her audience, with some potentially imagining “yeah, right, like you’d ever understand what it’s like.” Worse, it may cause some to feel like the speaker is disingenuous and insincere–a devastating blow for any speaker.
Looking at the third example, it’s important that the question you’re asking, which you don’t expect to receive an answer to, generates curiosity and not boredom. This failure typically happens in two ways. Firstly, the opening can fail in cases where it is obvious to members in the audience that the subject in question is not of interest to them. This is a fairly universal principle regardless of opening techniques, of course, but it is crucial to keep in mind. The second–and frequently related–failure, comes when the audience becomes frustrated at a speaker “burying the lead.” For example, If you’ve asked an audience if they know some obscure name, and no one does, and then you immediately jump into describing that person’s biography, a speaker is likely to lose a large part of their audience’s attention. As we will describe in much greater detail in the next segment “Building the Bridge,” it’s crucial to give your audience a reason to care about why the knowledge of your topic will be of particular relevance, interest, and value to them as quickly as possible. Without this step, initial curiosity and anxious anticipation can rapidly transform into tedium and boredom.
11)Asking your audience an open-ended question
In Brief: One of the most effective ways to directly and immediately stir the imagination of your audience is by asking them a question that necessitates your listeners to generate emotionally charged thoughts and images.
Example 1 (Nostalgia): In one instance, the speaker began by asking his audience to think back, and try to remember the first thing they ever wanted to be when they grew up.
(The message tried to tap into the curiosity, joy, and boundless possibilities we experience as children, and encouraging the audience to find ways to reconnect with that same drive as adults)
Example 2 (Regret): In another speech, the opening presented the following question to the audience: “If you could take back one moment…one decision in your life…what would it be?”
(The speech was actually about living a life without regrets; it emphasized how tragedy ultimately led some to undreamed of successes in their darkest hours, while others had their lives ruined by seemingly unambiguously good fortune)
Why it works: In each of these cases, the source of the power of the openings are the same–they encourage the listeners to paint vivid pictures in their own minds; to ask themselves questions that can stir strong fears, hopes, emotions, or uncertainties. Almost by definition, it becomes impossible to be a passive listener, and the audience is led to be an active participant–and just as importantly, that participation generates powerful and evocative feelings. It allows them to feel a deeper and more personal connection to the topic being discussed, now that their thoughts have led them into being personally invested with emotions and vivid imaginations.
A few VERY important notes: As much as there are an almost innumerable number of hypothetical and rhetorical questions you could use to open your speech, there are nearly as many ways to ask such questions badly.
Four of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced speakers with such openings include:
1)The delivery–it’s too flat, or too fast, and doesn’t give the imagination or the emotions room to breathe.
2)The question itself is too niche, so that it doesn’t feel relevant to the listeners. (For example, asking about a favorite sports club to an audience who may not necessarily be sports fans)
This can also frequently be an issue with unforeseen cultural differences between a speaker and their audience; it’s easy to imagine asking an audience to remember back to their first date, while being ignorant of audience members who may not come from a culture where dating is common or even accepted.
3)Opening with a question or a scenario that takes so long to deliver, or is so convoluted, that the audience simply “tunes out” and becomes disengaged.
4)Being given a false choice: this issue is particularly common. In these cases, the speaker asks a question that various audience members may each respond to with a different unspoken answer, whereupon the speaker immediately tells his answer, or focuses on one particular possible response, and elaborates only on that one. In such cases, the audience can feel as though their participation through this “thought experiment” was insincere and only a showman’s trick. Worse, they can also feel that much more disconnected from the speaker, because of the sense that their mental images and associated emotions, and those of the speaker, differs significantly. In such cases, this disconnect can frequently suggest to the audience that the focus or values of the speech may not be relevant to them.
MANY pitfalls of this opening can be avoided by asking the sorts of questions that may differ in particulars, but are very likely to have an overarching commonality among audience members.
For some examples of this:
1)In the first example listed above, nostalgia, the particulars of what each audience member wanted to be when they grew up will, of course, differ. However, the overwhelming majority of the audience will have grown up with a young, naive passion to be something, and rediscovering that same youthful passion and drive is ultimately the thesis of the presentation. In this way, no matter what each audience member pictured, the theme of the presentation is very likely to be relevant for them.
2)Similarly, in the second “regret” example, what each audience member regrets doing is irrelevant for the sake of the speaker; but it is nevertheless safe to assume that nearly every possible listener regrets something. The thrust of the speech is then to challenge that notion, and to encourage listeners not to second guess their worst decisions and to live a life without regrets–a universal appeal regardless of the silent answers that may have come to in the opening.
In general, focusing on questions that stir the imagination of your audience, its source of effectiveness is in its inherent uniqueness; you’re snapping your audience out of autopilot by asking them a question that’s jarringly unusual, and requires genuine reflection and thought. Depending on the nature of the question, it can also stir nostalgia, surprise, fantasizing, fear, or even soul searching. However, it is absolutely crucial that the bridge from your “imagination” exercise to the main thrust of your speech be crystal clear and perfectly logical. More than most other openings, bringing up strong and sometimes painful memories can feel especially gimmicky or uncalled for if the journey does not lead your audience to a natural and insightful destination. Such an opening will give you a strong advantage in that you’ll have your audiences’ total attention and create emotions in them that will certainly make you stand out–but it also raises the stakes of how far you can fall if they feel as though you were toying with their emotions purely as a cheap trick without a valued payoff.
12)Asking Your audience an open-ended question for shocking contrast
In Brief: A variation of 11), with one key addition. Like in our last opening, your question should trigger strong emotions and vivid visual imagery in your audience. The question(s) should be universal, and relatable to audience members from all backgrounds and perspectives. Unlike our previous opening, however, these questions serve a secondary purpose; to contrast your audiences’ range of responses to an extraordinary, highly unusual, or unexpected response to the scenario, offered by a real-life example central to your presentation and / or your thesis.
The example you share should offer a shocking or dramatic contrast to what you can anticipate being the most anticipated types of answers you imagine from your audience. Most often, these sorts of “contrast examples” should be so extreme or deeply personal that they automatically generate a feeling of shock, surprise, or sympathy–and often a combination of the three.
Example 1: An opening asking an audience to think back to what superpower they dreamed of having as a child could be contrasted–after a few pauses to let the audience revel in their childhoods and their idyllic memories–by quoting a boy who refers to wishing he could have the superpower of regrowing his skin–a childhood burn victim, who perhaps went on to do some remarkable thing and whose perseverance might ultimately be cast as the real “superpower” we should all strive to achieve.
Example 2: We could imagine another case; asking your audience what they would do if they were told they only had a year to live, letting their imaginations and emotions have the time to create vivid scenarios, and then contrast it by announcing that you were notified that you had a terminal illness and that your prognosis is (some relatively short amount of time). This could lead into a speech describing how the prognosis changed your priorities, how you fought to explore other alternatives, and how the experience changed you even after you (hopefully!) overcame your diagnosis. (Needless to say, this only works if you’ve genuinely experienced such a story–don’t exaggerate or be dishonest!)
Why it works: This opening takes the strengths of the previous opening and adds to them by creating a sharp emotional whiplash; wrapped in a blanket of imagination, you send them crashing into a wall of a shocking reality, as in our hypothetical terminal illness opening. Similarly, you contrast warm, gentle thoughts or nostalgia with a story of incredible hardship, which stands out even more by the direct comparison the listeners will feel to their own freshly reimagined experiences.
A few VERY important notes: In addition to all of the points raised for the last opening, a few more can be added here. As in other openings which share an extreme or potentially tragic story, make sure not to push any boundaries of good taste or public decorum. In theory, an opening contrasting the fondest memory of your audience, with the testimony of the fondest memory of a serial killer, describing their first descent into violence, might seem to meet the criteria listed earlier–it’s certainly shocking, and creates a strong contrast–but it risks certain audience members finding the story distasteful or unsettling, and therefore isn’t likely to be a suitable option.
More commonly, a gap can occur between how shocking or engaging you imagine your example is, and the actual reaction an audience might feel when contrasting it to their own experience. If your “oh my goodness, can you even believe this story!” example is actually less painful or dramatic than the story I just relived in my imagination, you’ve increased the likelihood that I will be taking the rest of your presentation less seriously, or will decide that your presentation is meant for other people who don’t share my story or experiences.
Finally, when you’re contrasting an imagination exercise to your own story or experience, be very careful not to exaggerate how impactful your story really is. Considering that it happened to you, it’s easy to have an inflated impression of how interesting, engaging, or emotional an experience it truly was. It can be especially easy to fall into this trap when you’re primarily practicing your presentations with friends and family, since it is likely they will either share your bias or be shy to make light of your personal stories.
13)Stories – Snapshots in time as an example of the theme
In Brief: Vividly describe a singular incident that captures the message of your presentation (for example, if describing a war atrocity, tell the story of a particular victim of it). Descriptions should have a “cinematic” component to it, so that you are less “telling an event that happened” and more “bringing the event to life” for your audience. The story should, whenever possible, emphasize the emotions of the central character of your story.
Example: In one speech, whose goal was to criticize the current state of the health care system, a speaker told the story of a panic-stricken husband taking his wife to the hospital, and described in detail his mounting fear, frustration, and rage as the hospital incompetently made numerous mistakes, spoke to him in ways that appeared to show little concern for his wife’s well being, and ultimately failed to save her life from an ailment that could have been almost certainly healed elsewhere.
Throughout the presentation, rather than simply telling the audience “the doctors were incompetent” or “the hospital staff gave unconvincing excuses,” the speaker brought the story to life, reciting the dialogue to make the listeners feel as though they were present in that moment, with the result that they instinctively felt the emotions themselves.
Another story, describing a military conflict, told the story of a mother and child attempting to hide from enemy troops, before ultimately being captured and suffering terrible consequences. Like the first case, the speaker recited specific exchanges between mother and child, capturing the raw, unbearable emotions felt in her hopeless situation. After being captured, the speaker described not only what the mother endured, but the inner monologue and emotions she felt throughout.
Why it works: In an infamous quotation, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once declared, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.”
Despite being a ruthless quote from a man responsible for countless deaths, the observation perfectly describes the incredible difficulty in conveying tragedy and hardship on a large scale.
While an audience can listen and sympathize with an opening that describes how millions of civilians were displaced, or outlines widespread environmental destruction, they won’t truly feel the profound emotional impact a speaker may hope to generate. The reason for this is simple–as humans, we are hard-wired to think in visual imagery. As a result, where we can easily picture the suffering of a mother hiding with a child, or an innocent animal hopelessly seeking shelter in the midst of a roaring forest fire, our mind is simply incapable of picturing one million victims of a war, or ten thousand animals killed in a brushfire. That inability to paint a vivid picture in our own minds means that we lack an image that we can more deeply connect with and be personally affected by. Therefore, whenever possible, it is almost universally better to “humanize” or “personalize” a story to give it the strongest possible impact on your listeners.
Additionally, following the same principle we discussed in Compare and Contrast–to generate frustration, anger or resentment, such openings need to focus on creating a “cinematic” narrative that allows the audience to imagine themselves in the situation, and from that to organically feel the same emotions of the character in your story for themselves. This will always be more effective than simply telling your audience that “John had a frustrating conversation with the doctor that left him feeling hopeless.” If the situation was truly impactful, then allowing it to “come to life” as you recite the dialogue of the moment, and vividly paint the scene, should both make the emotions obvious to your listener, and allow your listener to internalize those feelings as if they had experienced it for themselves.
Once you have achieved this, even a story focused on a topic that may not have normally been of interest to a listener, may now become deeply powerful and personal for them.
As a final note, vivid stories are also incredible tools for leading an audience to an uncomfortable conclusion. An audience told that 95% of participants failed to take action in a given crisis, may likely to imagine “Others might not have taken action, but if it was me, surely I would have…” On the other hand, that same audience, faced with a vivid moment-by-moment description of the terror and the emotions faced by an eyewitness who had been one of those 95%, may force the same audience members to realize that “faced with that same sense of terror and dread….I probably would have done the same.”
A few VERY important notes: First and foremost, it’s critical to know the audience you’re speaking to, and to exercise judgment and restraint accordingly. While it’s crucial to recite a vivid, emotionally powerful story, going into detail that may be seen to be overly graphic, insensitive, or inappropriate for your audience can cause some audiences to question your judgment as a speaker.
Additionally, as we have outlined elsewhere, it is crucial to personalize a story in a way that is genuinely focused on universal emotions, fears, hopes and experiences. Try to avoid cases that allow too much of an opportunity for your audience to be unable to relate to the tragedy or challenge of your central character.
For example, if spiritual or religious reasons compel a speaker to avoid consuming pork, and it is a matter of which the speaker feels strongly, then a story in which a similarly minded prisoner is forced to eat pork as a punishment may seem deeply degrading and inhumane. However, if there is a risk that members in the audience may not share these beliefs, their reactions to the story may generate far less emotion or empathy. One can almost imagine an audience member thinking sarcastically to themselves, “He’s forced to eat a delicious bacon sandwich? Oh, boo hoo.”
Lastly, the example chosen should cast a shadow over the presentation. The particular case you feel should never appear to be “randomly selected for shock value,” and should instead whenever possible, be referenced in a meaningful way in the body and/or the conclusion of your presentation.
14)Snapshots in time as a parable of the theme:
In Brief: For nearly as long as humans have been telling stories, we’ve been using fables and parables to help express ideas. Seemingly simple stories, whose meanings are easy to interpret and understand, can help us to understand a deeper lesson or insight.
In the case of public speaking, brief fables and parables can achieve the same thing–introducing the main argument or theme of your presentation in a way that is creative, sparks curiosity, and encourages your audience to consider your idea from a new and interesting perspective.
Example: One highly effective example of this was an opening that began with the story of the scorpion and the frog:
A scorpion wants to cross a river but cannot swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The frog lets the scorpion climb on its back and then begins to swim. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
The frog in that story is your hopes. Your dreams. Your ambitions. The life you’ve always wanted. The scorpion in the story…is you. (long pause) It’s your darkest impulses. It’s the self destructive habits and self defeating thoughts you’ve let linger for too long. It’s a venom inside of every one of us. And if we don’t see it for exactly what it is, and find a way to purge the poison from our system…no matter how close we get to reaching the shores of our ambitions, it will always be sitting and waiting to drag us down….and pull us under.
The speech itself was crafted as a speech for a gathering of struggling drug and alcohol addicts. Each member of the audience could easily imagine cases where their own dark habits–their own scorpions–had nearly pulled them under. The imagery had a heavy impact.
Why it works: These sorts of openings work for several reasons.
Firstly, they incite curiosity. You’ve arrived to give a speech on alcoholism, and, at least in this example, you’re talking about frogs and scorpions. Because it seems so odd and unexpected to your audience, it may demand additional attention from your audience.
The message is also highly visual, which makes it more engaging and much easier to process. The audience can easily picture your story in their minds as you speak, which adds an additional layer of engagement.
A good parable or story should also have a clear, simple, and convincing moral, message, or idea. In effect, once the audience agrees to the “moral of the story” it allows you to take the principle and argue that it holds true in another case central to your topic or theme. In the case of the example above, once the audience recognizes the self-destructive nature of the scorpion, which kills itself because it cannot resist its own inner nature, the audience can easily be led to pause and consider their own self-destructive habits or behavior.
Another major advantage is that the symbolism allows for each listener to impart their own, more personal meaning to the story–everyone in the audience can look back to a time when they acted against their own self-interests, or self-sabotaged in a way they might deeply regret. As they do so, they can attach the emotions related to those experiences, further stirring their emotional engagement.
A few VERY important notes: Firstly, it’s important to note that opening in this style doesn’t literally require a fable or a classical fable. You can just as easily find a news story or current event, whose outcome or circumstances reflect a lesson or a moral that can be learned from their actions or failures.
Whatever particular example you choose, the key is to immediately follow up the fable with a clear and concise follow-up to the “moral of the story” and how it relates or represents your key theme or thesis. Equally importantly, you need to do so in a way that is directly compelling to your audience–you need to answer the unspoken question of “why do I care about this? How does it relate to me?”
(That question, of “why do I care about this” and “how does this relate to me” is ultimately the foundation for the BUILDING THE BRIDGE section we will discuss shortly, and will be expanded on in detail)
15)Stories – Snapshots in time that directly leads to the topic
In Brief: We’ve often described the effectiveness of “cinematic storytelling” in speechwriting, and it’s especially crucial when delivering a content-heavy speech primarily focusing on informing or educating your audience.
One effective way to stimulate emotion and interest for such a speech is to use your introduction as a kind of “movie trailer” – setting the scene, introducing your primary characters or topic, creating stakes or significance by showing what they have to overcome and/or the obstacles they’ll face, and giving us a teaser of the outcome, and its relevance to the audience.
Example: The day was June 7th, 1987. At 2:15pm, three women, who had met under the most unlikely of circumstances, who had joined together to pursue a dream that the whole world had declared a joke, a scam, and a hoax, made a discovery so profound, that life–as you know it–could not have existed today without it.
Example 2: Another opening began by introducing the audience to the life of a young black woman attempting to rent a home. It walked the audience through several attempts she had made to do so, then listed the racist rejections and painful excuses she was given from prejudiced homeowners who would refuse to allow her to rent their apartments. The description up to this point was intentionally ambiguous, described in such a way that the audience assumed that it was referencing back to the tragic racial practices of past decades. Then, the unexpected swerve:
“Nearly all of us have read or heard stories of these sorts of awful historical practices of discrimination. Stories like these were tragically all too common through much of our history. But…the thing is….Shaliza’s experience didn’t happen in 1950. Shaliza’s story happened less than 3 months ago. And, perhaps most shockingly, in 2020, is that her story is not only not exceptional, it’s actually perfectly legal, and even encouraged and supported across print and social media.”
(The speech was focused on the fact that racial preferencing and exclusion for housing, jobs, and more was still legal in the speaker’s country, a fact which she felt received a shameful lack of attention and wanted to use her speech to highlight).
Why it works: The need for an informative speech to hook the attention of the audience as early as possible cannot be overstated.
The instant listeners fail to see any personal connection to, or investment in, the topic of your discussion, they will begin to “tune out” and lose focus and attention. Once that happens, they may stop paying close enough attention to effectively absorb the key facts and main takeaways of your presentation.
These sorts of openings work to create stories that your audience can become personally invested in. Curiosity in the uncertain outcome of the characters or ideas you’ve introduced, the mystery of their impact, and the ways in which those answers relate to their own lives in a meaningful way. Similarly, stories such as those in example two can stir strong emotions and deep empathy, and leave audiences anxious and impatient to hear more.
A few VERY important notes: Whatever story you choose, it needs to have a hook that draws in the audience. That might seem obvious, but a massive number of openings using this approach tell stories that seem to only exist to amuse and entertain the speaker. This mistake tends to be even more prevalent when speakers and reciting stories from their own life–stories which may have been very funny or interesting for the people involved, but generate a collective “shrug” in their audience.
Much like a good movie trailer, to draw in an audience, the opening should either have stakes high enough and relatable enough to generate curiosity, concern, anger, or some other strong emotion, or be unusual or “over the top” enough that it has a genuine sense of novelty, mystery, shock value, or heartfelt intrigue.
16)Opening with a surprising and interesting fact
In Brief: Opening with a surprising or extremely interesting fact can be a great way to pique your audience’s investment and curiosity in your introduction.
Example: In a speech given on the rise of China, a speaker opened their presentation by describing statistics that positioned China as the dominant global economic nation. The data points were presented in such a way that the audience assumed that these figures were a projection of what the country may someday achieve. However, the speaker then clarified that these data points were not from the future, but from the past; the presenter presented supporting information that clarified to the audience that these figures were consistent over hundreds of years from the first century AD. As the speaker’s audience was largely unfamiliar with China, the information, and the core thesis that China’s *lack* of global dominance in the 20th century was the real aberration of history, was surprising and even startling to them.
Example 2: Another presenter opened by describing the almost unbelievably lax taxation of ordinary Romans during the height of the Roman Empire. Spoken to an audience who always felt annoyed at the level of complication of their taxes, hearing the story of such a huge empire having nearly no taxes generated shock and amazement in many. From there, the speaker went on to give a bit of context, clarifying some of the challenges of maintaining that sort of taxation in modern day, but emphasized the need to reimagine our assumptions on taxation and tax policy, before launching into his central presentation on tax reform.
Why it works: With so many of our days being predictable, and so many of our conversations being unremarkable, any statement we hear that makes us do a double-take or a sudden “Seriously?!” reaction snaps us out of our “sleepwalking” daily life. It instantly becomes a memorable nugget we can look forward to sharing with our friends and colleagues (and possibly getting compliments for our intelligence in the process). Oftentimes, it can also serve as a bite-sized, easy-to-remember touchpoint for the main thesis of a speech.
A few VERY important notes: These sorts of openings can go very wrong, very quickly when the facts lack a “WOW” factor, especially if they involve a combination of multiple facts which fail to generate a strong response. A good execution of this should have some “meme-worthy” element–that is to say, the facts should be surprising or interesting enough that your listeners should be likely to feel compelled to share the discovery with others. Also, make sure that the surprising facts you share clearly transition to your main thesis or topic of conversation. It can be hazardous to have an opening filled with facts or references that surprise and capture an audience’s imagination, but then fails to lead the audience from these discoveries to your main topic in a clear, natural, and compelling way.
17)Starting with a bold (and seemingly wrong or confusing) claim or statement
In Brief: Somewhat similar to “No no no yes,” described earlier, in this case, the speaker is opening with a bold statement, confidently delivered, that seems to be “obviously” incorrect, silly, controversial, or impossible to believe. Naturally, the “punchline” of such an opening is the supporting evidence or verification that the statement is, in fact, completely correct.
“17 years ago today, I was murdered in Bogota, Columbia.”
(The opening line of a speaker who was targeted by a hit man, left for dead, and went on to abandon his old life and flee the country)
Example 2: “Everyone knows that the United States defeated Japan in world war 2 with the atomic bomb. But…did you know that the original plan of the United States, to defeat Japan, was to recruit Batman?”
(The “Batman” in this story was a bat-obsessed Doctor, who devised a “bat bomb” which, when detonated over Japan, would release thousands of bats to fly through villages, which in turn would be set to explode and set neighborhoods and entire cities on fire. The plan, as impossible as it sounds, won the support of the White House, and was set to be fully implemented with millions of “exploding bats” planned for launch prior to the success of the Manhattan Project)
Why it works: Much like opening with a surprising fact, but even more potently, this style of opening causes an immediate double-take from a speaker’s listeners. In effect, it causes a sort of “short-circuiting” that jolts listeners with a sense of cognitive dissonance–a sort of “huh, wait a second, that doesn’t make any sense” that virtually forces them to sit at attention.
A few VERY important notes: In order to be most effective, the statement itself has to truly seem impossible or jarring, and the explanation for it can’t seem forced or contrived. The story behind the twist should also be–as in the previous case–eminently meme-worthy, in that it should be interesting enough that an average listener would enjoy sharing it with others. Unfortunately, many speakers forget this; for example, one speaker excitedly opened by declaring “I bet I don’t look like it, but I’m actually a potato!” before clarifying that his wife calls him a couch potato for watching too much television. Naturally, no one in the audience cared, the opening felt “stagey” and contrived, and the actual fact behind it was utterly irrelevant to anyone but the speaker, resulting in a very poor level of interest or engagement from the audience in the presentation.
18)Aporia (First, the bad news…)
In a similar vein to the “no no no yes,” opening, “First, the bad news” opens by listing persuasive cases arguing against the central thesis of the presentation. It opens by listing all of the negative sales figures and disappointing returns; all of the strongest evidence validating the hopelessness of the cause. Then, when the audience is nearly alarmed at the nihilism of the speaker, and find themselves nearly or completely convinced, the speaker swerves, and dangles a tantalizing carrot–that despite all of this, the year to come is primed to be the strongest year yet, or that they are absolutely confident and utterly optimistic for the achievement of the idealized outcome.
In Brief: Opening with a question or a point of view that seems to challenge or cast doubt on your main argument, call to action, or thesis.
In doing so, you both stir the attention of your audience, since the initial response may be for the audience to assume that this initial statement is actually your personal opinion or belief, while also utilizing it as a “challenge” to be “defeated” or disproved by the rest of your speech.
Example: “We’re outgunned. We’re outmanned. Is there really any point in going on?”
(Before giving a speech inspiring everyone to continue the fight)
Why it works: Aporia works well in openers for several reasons. Firstly, it throws an audience off guard–triggering that critical emotional reaction that’s so crucial to creating a genuine, memorable engagement with an audience.
As an audience, especially when we come in with certain presumptions for the content of a presentation or the side of the argument to be presented, it jolts us out of our “autopilot” when we suddenly hear a message that flies in the face of our expectations. That sudden shock wakes up an audience, and demands their full attention.
Secondly, it can stir up fears, anxieties or uncertainties. In the example, the opening could easily have a very strong emotional effect on someone who was already possessed with a sense of uncertainty or dread about the fight; suddenly, the speaker brings those emotions to the front of their mind. When the speaker ultimately persuades the audience that the war *is* winnable, and that victory is just over the horizon, the relief from stress and fear will make the audience that much more endeared to the speaker and grateful for their inspiring message.
A few VERY important notes: Certain circumstances may rule out aporia as an appropriate opening. For example, if you are being recorded and there is a potential risk of an interested party attempting to reflect your message out of context, it is easy to imagine how opening with a statement that runs contrary to your central message could pose a serious problem.
Similarly, one could imagine hypothetical positions which might simply generate too strong or too controversial of a reaction from the audience for the speaker to be able to continue their presentation. As a general rule of thumb, the more emotionally charged the issue and the audience, the faster the aporia opening needs to be immediately challenged, rebuked and rejected by the speaker.
19)The Other Day…(A moment of reflection)
In Brief: Telling your audience that you recently had an experience or a moment that left some kind of impression on you. Then, communicating a story describing what it is you observed or experienced. Finally, you reflect on the story, effectively sharing “the moral of the story,” and this reflection should be a moral, lesson or idea that is directly and personally relevant or applicable to your audience as well.
Example: “The other day, I began to observe something in my own behavior, that made me a bit…uncomfortable.”
Example 2: “When I was 36, I’d just gone through a very bad year.”
Why it works: This type of opening works on multiple levels. Firstly, it generates curiosity and piques attention, in a similar way to “clickbait.” The audience is (briefly) left wondering…what did they observe in their behavior? Why did it make them uncomfortable? What did they do?” and then their imagination can briefly run wild.
This will allow you to have their full attention as you describe the event or experience in question. After you finish describing it, you then transition into reflecting on the event and giving it a sense of context (aka “what are you *actually* talking about?” / “What’s the moral of the story?”). In doing so, you snap back our attention, forcing us to potentially feel “a bit…uncomfortable” ourselves, as we realize that the presentation will be focused as much on some element of our own behavior or experiences, as it is on the particular story and observations of the speaker.
A few VERY important notes: Where these sorts of openings tend to go bad, is when the speaker forgets to circle back at the end and make the REAL topic, the moral of the story, something universal that directly connects to the audience. Too many speakers implement the first two parts, going on tangents about something that happened to them, but fail to make their storytelling personally relevant or insightful for the audience. Failure to do so can make you look extremely self-indulgent, and insufficiently concerned with the interests and needs of your audience–in other words, you can end up looking a bit full of yourself.
Another potential concern can occur when the “deeper realization” you’re making may not be as universal as you think. Sometimes, a deep “aha” moment might seem more like a “no duh” moment for your audience, or simply irrelevant to their experience or worldview altogether. You can never be “all things to all people,” but you do want to make sure that your topic can strike a chord with as much of your audience as possible.
They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that’s just one of the many, many reasons why it’s so crucially important to launch your speech with a strong opening.
An effective opening “wakes up” your audience, and lets them know that you’re a speaker that’s truly going to stand out from the crowd–so you’d better pay attention.
In order to make the most of that opportunity, it’s almost always crucial to come up with an opening that will give your listeners an emotional reaction–whether laughter, intrigue, anger, relief, sadness, or anything in between.
Crafting the sorts of stories or content that can consistently achieve those reactions is both an art and a science. The more you consciously practice it, the more intuitive it will become–you will eventually reach a point when you can intentionally stir up a particular emotion out of your audience nearly effortlessly. Along the way, though, trying and testing the openings listed will take you a long way to understanding the “DNA” of effective introductions, so constantly try out new opening styles to expand your “toolkit” to as wide a range of styles and structures as possible. The more types of openings you’ve used consistently, the more options you’ll have to find just the right style to match any given speech or any particular topic.
Section 4 – Body / Key Points
In other books on public speaking, I’ve read great discussions on how to tell compelling stories; how to use a variety of techniques to make an idea more memorable or evocative; but very rarely have I found a complete body of work teaching how to do all of that *and* structure your content for each section of the body of your speech, to communicate the three more points of your presentation in the most effective (and impactful!) way possible.
Our goal in this section is to give you a “top to bottom” guide, focused on three main areas: how to organize each of your three main points, how to make each of your three main segments as powerful and emotionally resonant as possible, and how to ensure that each point flows effortlessly into the next, in a way that creates a smooth, streamlined whole.
THE BIG PICTURE
If structure is a question of what–what are the key points I’m going to make; what is the organization I’ll use to walk my listeners through the journey I’ve created for them–then preparing each body section is answering the “how.” How will I use stories, facts, visual language, and a compelling narrative to make section section of the speech as coherent, engaging and persuasive as possible?
As an aside, one thing that you’ll learn from any class or any book on screenwriting is that virtually every single scene in a movie is crafted as if it were a miniature movie itself (if you’d like more detail on that, feel free to read Blake Snyder’s excellent “Save the Cat!”). As a bit of a movie nerd myself, I was inclined to look at speech writing the same way; each of the main bodies in your speech, while having a central message or theme, should themselves be “mini speeches” with their own hooks, conclusions, and so on.
Since I treat each body section as a small speech, I pull from the same rules and principles for the opening of a new idea, as I would for the start of a new speech itself. That means applying the same step-by-step approach we’ve covered in earlier sections, to plan out the opening and structure of each individual section. Once that’s done, and I have a clear sense of how I’ll be organizing the section, I can get to work “filling in the blanks” using some of the techniques I’ll be sharing below, to decide on what content would be the best fit for communicating the ideas effectively.
We’ll continue to build on our “100 flavors of truth” ice cream speech.
Thankfully, when it comes to planning out the details of each main section, we’ve already got the outline created in Section 2 as a guide.
If you remember, the structure I’d decided to go with here was:
1)Where are we now, and how did we get here
2)What are the consequences / dangers if we don’t resolve this?
3)What actions can we take as individuals to push back against these risks?
Also, let’s factor in the opening from the previous section–setting the stage by describing a seemingly unbelievable status quo, and bridging into the body by clarifying the scope and the potential danger it presents.
For the first main point, focusing on “where are we now, and how did we get here” :
You can think of each of your points, in many ways, as a miniature speech–just like your speech itself, each point should have an opening that serves as a strong “hook” to draw the listener in, piquing their emotions and curiosity.
In this case, where I’ve already hinted at the status quo in the bridge section, I’ll want to jump right into expanding into the history of how we arrived at it.
I can imagine jumping in with a contrast that sets the tone–maybe starting off by talking about Game of Thrones as a cultural phenomenon, being viewed by X millions of viewers, and being considered a worldwide sensation…but then contrasting that to the incomparably larger numbers of viewing audiences of television series or news events in previous decades. I would then offer up some foundational information about the era–how few tv stations existed, the consumption behaviors that resulted (we all basically watched the same programming, and could have a “shared experience” as a foundation for opinions and discussion).
I could then (quickly) move on into the rise of cable tv, and how that began the process in which people could start to isolate themselves, consuming news from a preferred perspective, along with some supporting stats or quotes about the shift and its impact.
From there, I would transition into how those issues exploded by orders of magnitude with the rise of youtube and social media, with statistics, quotes or stories that almost make the old figures “quaint” and “adorable” by comparison., and how today’s algorithms and systems are specifically designed to exacerbate this trend. I would share a few brief memorable examples of extreme sources to make the information more memorable and emotionally impactful. Some of the examples I would choose would hint at the reason why this is a potential danger (being particularly crazy, unpleasant, or hateful). I might then conclude the section by creating a sense of scale, taking what may have seen like an extreme case of promoting radical content, and showing just how common it’s becoming. (Conversely, I might also simply conclude with a preview, warning listeners that these systems, promoting more and more enclosed thought bubbles, are now starting to show some extremely dangerous consequences.
That would allow me to smoothly transition to my second main point, being the potential dangers of the status quo, and the scale of the threat.
For the second point “What are the consequences / dangers if we don’t resolve this?”:
Off the top of my head, I can imagine opening up the next section in a few different ways. I could open with an amusingly naive (and wildly incorrect) quote / prediction from the earliest days of the internet, about what its impact would be on bringing us together and how it would serve as a powerful force for dispelling ignorance. Similarly, I might find a quote that sounds like it’s predicting the effects of the internet and social media, that actually turns out to be much older, and referring to a technological innovation from decades or even hundreds of years earlier–to emphasize how we’ve always been naive and myopic about the impact of technology when it comes face to face with human frailties and vices.
Either way, I would want to quickly transition into additional stats or findings that show just how narrowly we consume our chosen sources of media today, and how little overlap most people consume from opposing or challenging viewpoints. I might add to that with quotes or fact sharing explaining how today’s algorithms are specifically designed to exacerbate our “fall into the rabbit hole,” pushing us an endless stream of related content. To go from the “conceptual” to the “concrete,” I would follow that up with a story about a specific case in which that had happened, walking the audience step by step through how these factors directly radicalized or influenced someone to commit a heinous act, ideally ending with a quote from the perpetrator showing just how far “gone” they were by the end of the process.
I’d follow up the story with data points or sharing information to make the “scale” of this issue clear–much like the “bridge” we’re transitioning from telling a shocking story to giving it context. Maybe I could share how many other people follow the same radical sources, and then follow it up with similar data from opposite extreme sources (to show that I’m not trying to pick on any one side, and risk alienating some of the audience). The goal with these examples wouldn’t be “silly” crazy ideas, but groups and messages that are disturbing and worrisome–we’re trying to establish the “stakes” of the situation here.
From there, I would want to make it clear that the issue isn’t just affecting a small (or even moderate) number on the fringes, but all of us. I’d share facts about how surveys or studies show us to be taking a harder line against people who don’t share our own views, and how the vast majority of people–not just the extremists–are living in more and more of an “echo chamber” that only serves to reinforce whatever beliefs or opinions we’re comfortable with.
That would invite me to transition into my final point: what can we do about it?
For the third point: What actions can we take as individuals to push back against these risks?
I would begin the final section by acknowledging the challenge of addressing the issue–how do you even begin to “expand the dialogue” and “find common ground” with the millions of people who have views that seem to have completely abandoned logic, or are virulently racist or offensive to you? It’s one thing to say “we’re all in an information bubble”…but is the alternative to start reading extremist publications to “better understand your neighbor?” To spend hours of your precious, limited time patiently listening to “irrefutable” evidence that the earth is flat, or science isn’t real, or that the president is secretly an alien lizard hybrid? (A belief, by the way, held by X million Americans).
I might jump immediately to an “answer” to that from Daryl Davis — the African American musician we referenced back in (opening section) who gained fame by convincing over 165 members of the American hate group the Klu Klux Klan to renounce their membership.
I would give the quote weight and context by sharing his story, and additional quotes about how his efforts to engage with people with the most extremely opposing views possible ultimately found success–by using every opportunity to find common ground, attacking the problem instead of the person, and achieving the often difficult feat of respecting that nearly every person imagines themselves to be “the hero of their own story.”
There are any number of other quotes I could add to this, emphasizing the power of influencing and impacting others with the power of our example, with patience, and with compassion–even when it may not feel earned or even deserved. We could also pull from quotes or brief facts and stories supporting this, relating the experience to the methodology used in “deprogramming” former cult members.
Once again, I’d want to close out by challenging each audience member to also focus on themselves. Every one of us believes countless things that are untrue, half truths, ill-informed and uninformed. I’d pull out stats showing a completely ridiculous belief held by the vast majority of people only a few decades earlier, as a warning not to become too complacent in our own flavor of truth. I would encourage the audience to set aside at least some amount of time, each week, to find a source they wouldn’t necessarily go to–to challenge themselves to find the best quality sources they can, and not just the “bad faith sources” or poorly researched sources that only serve to validate their existing opinions. I’d give an example of a few. (If you believe in X, spend an hour a week reading Y. If you believe in Y, spend an hour a week reading X). I would stress the benefits–even if it doesn’t change your views in the slightest, you can start to better understand the thought process, the potential gray sides of the issues, the different perspectives…and even in extreme cases, where you can’t even find those, it can still equip you to be able to communicate with more understanding and nuance to the people in your life who *do* believe it.
Throughout that last section, I’d also try to carry over an “ice cream analogy” – if you’re a lifelong strawberry sherbert fan, and you genuinely want to try to understand the appeal of vanilla, don’t just buy the dollar store bucket…find the highest quality, best reviewed, premium vanilla you can. Even if you try a new flavor and don’t love it, at least you can understand it, you can describe it, you might be able to see how it could appeal to someone else, and why. You can have an intelligent and informed conversation about it when you do find a fan–you can at least “speak the same language.” And you can use that shared understanding to encourage that other person to step outside their own comfort zone.
I would then demonstrate the idea by going through two different scenarios with the audience. I’d roleplay asking a member of the audience their favorite flavor of ice cream, and then simply telling them that their flavor is terrible, and being extremely condescending. I’d then have a long pause (long enough to stir up some reaction, and make people feel ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with my previous aggressiveness), and repeat the same exercise with someone else, but this time offering up a much more nuanced, detailed, informed response, that showcased an incredible level of understanding, and used that understanding to leverage the best attributes about their favorite flavor to recommend a new flavor in a genuinely persuasive and informative way. I’d ask the audience which approach was more persuasive. More respectful. More likely to genuinely convince someone to step outside of their ice cream bubble.
That would be my opportunity to transition into the conclusion–which will get its own entire section in the next chapter.
CHEAT SHEET: BODY PARAGRAPHS / MAIN POINTS MADE EASY
Regardless of the subject matter, regardless of what structure of speech you’re giving, the way you’ll organize each of your three sections will almost always follow the same basic structure:
Hook – Context – For Example – So What
If this looks suspiciously similar to the overall structure of your speech, it’s not an accident. Much like how each well constructed scene in a movie contains its own “beginning, middle, end ending” each body paragraph in your speech will also function as a “mini speech” of its own, containing a similar structure and composition.
First, let’s look and see how that carries over to the ice cream example above:
Section one – “Where are we now, and how did we get here” :
Hook: Here, we directly referred to openings (#X) and (#Y) to grab the audience’s attention, to introduce the audience to the paragraph in an interesting way. The goal of his paragraph is to give a sense of where we are now and how we got here, so both openings serve to illustrate just how drastically different our status quo is from the past.
Context: From there, we take the initial ideas introduced in the opening, clarify our central focus, and build out the necessary context around the point. In this case, we shared a variety of history, facts, data and studies to give the listeners a clear sense of the issue we’re looking to discuss–in this case, a sense of what the status quo looks like in terms of media consumption, and a clear but succinct backstory on how we got there.
For Instance: Here is where we take the ideas and general context we’ve created, and express the main idea or a crucial takeaway in specific, concrete language. That can be a story that reflects what you’re addressing, or describing a concrete action that your audience (or the characters in your speech) may have engaged in that “proves your point.” It shouldn’t just be a general fact or statistic–the idea here is that we want to make the message “come alive” with a vivid example that can potentially stir up an emotional investment from the audience. For our first point in the ice cream example this would include the stories I would share about specific cases of social media algorithms promoting radicalizing content.
So what: A closing to the section that addresses why that example, and the broader point we’re addressing, should matter to our listeners. Something that “brings it home,” “makes it personal,” and shows how what we’re talking about is directly relevant to the life and interests of your listener. In some cases, this can also be translated as “the moral of the story is…”
In this case, The “for instance” story itself does a lot of the heavy lifting, as the story of watching someone’s life being destroyed and warped through radicalization, well told, can indirectly encourage them to imagine the risk that other people in their life may face of meeting the same fate. However, adding the scale of the issue, in this case, shows that this is more than a tragic story, but potentially a threat to safety and security for the listener and the people they care about–it’s creating a dangerous world for them personally. If we went with our secondary idea, of simply warning the audience outright of the dangerous consequences of these technologies, we achieve the same effect–a heightened sense of alertness and a personal sense of danger and impact to the listener, who’s now primed to tune in to find out more about these new dangers.
Section 6 – Conclusions
We close part 1, naturally enough, by turning to conclusions.
A particularly well written conclusion can do wonders in making even a mediocre speech come off as intricately crafted and far better than it has any right to be remembered. It’s literally the last thing you’re leaving the audience with, so it has the potential to leave the most impact on your listeners. All of which is why it’s absolutely crucial to make sure you close as strong as possible.
At its heart, a conclusion is pretty straightforward: summarize your main points or ideas, throw one last “emotional gut punch,” and close on a “call to action” that directly references the opening hook in your introduction. Once you have a clear mental blueprint of how most strong conclusions are organized, drafting it might just become the easiest part of your entire speech writing process.
The Big Picture
In my experience, the length of a conclusion can vary WILDLY. In speeches that follow a “problem-solution” flow, the solution, with its built-in call-to-action, can already feel like something of a mini-conclusion. In those cases, my actual conclusions tend to be much more succinct: very quickly restating the problem and its relevance (how is it affecting us now / risks if unresolved), and reaffirming that we can act now to (prevent some undesirable outcome). Since in these types of speeches, I will have JUST LISTED exactly what the solution or the call-to-action is a few sentences ago, I’ll often avoid immediately restating it in the conclusion (ie, “but, by taking action now…” rather than restating the particular action needed), then listing the beneficial outcome of taking the action. I’ll often frame the benefit in such a way that it directly reflects or calls back some key message or image from my opening, making it feel as though the whole thing has come “full circle.” If that’s not possible, I’ll just list the benefits, and then cap off the conclusion with a line that might stress the stakes of the issue, or issues a direct “call-to-arms,” using language and imagery that links back to my opening.
Of course, in other cases, your conclusion can be almost thought of as an “abridged” version of your full speech, complete with a hook, context, and a quick restating / summary of your three main points, followed by a last strong call to action. In my experience, I tend to fall into these sorts of conclusions about 80% of the time.
How to conclude our ice cream speech?
We apply the same Hook-Why’d You tell me that-For Instance-So What structure we’ve one last time.
I could imagine starting the conclusion with a quote about how people becoming disconnected from one another inspired conflict or dehumanization. For extra resonance, perhaps the quote was from someone living in the emergence of a civil war or genocide. The quote initially triggers curiosity, since it’s not immediately obvious what the quote is relating to or what its context is until a few moments later when we provide the missing context. When we do provide the context (aka “why you’d tell me that), it has an extra level of emotional impact, since the quote, that doubles to serve as a mirror to the sort of trends we’ve looked at throughout the speech, draws attention to the very real, very frightening consequences that this issue can lead to if its unaddressed. I would then add to the “context I was providing in a very quick “tell me what you said” overview of the main speech–referencing to how things have changed (“the status quo and how we got there”, or “the how the past changed into the status quo”), the forces at play (google, social media, etc), a “for instance” re-affirming specific, concrete facts or examples touched on in our third main section (cases brought up earlier of how radicalization led to violence or some other undesirable outcome or tragedy), and the stakes / dangers of how this threat can potentially escalate, aka “why do I care” (maybe I can share a stat showing that these cases of extremism are rapidly rising). Throughout this, I would be weaving in the “ice cream” / 100 flavors of truth analogy wherever possible. Keep in mind all of this would be *very* succinct — the last thing you want is to feel like you’ve got a conclusion that’s dragging on and on.
That would lead to the “ray of hope,” and call to action–despite the situation looking dire, there is hope; there are steps each of us can take. Expand our palettes. Become ice cream connoisseurs; the more we expand our palette, step out of our comfort zone, and enrich our understanding, the greater the opportunity we can have to find common ground; to have the vocabulary and the insight to truly connect with vanilla lovers and the chocolate fanatics and inspire them to consider adding the occasional scoop of mango tango to their diet. If men like Darryl could convince 200 Klansmen to hang up their robes…perhaps you’ll convince at least one person to put down their cookies and cream, to try a scoop of cookie dough.
A world of a hundred flavors of truth can be intimidating…but it offers up delicious opportunities to explore, and expand, and share. And if we can do that…I promise you…the future is sweet.
CHEAT SHEET: CONCLUSIONS MADE EASY
As mentioned, a well crafted conclusion typically has four parts that should look increasingly familiar to you by now:
Hook: a dramatic opening that stirs up a strong emotional reaction from an audience
Context (In this case, sharing any important details on how the hook you used relates to the themes or propositions in your speech, and then reviewing your earlier points)
For instance (In this case, your “call to action” giving your audience some specific action they can take up, or a specific lesson you want them to remember)
So What: a last line that drives home the importance and final context to the issue you’re discussing and gives an incentive or encouragement to take on the call to action (after all, if you don’t have any way to impact or improve a situation, it might feel a lot less fruitful to discuss).
While most of those structures function exactly as we’ve described them in past sections, you do also have the option to simplify your hook in the ending; it’s common to see a simple question, like “So…where do we go from here?” or “But is it too late?” in the interest of time and keeping an ending succinct.
Also, if your speech followed a “problem, how did we get here, consequences, solution” pattern, you might have the feeling as you write that your third point already almost feels like a conclusion already. In these cases, you can often get away with a MUCH shorter conclusion, since you don’t want to have a speech that feels as though it’s effectively ending twice. However, you’ll still want a conclusion that at least briefly sums up your key points, follows the overall structure, and–VERY IMPORTANTLY–finds a way to directly reference your opening.
If your opening began with a cat pun, your conclusion should end with a cat pun. If your opening used an analogy of a burning building, your conclusion should end with expressing your ideas using an analogy of a burning building. Perhaps now, after the lessons of your speech, when you reuse the story from your opening, there can be a chance for that story to have a happier ending when you retell a variant of it in your conclusion.
It’s also your last chance to stir up an emotional impact in your audience, so do everything you can to make the most of it. We’ll get into more detail on exactly how you make your conclusion (and any section of your speech) more emotionally evocative when we reach the next section of this book, LANGUAGE.
PART 2: RHETORIC
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
While that might be a pretty massive oversimplification, it’s definitely true that your content only takes you halfway towards a winning speech. The other half comes in how you say it. That falls into two categories: your presentation skills, including your vocals and body language, and the language you use to communicate your ideas–which we’ll be diving into in this section.
Evocative language is the difference between telling a fact and making a story come alive in the mind of your listener. It’s the single phrase that’s short enough for everyone in the audience to remember, and powerful enough to capture the entire essence of your speech. It’s the way you word your conclusion “just so” so that it perfectly mirrors the wording and story you used in your introduction. At the end of the day, it’s one of the most obvious ways to tell an extraordinary speaker from a mediocre one.
Unfortunately, language is one of the least taught skills in public speaking. Even the word we use for the study of powerful language, “rhetoric,” somehow sounds ancient and old fashioned.
In reality, though, knowing specific techniques to add power, emotion and impact to your speech are one of the most valuable tools in a speaker’s toolbox. In this section, we’ll pull the techniques from dusty old textbooks, and make them available for you to use in your next presentation.
THE BIG PICTURE
I mentioned earlier that one of the most important lessons in public speaking is to “always begin with the end in mind.” Therefore, as we dive into rhetoric, it’s crucial that we never lose sight of why it’s worth studying and applying — what’s the end goal?
Being more aware of rhetoric, and knowing more rhetorical tools you can apply when you’re writing your speeches, helps you in three crucial ways — logos, ethos, and pathos.
Those three words are Greek, and they referred to what they believed to be three of the most important elements of any persuasive or effective speech.
Logos refers to how “logical” or “logically persuasive” a presentation is. Obviously, if a speech doesn’t sound particularly logical, or the speaker seems muddled, it’s a lot harder for a speech to have a strong impact on an audience or be particularly persuasive.
Thankfully, the more comfortable you get in your communication, the more you can apply rhetorical principles and devices to communicate your ideas in ways that are clearer and easier to absorb. You’ll learn to take ideas that might be abstract and easy to misinterpret, and instead communicate them using analogies or concrete examples to make your message clear.
Also, when you use rhetorical devices effectively, you’ll start to notice that your speech sounds more “balanced” and “tightly constructed.” Your opening sentences might be inverted in your ending sentence, the analogy you use to describe your problem might also be carried over to how you describe your solution (if the analogy to your problem is a sinking ship, the analogies to your solutions could be lifeboats, making sure we all know how to swim, etc.)
Overall, the more comfortable you become with using the tools we’ll discuss, the more your speech will appear to be “coming from a thoughtful and well organized mind” – which is a huge asset to any speech.
The second advantage you’ll have in your speeches will be ETHOS – another Greek word, referring to “the emotions of the speaker.”
Your voice and body language –which we’ll discuss in Part 3 — can play a huge role in adding emotion and passion to your presentation. But so can your rhetoric — once you know how to use it effectively.
Organizing your thoughts and your words in certain ways can sometimes create a strong effect — it can make a sentence sound more passionate, make drama feel more vivid, and make a scene “come alive” to you as you read it. At its best, knowing how to use the writing techniques we’ll go over to add ethos to your speech will almost feel like a “cheat sheet” when you’re speaking — wording it in such a way that you can’t help but be more swept up, and more emotionally engaged as you speak.
The last major advantage good rhetorical training can give you as a speaker is a stronger control of PATHOS, one last Greek word referring to the emotional impact an audience feels from a speech. It’s different from ETHOS, which refers specifically to the emotions the audience can see and feel coming from the speaker themselves as they speak. Instead, PATHOS is how your words can induce your audience to strong feelings themselves — of sadness, anger, joy, or a dozen emotions in between.
Of course, stirring up the emotions of an audience has been a central theme through this entire guide, as it’s one of the most powerful and important goals of any effective speech. Understanding how certain ways of organizing your words, certain expressions, and certain speaking tools can enhance that impact is one more way to maximize the lasting impact your speech will have on its listeners (and, particularly, the judges!)
So, in order to maximize mastery of Logos, Ethos, and Pathos, we’ll be covering three main aspects of rhetoric:
*The use of concrete / visual language
*The use of power phrases
*The use of rhetorical devices
EXAMPLES: CORE PRINCIPLES
1)CONCRETE / VISUAL LANGUAGE: Great speeches aren’t just heard; they’re also experienced in the audience’s heads.
Human beings have existed long before we had a spoken language; even today, we’re hard-wired to think in pictures and imagery. It’s one of the many reasons why descriptions of things that are hard for you to visualize ( millions dead in a war, for example), can be much less emotionally impactful than hearing the story of an individual mother struggling through that same war. Similarly, vague, general language, such as describing a crowd as “happy” is much less memorable than a description that vividly describes the same crowd having huge smiles on their faces, shaking in excitement, eyes twinkling, etc.
When you communicate in this way, by using as many opportunities as possible to “paint the picture” of a scene, you’re allowing your speech to play out in the minds of your audience, like a movie; which does WONDERS for making your content more impactful and memorable. It’s sometimes said that the best speeches are those that an audience “sees,” as you present, and I would very much agree with that assessment.
Similarly, this is why fables can be so incredibly effective at teaching moral lessons: instead of simply saying “don’t steal” –which isn’t a particularly visually impactful or emotionally engaging message–a fable might tell a story involving animals, objects, and unusual situations, and is explicitly designed for the listener to play out in their mind as they listen to the story. Once an audience has “seen” such an unusual and vivid story in their minds, it will be much harder for them to forget the description or its message.
a)”She became very upset.”
b)”As soon as she heard the news, her hands began to tremble. Her nostrils flared. Her breath quickened. Her entire body began to shake with an uncontrollable anger, as her eyes narrowed into an expression of simmering rage.”
Why it works: One version allows you to picture the scene like a movie; is vivid enough that you can almost imagine it happening in front of you–or imagine experiencing it yourself. The other…isn’t. The difference is so extreme that it virtually speaks for itself.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
-Martin Luthor King, “I have a dream”
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
-Martin Luthor King, “I have a dream”
Why it works: In these cases, we can see how Martin Luthor King Jr. ‘s made his ideas much more emotionally engaging by continuously weaving in visual images that capture the feels and ideas he is conveying. Imagine if he had just said “I have a dream that Mississippi will one day support greater equality,” or “African Americans are still adversely affected by segregation and racism.”…wouldn’t have quite the same effect, would it?
a)”We will continue to strive to support initiatives to reduce the violence in our community, and enhance our impact and engagement through bold and innovative action.”
b)”Every seven minutes, a young person in our community is shot. Yesterday, it was Joe Smith. Age 8. He was in the middle of a baseball game. He’d just hit a home run, when he was caught in the crossfire of a semi-automatic bullet. These aren’t statistics. These are children. And brothers, and sisters. And we refuse to stand by and ignore it, or treat it as though this is all somehow “normal.” Over the next six months, we will be spending five million dollars to…(enact a SPECIFIC course of action)”
Why it works:
This example is quite different from the first two, but it’s one of the most frequent and most insidious cases of generalities completely failing to communicate clearly or concretely. Used all too often by corporations and politicians alike, the old habit of “using a lot of words to say nothing at all,” risks a total failure in persuading or impacting an audience. Sometimes used because it represents a “safe” message (a particular, specific idea may not have been decided on, for example) the reality is that it is often WORSE than saying nothing at all, since it suggests a complete lack of interest or sincerity in the speaker in the seriousness or the emotional stakes of the issue. It also makes it nearly impossible to get an audience fired up and emotionally energized to take on a course of action, since you literally haven’t given them any sort of clear visualization of either the problem, or what that solution may be–let alone empowering your audience to be able to close their eyes and vividly picture concrete imagery of what they might look like.
A few very important notes:
1)While it’s important to evoke powerful visual imagery capable of stirring an emotional response, be careful to avoid painting mental images that may push the limits of good taste for your audience. Likewise, it’s possible to elicit violently negative reactions in an audience if your “word paintings” seem to be overly exploitative in reference to a tragedy or sensitive subject, particularly when it’s used to make a point that the audience may disagree with–for example, vividly describing the more graphic details of an abortion, to an audience who may be “pro choice.” Considering that speech contests are often judged by volunteers from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds, time should be spent considering any potential resistance or “triggering” your visual imagery may instill in certain listeners.
2)Related to the first point, avoid drifting into excess when employing visual language. When overdone, with seemingly endless, excessive, and unnecessary visual and sensory details, it can start to feel exhausting and/or exploitative to your audience. Gauging exactly where those lines can be is something that can come with experience, but can also be gained by practicing your speech with listeners from backgrounds or perspectives who might differ from yours. You may discover your descriptiveness impacts some listeners in ways that you may not have intended or planned for.
2) RULE OF THREE
Over and over again in language, we see a repeated pattern – a seeming “rule of three.” Speeches tend to be organized in threes, whether it’s “introduction, body, conclusion” or the famously worded “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you said.” Even in the body itself, it’s most common (especially in competitions) to have three main points. Somehow, on an almost subscious level, 2 points can seem inadequate, and more than 3 can feel overwhelming.
This also carries over to rhetoric:
“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
“Faith, hope, and charity.”
[Text Wrapping Break]“Somebody, somewhere, somehow”
Being aware of the “rule of three” is an incredibly valuable tool for making your content –from your examples to your flourishes – sound more pleasing and memorable.
A few important notes
While it’s good to organize ideas and content into threes for flow and clarity, it’s almost important to not do it repeatedly in quick succession–at some point, you risk the technique sounding repetitive and drawing attention to itself.
Also, an understanding of other rhetorical techniques – which we’ll be covering momentarily – will also help to “spice things up” and add variation to the triad structure. You’ll find that different variations of the technique will carry a different “feeling” to them, and be more or less useful in different situations or to convey different tones and emotions. (Don’t worry, we’ll get into all of that shortly!)
3) POWER PHRASES: “Think different.” “Start with why.” In only a few words, they capture the entire spirit of an idea, a central thesis; and their brevity makes them virtually effortless to remember and share.
There’s a reason for the expression “brevity is wit.” When a sentence is short, yet captures the essence of an idea, it can seem to carry an almost timeless weight and wisdom with it. By using them yourself as a “capstone” to your speech, or in key moments, they can add the same weight and gravity to your presentation as well.
In some speeches, it may be appropriate to repeat one of your “power phrases” multiple times, as a thread weaving through your speech. You can see this most famously with expressions like Martin Luthor King’s “I have a dream” which he repeats multiple times, and Barack Obama’s 2008 nomination acceptance speech, which sees him repeating his famous “Yes we can” slogan 7 separate times. In these scenarios, it can serve a variety of functions; it can be a “through-line” that creates a narrative “drumbeat” in your speech, creating an almost musical “hook” that makes the entire speech feel more tightly crafted and focused. In other situations, it can encapsulate your central idea or thesis, and you can repeat it through your speech to answer the various questions that you pose throughout the speech. Used this way, the fact that you can use your go to “power phrase” to correctly answer the various challenges or questions you pose, serves to both prove the “rightness” of the statement, and drill the particular expression deeper and deeper into your listeners’ memory.
Other times, a particularly potential phrase or image may work best when used only once, at a key moment, and then given a long follow-up pause to let it “sink in” to the minds of an audience. In this way, it can feel like the culmination of everything that came before it–taking all of the uncertainty or emotion you have built up, and–in a moment of release–offering a solution, or a description that boils it down to its essence or offers up a brilliantly elegant answer.
In both cases, you should still strongly consider weaving your most memorable “power phrase” into your conclusion. This callback is typically a great way to make the entire speech feel more carefully crafted and mindfully prepared.
“A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand”
“Start with why”
“I have a dream”
A few important notes: Most often, you’ll be using a “power phrase” as either your thesis or your conclusion (or both!) Oftentimes, you’ll also use a power phrase multiple times throughout your speech as a framing device, as in the “I have a dream speech” in which the phrase is used 8 times, and the “Start with Why” speech, in which the phrase is used (Y) times. While not mandatory (Lincoln’s “House Divided” only used this exact description once), the repetition of your “power phrase(s)” can create a sense of clarity and focus to your key idea, as well as making the message easier to remember and “stickier” in the minds of your listeners.
But…you might ask…what are the building blocks of a good power phrase?
That question brings us to the heart of the section: there are a wide range of incredibly powerful techniques for making a memorable, impactful phrase to leave a long lasting impression on your audience. In the next section, we will explore many of the rhetorical devices you can apply to do just that.
ADNOMINATION: Simple but effective, adnomination just involves the repetition of words with the same root in a phrase or sentence.
*He was a nobody from nowhere with nothing to his name.
*He hoped that somehow, somebody, somewhere would hear his plea.
Why it works: Adnomination creates the rhetorically equivalent feeling of something being repeatedly hammered, adding a weight and emphasis to the idea being communicated. The alliterative quality also leads the speaker to stress and draw attention and energy to each of the repeated syllables, which can give an additional energy and forcefulness to the words.
A few important notes: The auditory impact of adnomination can be significantly impacted by the pacing and stresses you place in the sentence. Without overdoing it (practice makes perfect), it’s often correct to stress the first of each repeating syllable (SOMEhow, SOMEbody, SOMEwhere). This is NOT a universal constant, though, so as always, record yourself in your practices and try out a variety of approaches to hit your “sweet spot” for the line delivery.
ALLITERATION: is the repetition of the same sound or group of sounds at the beginning of two or more words in a phrase or verse. It is a literary device that is often used in poetry and other forms of writing to create a rhythmic effect and to draw attention to specific words or phrases. It can be a highly effective way to make a phrase or expression more memorable, and–perhaps surprisingly–even more convincing.
Vini, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered, in Latin)
“Build Back Bigger”[Text Wrapping Break]-Joe Biden 2020 campaign slogan
“September second (1945) is the day that the United States and our Allies turned tragedy into triumph, violence into victory, fighting into freedom, loss into liberty, and peril into peace.”
— Adm. Phil Davidson, U.S. Navy’s 75th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony of WWII[Text Wrapping Break]
Why it works: Alliteration works for many reasons. Firstly, it’s memorable: alliteration is relatively uncommon to hear in everyday speech, so it can make an expression stand out or sound unique, drawing attention to it (and also making it easier to remember!). It can also have the effect of making a speaker’s words flow more smoothly, while making the delivery of the key phrase or expression more rhythmic and musical.
A few important notes: Alliteration is especially vulnerable to being overdone. While a few repeated words in a sequence might create an extremely memorable expression or a powerful flow, repeating it excessively can risk turning a speech into a nursery rhyme. It should, as a general rule, be used sparingly, in order to maintain its maximum impact.
ANACOLUTHON Anacoluthon is a figure of speech in which the syntax of a sentence is changed or interrupted in the middle of the sentence. It can be used for various purposes, such as to express a sudden change in thought or to convey a sense of hesitation or confusion. Within the context of a speech (particularly the sort of speech you’d be delivering in a speech competition) anacoluthon is something you would most often use when telling a story–recreating a scene and the dialogue of someone who is distraught or emotional. Another alternative use can be to create the illusion of improvisation, making it sound as though you’ve spontaneously decided to go “off script” in a way that can be extremely powerful and attention grabbing when used effectively.
* From King Lear by Shakespeare:
I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world shall-I will do such things, / What they are, yet I know not
* And so, we come here today to celebrate–no, I can’t do this. I won’t do this. Today is a day that doesn’t deserve our celebration.
Why it works:
I’ve tried to repeatedly emphasize that some of the most effective public speakers also tend to be the ones who feel the most authentic and genuine on stage. If that’s true, then it makes sense that anacoluthon can be a great way to connect with audiences–it’s something that real people do in real conversations when they’re overcome by emotion. Done in the proper tone, and with the proper pacing, it just feels REAL and RAW, and suggests a level of emotional vulnerability on stage.
A few important notes:
For the same reason that anacoluthon suggests raw emotion and authenticity, it’s crucial to use it EXTREMELY sparingly. If it becomes something an audience sees you do frequently, it becomes very obvious that you’re just attempting to use it as a rhetorical tool, and it immediately generates the OPPOSITE intended reaction — coming off as inauthentic and even manipulative. Likewise, it’s crucial that you use it in situations where what you’re talking about would genuinely inspire the break–if you’re using it as a dramatic break in an otherwise mundane or unemotional discussion, it instantly comes off as phony and theatrical, in the worst ways possible.
￼ANADIPLOSIS: is a rhetorical device that involves repeating the last word or phrase of a clause or sentence at the beginning of the next clause or sentence. In the context of your speech, it can be a very effective tool to suggest a chain of “cause and effect.”
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
-Yoda, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
““Once you change your philosophy, you change your thought pattern. Once you change your thought pattern, you change your attitude. Once you change your attitude, it changes your behavior”
-Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet
Why it works: Anadiplosis can be a fantastic way to persuade your audience by presenting a series of “easy-to-acknowledge” points, that lead to another seemingly inoffensive and / or obvious idea (ie anger leads to hate) which ultimately leads further and further to your ultimate point; in this way, you’ve finally brought them to a conclusion which may not have been self evident to your audience in the beginning of your sentence, but is now. This process makes certain that the audience can clearly follow your logic, and guides them step-by-step to avoid any confusion. It creates a kind of logic “trap” — “If I agree with A, and B, and C, I’m strongly compelled to agree with D.”
On an auditory level, listeners tend to respond well to effectively used repetition–used properly, it can create a sense of organization, structure, and clear thinking. This further strengthens its effectiveness in making your point more persuasive.
A few important notes:
Anadiplosis can backfire badly if the connection between each of your points is unclear, or unpersuasive. Instead of making your case look more convincing, it creates a mental “break” for audience members listening to your speech, taking them out of the experience, and coloring their opinion of both the speaker and their content–potentially making you look irrational, poorly prepared, confused, or worse. Similarly, you want to avoid anadiplosis connections that require nuance or subtly–if an audience has to think too hard to see how your points connect to each other, it presents too great of a risk that they’ll fail to see the connection or spend so much time trying to think it through, that their attention will be diverted from your follow-up material.
ANAPHORA: is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. It is a powerful tool for building up momentum, drawing focus to a core idea or emotion, or even providing a framing device for an entire speech. In the last usage, it can be an effective tool for integrating the “power phrases” of your speech.
“Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended …”
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
-Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” 1963
(And another example, from the same speech)
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” 1963
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light,
It was the season of darkness”, it was the spring of hope,
It was the winter of despair, “
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Why it works:
Anaphora creates a rhythm and a drumbeat that draws attention to a key image or idea. It effectively hammers it into the memory of your listeners, which can be extremely important when you’re trying to ensure that a core point really “hits home” with an audience. Anaphora is also effective at giving your audience a strong sense of you being an elegant and well structured speaker. Lastly, in the same way that the repetition creates a kind of “verbal drumbeat” that can be great for memory and retention, it also creates a sense of momentum, which each repetition potentially building up the energy and intensity of the speech–a technique you’ll see frequently from speakers like Martin Luther King Jr.
A few important points:
As with many of the other rhetorical devices we’ll be covering, you want to be careful in using anaphora not to sound melodramatic or overly theatrical. If you’re using anaphora to build up an emotional crescendo, your tone, your body language, and the subject matter need to come together to make that build-up feel earned and natural. When Martin Luthor King Jr integrated his “I have a dream” narrative, he spoke as a pastor, with a pastor’s voice and tone. It felt authentic to him and his speaking style–you could watch 1-on-1 interviews where his flow and delivery was identical to the style of his speech. You need to meet that same litmus test–does the flow and wording match something you would use in real life, talking to a close friend, about a subject particularly passionate to you? If so, use it–if not, don’t.
EPISTROPHE: is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the end of a statement or sentence. The technique is related to anaphora, in which the repetition instead occurs at the beginning of each segment or sentence.
“…Government of the people, by the people, for the people “
-Abraham Licoln, Gettysburg Address
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
-1 Corinthians 13:11 (KJV)
Why it works: Like anaphora, epistrophe creates an auditory rhythm that can sharply draw attention and focus listeners. It can often create a sense of symmetry and totality, as in the Gettysburg address. Epistrophe can also be extremely effective at “drawing a line” between opposing ideas, actions, stages, states of being, or philosophies–especially noticeable in the last two examples.
A few important points:
You’ll notice in both examples that the repetition tends to work in threes; while the “rule of three” should govern most of your speech writing philosophy in general, you’ll see it being especially common and important when applying epistrophe.
Also, note that, in practice, many uses of epistrophe will also combine anaphora–but this combination is considered its own unique rhetorical device, called symploce, which we’ll cover next.
SYMPLOCE: combines the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of successive clauses or sentences. In other words, it’s basically a combination of anaphora and epistrophe.
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.[Text Wrapping Break]-Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic Primary Speech
(And similarly)[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans–not as Democrats or Republicans-we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.
-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1965 Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Voting Legislation,
This pattern combines anaphora and epistrophe to repeat a series of disclaimations (negative statement rejecting an idea), followed by one or more proclamations (a positive statement affirming an idea).
Another use of the anaphora / epistrophe combination will frequently be some variation of “If…then” statements:
If you are the type of person who…(some description)….this course is for you.
If you are the type of person who is ready to…(some description)…this course is for you.
If you are the type of person who…(some other description)…this course is for you.
Or else, the equally common NEGATIVE version of this:
“If you are…(some description)…then keep doing what you’re doing.”
“If you are…(some description)…then keep doing what you’re doing.
“If you are (some description)…then keep doing what you’re doing.”[Text Wrapping Break]“But…if you are (some other description)…then it’s time to (take some action).”
Why it works:
Once you recognize these patterns, you’ll start to see them repeatedly as one of the most common tools in rhetoric and sales presentations.
When speech follows a clear pattern or structure, it is the habit of an audience to treat them more seriously; it gives the content an aura of legitimacy. As such, it can be very powerful when used as part of a call to action in a persuasive speech, or to unify an audience behind your central idea.
A few important points:
Since so many of the words you’ll be saying when using symploce will be identical and repetitive, it’s important to be especially mindful of the tone, emphasis, and overall flow you give to your words when using the technique. If you’re constantly reusing the same words with exactly the same delivery, pace and tone, there’s a risk that the section will lack energy and potentially even blur together. Make symploce come to life by having fun in your rehearsals and practicing different styles of delivery (which we’ll be discussing in much more detail when we get to section four of this book, which will be specifically dedicated to the topic).
ANTITHESIS: involves the use of opposing ideas in a parallel structure, to create a dramatic contrast. The points being compared / juxtaposed don’t have to be LITERAL opposites, but are contrasted against one another for the sake of making a particular point.
Bless, don’t impress
(ie focus more on sharing kindness and support, rather than on impressing those around you)
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” 1963
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
No pain, no gain.
Go big or go home.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment
Why it works: You probably noticed that some of the examples were directly pulled from previous sections. That’s not an accident–antithesis is not only one of the most common pieces of rhetoric used by professional speakers, but also one of the easiest to combine with other techniques. Pitting ideas or expressions directly “against” each other can make for sentences, expressions and ideas that are easy to remember, and can frequently make for ideal “power phrases.”
Because the clauses (parts) of the line tend to be reflections of each other, a listener only needs to recall the first portion to remember the second–which is simplified even more if the two parts rhyme or use anaphora / epistrophe / symploce.
A few important notes:
In some uses of antithesis, you’ll actually see two separate usages in a single passage; for example, in Martin Luthor King Jr’s heat of oppression / oasis of freedom, we see a dual contrast between the “sweltering heat” and the oasis, as well as between oppression and freedom.
Also, because antithesis, while extremely common and extremely effective, can also sometimes come off as particularly “stagey” or “sales-y” (because of how frequently the technique is used by professional speakers and sales campaigns), be extra careful that your use of antithesis fits into your speech in a natural and organic way. You also want to deliver the line in a way that fits the “congruent” and “authentic” style that we’ve tried to focus on throughout–I don’t want it coming off as over-the-top or bombastic unless the point you’re pressing genuinely demands that level of enthusiasm and emotion.
CHIASMUS: Like Anaphora, Epistrophe, Symploce and Antithesis, Chiasmus involves playing with the layout of a sentence to create a repeating pattern in a clause or sentence, that serves to make it more memorable or impactful. In this case, Chiasmus involves repeating the words, concepts, or sentences, but reversing or inverting their order. Importantly, the words or ideas repeated don’t have to be exact–as we’ll see in the first two examples–but the nature of the content being discussed should be consistent (for example, an inversion or reversal of where two emotional states are used in a sentence, even if those two emotions differ).
“We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.”
-Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.”
-Senator John McCain.
“The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursues him.”
Why it works: Well crafted chiasmus has an almost lyrical character to it. The symmetry (and typical short length) makes it easy to remember, and draws focus to the key words or ideas being discussed. Its structure also reminds many listeners of the speech patterns they’ve seen in the past from ancient sources of wisdom–spiritual texts, quotes from wise old scholars, famous sayings, etc.[Text Wrapping Break]
That similarity to some of the “great quotations of wisdom” we’ve read in the past, can sometimes give chiasmus an extra “halo effect” of knowledge and insight.
A few important notes: Because sentences using chiasmus are typically both short and require a moment or two of thinking for an audience to truly absorb, I strongly recommend delivering the line slowly enough to “let it breath,” adding pacing as needed to really make the meaning and the contrast stand out to your listeners. Also, don’t fall into the trap of trying to be “too clever” and using chiasmus in such a way that it creates a sentence whose meaning isn’t necessarily clear or easy to understand for your audience. You might want to be especially careful of this if your audience might face any additional barriers of understanding, like not being native speakers of your language.
ANTIMETABOLE: Antimetabole is similar to chiasmus, with one important difference–whereas chiasmus can invert or reverse concepts, ideas, or segments in a sentence, antimetabole requires a reversal of the specific words used. This makes it somewhat more exact and potentially challenging to use, but can also make it sound particularly memorable.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
– President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
“I mean what I say and I say what I mean.”
“It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.”
Why it works: The mirroring of words makes antimetabole especially easy to recall, even in comparison to other rhetorical devices. As with chiasmus, the structure reminds us of idioms, or classical expressions / words of wisdom, which can make the content more impactful.
A few important notes: Antimetabole needs to be supported, either with examples or additional arguments, to avoid sounding pithy or cliche. They can be a great way to launch into a discussion, or to summarize an idea, but are rarely enough to persuade an audience of and in themselves.
ANTHIMERIA: involves using a word differently than its original meaning. Specifically, antimeria can involve using a noun as a verb, a verb as a noun, an adjective as a noun, or any other combination. It is most commonly used to add novelty emphasis to a point being made.
Is hashtagging enough?
The thunder would not peace at my bidding.
-Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi.
Adulting / Facebooking / Gifting
Why it Works:
Anthimeria can help to cement an “in-group” connection by using shared colloquial language with your audience, when using current or contemporary anthimeria expressions. In other cases, anthimeria can be used to do the opposite, particularly in storytelling–leveraging the descriptions being used to narrate a scene (via anthimeria) to create a feeling of a culture or personality. For examples of this second type of application, you can imagine a speaker describing how a family in his story “wintered” in Greece, as a way to suggest the family in question comes from an affluent and upper class background. Likewise, an older speaker describing how their young teen complained about how exhausting “adulting” was subcommunicates a gap in culture and maturity between themselves and the teen.
A few important notes:
Firstly, it’s important to avoid attempting to use anthimeria to suggest an “in-group” connection with an audience that explicitly regards you as an “out-group” member. An older speaker using “facebooking” and “adulting” in a way that attempts to project that they’re “hip with the lingo” could easily be a recipe for disaster, because it seems incongruent and insincere.
Similarly, be mindful not to use an example of anthimeria in a mocking tone that may alienate an audience that uses the anthimeria term unironically.
Lastly, while Shakespeare may have frequently gotten away with using anthimeria in unprecedented and creative ways, you want to be very careful to ensure that you don’t place artistic expression above clarity–if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, or finds it confusing, you have a problem.
It is worth mentioning that many rhetorical devices, such as apophasis, also known as paralipsis, occupatio, praeteritio, preterition, or parasiopesis, are based on irony. This figure of speech involves mentioning a subject by denying that it should be mentioned. This tactic, while sometimes criticized, is often used in politics.
“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”
-President Donald Trump
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
-President Ronald Reagan
Why it works:
Most frequently, you’ll see apophasis used in debating forums, as a common tool to attack an opponent while trying to convey a playful, dignified persona. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]However, when used in competitive public speaking forums, it takes on different functionality.
Firstly, apophasis can create an in-group connection between the speaker and the audience. In these cases, the apophasis statement can relate to something the audience strongly supports or believes, but which may be controversial or unproven. In this way, the speaker can make it very clear that they explicitly support the beliefs of their audience, and that they’re “all in on the joke.”
If the positive being referenced in the apophasis is relatively benign and unlikely to stir strong emotions, it can also be used in presentations to audiences who may be evenly split on an issue–such as a suggestion of one sports team being better than another.
Secondly, it can be used to frame the mindset of an audience to add an extra layer of context or nuance to a discussion. For example, a speech about policy reform related to racial discrimination could preclude their main points by affirming that they will focus the discussion purely on statistical and data analysis, and won’t take into account (detailed, painful descriptions of racism or discrimination they or their family has experienced).
In this way, the speaker gets to “have their cake and eat it too,” — they keep the main thrust of the presentation purely focused on a seemingly neutral, data-driven discussion, while prejudicing their listeners to support a particular position through the emotionally impactful influences they hint at through their apophasis aside.
APORIA: is the expression of doubt through the asking of a rhetorical question.
It can present a challenge that needs to be defeated; overwhelming odds that will need to be overcome; or introduce an “all hope is lost” scenario to be rallied against by the speaker. It can also be an effective way to lampshade existing doubts or positions an audience may have, before making a case to overturn them.
Aporia can also ask a question that has an obvious answer, but an answer which may challenge a commonly held belief or practice.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
-Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice – Act III, Scene I
They say that the election has already been decided. That we’re just wasting our time. Are they right?
Who are we, to seriously think we could make a difference?
We need to act soon. But can we do it in a way that protects jobs, that preserves the economy, and prioritizes the people impacted?
Why it works
As a public speaker, aporia is a fantastic tool for a variety of purposes.
In some uses, it can be an excellent way to create an “us against them” structure. “They say” we’re wasting our time, or are fighting an impossible cause, etc. In the same vein, it can also tap into the subconscious doubts or concerns of the audience, to show that your solution is well thought out and addresses the sorts of obstacles that may have stopped your audience from taking action in the past.
In cases like the example from the Merchant of Venice, where you’re asking a question that has an obvious answer, it can be a more gentle way to suggest a point of view that might challenge an audience’s existing prejudices. You can hear wording like “could it be possible that,” “is it fair to say that,” versions of Shakespeare’s “do we/they not…” etc. all being used to suggest possibilities to a potentially skeptical audience.
A few important notes
Even though there’s an expectation with aporia that you’re going to challenge or push back against the question or idea being suggested to your audience, it’s important to not make the case too blatantly insincere. If the question being asked assumes a completely ridiculous point of view, a perspective that absolutely no reasonable person they can imagine would ever ask or believe, it will make the entire use of aporia feel contrived and inorganic. At worst, it can feel like a bad faith argument–as if you’re trying to prove your case by defeating a point of view that isn’t actually legitimate. It can also risk creating a break between your connection with your audience, if the challenge or doubts you introduce are statements that your audience can’t relate to.
ASTERISMOS: is the act of starting a phrase with a seemingly unnecessary word or phrase. The idea is to use it as a way to grab an audience’s attention, and especially emphasize that something is particularly noteworthy.[Text Wrapping Break]
Examples[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Listen! There’s something crucial we need to talk about.
Yes, it’s true that things are tough right now.
Believe me! What’s coming up next will be one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.
Why it works
It’s not a coincidence that asterismos looks like the word “asterisk” — they come from the same root, and in many ways, they have the same goal. Asterismos, like an asterisk, demands particular attention to a word or idea. It’s a way to grab your audience and say “pay attention!” Subconsciously, it’s also a way to communicate that you’re speaking from a place of sincerity and emotional openness, as if what you were talking about was so important to you that the extra word or expression is almost “bubbling over” into your sentence.
A few important notes
When you’re using asterismos, you need to look, feel and sound like you’re passionate and committed in what you’re saying. If the line is said in relation to a traumatic situation, and your delivery sounds incongruent or insincere, it immediately creates a disastrous, cringeworthy start to your speech that can be hard to recover from. At its best, though, it can be a piercing, shocking thunderbolt thrown at your audience, unlike anything else they’re hearing from other speakers.
ASYNDETON: removes expected conjunctions like “or,” “and,” or “but” where they would typically be used between words. The goal of asyndeton is frequently the creation of a sense of urgency or intensity. The opposite of asyndeton is polysyndeton, which involves using the conjunctions repeatedly, where they would normally be omitted.
I came, I saw, I conquered.
“Without looking, without making a sound, without talking”
Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles
Stronger, faster, better
“This is the villain among you who deceived you, who cheated you, who meant to betray you completely…”[Text Wrapping Break]-Rhetoric, by Aristotle
Why it works
When combined with a dynamic verbal delivery and inflection, asyndeton creates a variety of powerful effects.
In the case of examples like Julius Caesar’s, the effect is one of inevitability, as if each point was a natural and inevitable conclusion to the previous action. Used this way, asyndeton can be a great way to create a sense of momentum and a strong “cause and effect” progression between actions or events.
In other cases, like the Oedipus or Aristotle examples, asyndeton creates a ratcheting up of momentum and intensity, building up point by point.
In both cases, the rhythm of the speech pattern directly impacts the emotional state of the listener, and creates a unique and powerful impact.
A few important notes
While asyndeton can create a strong effect on listeners, if it’s done too often, it starts to draw attention to itself as a technique–which can take listeners out of the experience. In most cases, you’re best off only using the technique once per speech, unless there is a very particular reason for using it a second time (for example, if you use it in your opening, and you are intentionally mirroring the structure of your sentence while offering an opposing perspective in your conclusion, to create a clearer sense of mirroring and antithesis with your introduction).
POLYSYNDETON: is the opposite of asyndeton–instead of removing conjunctions between particles, it adds them. In the process, it produces a unique rhythm to the phrase, to produce a particular effect on the audience.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers.
-Creed of the US Postal Service
They lived and laughed and loved and left.
-James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
“…where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.”
― President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address
Why it works:
Polysyndeton can achieve multiple effects in a presentation. In the first example, it is used to create a seemingly relentless, unstoppable drumbeat of forward momentum. Used in this way, it can be extremely successful in building up a sense of intensity and focus.
It can also produce a feeling of “stream of consciousness” unfiltered speech. This was exactly what James Joyce was famous for, and implementing polysyndeton with this potential in mind can allow you to inject emotion and a sense of authenticity (especially when combined with a tone and delivery designed to convey a particular emotional state). There is a wistfulness to Joyce’s example, as if we can almost imagine him picturing and remembering the people he describes while he delivers the line.
DYSPHEMISM: Normally, many speakers think to use euphemisms–or gentler expressions–to express a strong point. Dying becomes “passed away,” because the implications are less blatant and distressing than the original wording.
Dysphemism is the opposite–intentionally using words that are more explicit and visceral than words that might normally be used in daily speech. Dysphemism is rarely used by most public speakers, but understanding how to use it effectively can still be a valuable tool.
“What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”[Text Wrapping Break]-Gene Wilder, Blazing Saddles
He used the interview to spew filth and trash to millions of viewers
Why it works:
One of the greatest connections a speaker can make with their audience is one based on authenticity. When the audience feels like a speaker is unfiltered, genuine, and speaking from the heart, it can be incredibly disarming and effective. Careful and strategic use of dysphemism can be a powerful way to create that feeling; it’s a wink to the audience that says “I know I’m supposed to say X, but we both know the reality is Y.” At its best, it can give the sense that a speaker is being especially candid and unguarded.
As with other rhetorical tools, it can also be used to strengthen the “Us vs. Them” dynamic, in using bold and forthright descriptions that subcommunicate a perspective or feeling that your audience feels but may be shy or uncomfortable to vocalize.
A few important notes:
It nearly goes without saying that all of the attributes that can make dysphemism an effective tool can also open a speaker to disastrous negative reactions if they are deemed to be offensive, or misread the acceptable decorum or values of their audience.
Dysphemism should be used with considerable caution–if there is any doubt on audience reaction or breaking the social standards of the audience, it should be avoided entirely.
Some speakers will employ dysphemism in their storytelling, sharing the story about an antagonist who used dysphemic expressions (slurs, etc.) as a way to bully or demean others. While this can theoretically work in creating a highly emotionally charged story, it can also backfire if some listeners are simply so offended to hear certain expressions that it creates an intense backlash against the speaker, regardless of context or intent. [Text Wrapping Break]
MEIOSIS: is an uncommon term for a rhetorical habit you probably do regularly–making an understatement. Trying to be humble and describing the years of effort you spent training as “put in a little time at the gym”? That’s meiosis. It also happens to have quite a few valuable uses in public speaking.
“Across the pond”
-Describing the distance or relationship between the US and England, across the Atlantic Ocean
-A common term that was used to describe the political and military conflict in Northern Ireland
Why it works:
As seen in the examples, meiosis is often used to minimize or sidestep the fear, revulsion, or negative emotions connected to a word or idea. If your speech involves trying to inspire your audience to engage in a challenging task, especially one which will only be achieved with hardships, using meiosis to describe some of the potential negative consequences can be an effective way to maintain an upbeat tone. Terms like “heavy lifting” or “rolling up our sleeves” could potentially represent countless hours of stress, work, and painful sacrifice, but don’t sound nearly as intimidating or dire. Also, since many of the terms frequently used for meiosis are also commonly known and understood, the euphemisms can allow you to potentially express an idea or make a point with a single word or expression–when it might have otherwise required a full sentence or more to communicate.
Conversely, in some speeches, sharing a quote from a public figure that uses meiosis to downplay an issue which an audience may feel very passionate about can be a great way to stoke their anger even further. This can be yet another effective tool in creating an “us vs them” bond with your audience. You could then launch into vivid descriptions and examples of the painful realities of the situation, to further exemplify the inappropriateness of the meiosis.
A few important notes:
It is important that your use of meiosis doesn’t suggest that you are making light of a serious situation, in a way that may offend your audience. This is especially true in situations where the euphemism is referring to something that has a particularly acute or painful relation to your audience, but that may not have been as directly impactful to you.
LITOTES: another expression you’re likely to already be using regularly, a litote is simply a figure of speech that uses a negative statement to express a positive point. Often, this expression can also be an understatement.
You’re not wrong
Why it works:
Litotes can be a great way to walk the audience through a thought process, especially one that is considering between two or more options. For example, a speaker mentioning that “it wasn’t cheap, but…” vocalizes a doubt or reservation that members of the audience may feel about the decision to purchase the item in question, before going on to give a persuasive follow-up that overcomes the concern.
In other situations, litotes can be used to stir up curiosity and anticipation in an audience. Hearing that “the meeting didn’t exactly turn out the way I expected,” for example, could lead your listeners to want to discover exactly how your meeting defied expectations.
Third, there are times when using litotes while narrating a story can be a way to show a character being caught off guard, being surprised by some unexpected turn of events. In cases where you may be narrating the story from a particular character’s point of view (or from your own, if you’re describing something that happened to you), you can imagine a case where pessimistic expectations meet an unexpectedly positive outcome–the meeting being “not terrible,” for example.
Lastly, litotes, combined with adjectives, can create a feeling of a euphemism. Someone being “not entirely unattractive,” or an event being “not a complete disaster” leads the audience to wonder just how bad the outcomes really were, and can make them eager to want to hear more.
A few important notes:
Especially considering how litotes can rely on irony, it’s important that your use of them never comes off as mean spirited or sarcastic in a way that alienates your audience.
PERSONIFICATION: describes ideas and things with human characteristics. It’s often used to add color and memorable imagery to everyday things or events.
The wind howled
The story jumped off the page
Time Waits for No One
Why it works:
Personification can achieve multiple benefits when sprinkled into a speech.
When using it in storytelling, it can help to set the mood, by creating a more evocative scene; wind howling, fog creeping, the sun glaring down. Because the description is more vivid, it becomes easier for the audience to turn your words into a mini movie they can play in their heads while you speak, which will ultimately help them to feel more connected and emotionally engaged with your message, story and characters.
In other cases, you can use personification as a way to communicate a general message or idea. The other side “blinked first.” Opportunity “knocks.” “Time races past.”
Relatedly, because personification creates a strong visual image, it can be a great way to make a message or lesson more memorable and engaging. Most of us remember an image much more strongly than words alone, so being instructed to “strike while the iron is hot,” or being reminded that “she who pays the piper calls the tune,” can be much more memorable than sharing the same lessons matter-of-factly, without visual language.
A few important notes:
As much as personification can add color and energy to your speaking, it’s important that it never comes at the cost of clarity. If your expression isn’t immediately obvious to your audience, you risk confusing them, which could have a domino effect of having them misunderstand a point that is crucial to the rest of your speech.
Additionally, it’s important for your use of personification to not come off as overly “artistic.” When you use a term that strikes the audience as melodramatic or theatrical, it can feel less like you’re having an authentic connection with your audience, and more like you’re performing at a poetry event. You can avoid this by not overusing personification, and striking to commonly used expressions (“the pulse of the nation”, “the times are calling out for,” “the banks flexed their muscle,” etc.)
PLEONASM: are expressions that create emphasis by doubling down on description, using seemingly redundant wording.
Why it works:
Pleonasms are a great way to shout to your audience that you REALLY mean what you say. Oftentimes, certain words or expressions can “lose their edge” over time, so pleonasms can add extra emphasis to make your description more vivid and intense.
A few important notes:
Pleonasms definitely give native English speakers an advantage, since there are plenty of combinations of potential pleonasms that simply sound “off” or strange, despite being technically as acceptable as other, more pleasant sounding pleonasms. If English is not your first language, it may be a good idea to check your pleonasm with a native speaker before implementing it into your speech.
SYNECDOCHE: can sound like a much more complicated idea than it really is. Synecdoche is a rhetorical device in which you replace a word with another, such that a part of a thing is used as a synonym for the entirety.
Using “boots” to refer to soldiers (“We need more boots on the ground” = “we need more soldiers in the region.”)
“I bought a new pair of wheels” (Wheels representing a vehicle, of which wheels are only a part of the whole)
Why it works:
Using synecdoche can be a very useful tool to add verbal variety into your presentation. Many speakers may find difficulty avoiding the reuse of a particular word related to the topic of their presentation, but repeated overuse of the same expression can sometimes become repetitive to an audience. Synecdoche expands your descriptive options and allows you to inject more variety into your presentation.
Additionally, many synecdoche expressions may be able to clearly communicate an idea in very few words, allowing you to more succinctly convey an image or express an idea.
A few important notes:
To avoid any risk of confusion for your audience, focus on examples of synecdoche that are commonly used and understood expressions. Attempting to invent your own expression, or using an example unfamiliar with your listeners, simply invites too much unnecessary risk.
Related to this, be extra careful with synecdoche when speaking to diverse or international audiences who may not be familiar with English idioms–no need to invite unnecessary confusion.
ZEUGMA: originally meant “to join” in Greek, and its function in rhetoric fills a similar role. Zeugma connects two or more words in a way in which the “connecting word” applies to each of the words it connects to in a different way. Like some of the other examples we’ve covered, it sounds somewhat more complicated than it really is. While using it may take some creativity, it can be a great way to create a truly unique and memorable expression.
He opened his door and his heart to the stray kitten.
She arrived in a rain-soaked jacket and a rage.
He got to work, fueled by ambition and caffeine.
“They…covered themselves in dust and glory”
-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
“Yet time and her aunt moved slowly — and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn out before the tete-a-tete was over.”
-Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
Why it works:
Zeugma, at its best, communicates in a way that is unexpected, vivid and succinct–the perfect combination for memorable material.
Zeugma also has the benefit of creating content that is “more than the sum of its parts.” When “she arrived in a rain-soaked jacket and a rage,” in just ten words, we can close our eyes and imagine nearly an entire short story of how one led to the other.
In some cases, it can create drama and intensity–”He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men” (Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried. McClelland & Stewart, 1990). In other cases, it can take an idea, like a strained relationship, and transform it into something that feels so visual and real that we can almost picture it playing out like a movie–“We were partners, not soul mates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life.” (Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses. Ivy Books, 1995)
In general, zeugma is a severely underused tool in modern public speaking, which can make it all the more striking and powerful when you put it to use.
A few important notes:
Zeugma is somewhat tricky to use correctly, since it occurs specifically when a word connects to two other words in different ways–a distinction that may not always be obvious.
“We must examine the data and our prejudices” is NOT an example of zeugma, for instance, since we would be reflecting on both the data and our prejudice in a similar fashion, and there is not a contextual break between the two. Conversely, opening our door and our heart IS an example of zeugma, since the connotations of physically opening our door (HOPEFULLY!) doesn’t carry over to us physically opening our hearts, and doors are hearts ARE contextually different things.
Once you do become comfortable with the formatting of zeugma, the other point to be cautious of is the risk of sounding unnatural or overly theatrical. Zeugma is already extremely uncommon in daily speech, but using words or tones that may sound over-the-top, needlessly unusual, or (worst of all) more “clever” than “clear” risks losing all of the benefits zeugma offers in the first place. If you can hear the expression and not immediately have a story play in your head, you need to rework it until it does.
DIAZEUGMA: looks vaguely similar to zeugma, but it has a very different use in your presentations. Diazeugma refers to a sentence structure that uses one subject to accompany numerous verbs.
“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”[Text Wrapping Break](Inaugural address of John F. Kennedy)
Joseph grabs the ball, swerves left, drives forward, makes the shot, scores![Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Why it works:
In the first example, the use of diazeugma combined with the repetitive structure of each clause, creates a powerful sense of resoluteness and resolve. It creates the effect of a series of oaths, the multiplicity of which adds to their seriousness and solemnity.
[Text Wrapping Break]The second example is more common in day to day use–most often by sports-casters doing play-by-play commentating on a game. Since it’s a pattern we’re already familiar with hearing in that setting, it can be a great way to tap into that same nail-biting energy in your stories–especially when your story naturally builds to a “goal” like crescendo.
A few important notes:
When you’re integrating diazeugma as it’s used in the first example, be careful not to have each individual section be too long, or to have too many connected clauses. At some point, a sentence can become so long or so wordy that it completely loses its punch and power.
When you’re using more of a “play-by-play” application of diazeugma, keep in mind that one of the major goals is typically to build up momentum. Avoid situations where your use of diazeugma feels like a “bridge to nowhere,” and fails to lead to a satisfying climax.
The typical need for a play-by-play diazeugma to build up to a climax doesn’t exclude the opportunity to subvert expectations, if it’s done intentionally and with a clear understanding of what your audience is anticipating. Rising tension…rising tension…rising tension…and…SWERVE! These can serve as the rhetorical equivalent of a jump scare, and should be used sparingly and carefully.
ANTANAGOGE: You may have been taught “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Antanagoge offers a different idea. With antanagoge, you combine a negative statement with a positive one, to soften the overall impact.
“It might not be much, but it’s home.”
“He drives me crazy sometimes, but I love him.”
Why it works:
At its best, antanagoge can make a speaker seem disarmingly unpretentious, unfiltered, and unguarded.
In many situations, when you’re referring to something about yourself, or something you were involved in (“our first version of the product was honestly really embarrassing, but…”) it opens the door to discussing positives while still exuding humility. This can be connected to teaching important lessons related to the two contrasting statements (“your first version doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it….”).
In storytelling, this can also be a great way to put us into the frame of mind of a character (“She knew the relationship was toxic, but…”).
It can also be a lead-in to encourage an audience to look at a point from a new perspective, or challenge some of their existing biases (“It’s slow, and boring, and annoying…but it’s also the most important step if you truly want to be successful.”).
A few important notes:
Cases where antanagoge goes wrong typically falls into two cases:
1)Being OVERLY negative. When a speaker is referring to themselves, you can see this happen when they try to go for “self deprecating humor” — poking fun at themselves — but doing it in a way that cuts deep enough that the audience worries that the speaker genuinely has some problematic self esteem issues. This tends to be particularly common with speakers mocking their own physical appearance.
Naturally, it should hopefully go without saying that using antanagoge to “playfully” mock another person or group in with a similar negative vibe should be done very cautiously. Even if someone is presented as a full-on villain in your story, mocking a physical trait about them may deeply alienate you to anyone in the room that might happen to share those physical issues, or who suffers from being self conscious about their appearance in general.
2)Being unrelatable. This can cover a few areas.
Firstly, “champagne problems.” If the negative you’re listing off sounds like you’re dissatisfied with something petty or irrelevant, and potentially makes your audience feel alienated to you and your lifestyle, you’re probably in trouble.
[Text Wrapping Break]This might seem painfully obvious (don’t complain about how bad your 5 course meal was on your business class flight to an audience of ordinary folks), the truth is that it’s a surprisingly easy trap to fall into. In general, always pause and ask yourself “is the negative I’m referencing going to come off as a ‘humble-brag’ to anyone in my audience?”
If so, potentially reconsider the way you’re telling the story.
The second way antanagoge can come off as unrelatable is when it seems exaggerated or insincere.
As a rule of thumb, using superlatives (the WORST, the MOST UNIMAGINABLY TERRIBLE) is always going to run the risk of leading you into theatricality. Suddenly, you’re not an incredibly compelling speaker having a deep, profoundly authentic connection with your audience; you’re a performer, putting on a show. Avoid this at all costs–if you’re using superlatives, only use them when they’re genuine–when that pizza REALLY WAS the worst smelling thing you’d ever eaten. Your audience will feel the difference.
EPIZEUXIS: is another term you’re unlikely to have heard of, for a speech pattern you’re certain to have used before. Epizeuxis simply refers to the repetition of a word for emphasis. It’s one of the simplest techniques, but it can be powerful in the right circumstances.
Never, never, never!
More, more more!
Why it works:
When we use epizeuxis in real life, it’s typically in situations where we’re feeling a strong wave of emotion. You should use it similarly in your speech, when you want to express an emotional crescendo. It can create a sense of genuinely felt frustration, rage, obsession, hunger–the potential is only limited to your imagination.
A few important notes:
The emotional explosion of an epizeuxis needs to feel earned and genuine. If the use of it feels out of place or inauthentic, it has the potential to backfire. Also, as much as epizeuxis should feel like an emotional moment of catharsis, it can sometimes be a good idea to practice it with a test audience to avoid it being “over the top” and descend into theatricality.
HYPOPHORA: like aporia, hypophora involves asking a question. Unlike aporia, the question isn’t used to present an argument to overcome, or feigned doubt. Instead, the question is frequently used as a framing device, to prepare the audience for the next phase of your speech, in which you answer the question.
What are the best ways for each of us here today to contribute to the solution? What steps can we take at the local, regional, and national level, to make a positive impact?[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]What are the five biggest mistakes that most new entrepreneurs make, and what can you do to avoid them?
Why it works:
Hypophora is one of the most common techniques for priming your audience for the content of your speech. As the final section of your introduction, it allows you to create a clear roadmap of what questions your speech will be answered. By doing this, as we’ve covered earlier, it helps to put your audience at ease, since they can better gauge where you’re going, understand what your end goal is, and continuously gauge how far along they are on the path you’ve created for them.
A few important notes:
Your audience needs to genuinely care about the questions you’re asking them. In most cases, it’s crucial to use the various techniques we’ve covered to craft stories and emotional hooks before employing hypophora, to make them genuinely curious and invested in wanting to know the answers to the questions you’re posing to them.
OXYMORON: is the combination of two words together that seem to suggest contradictory ideas. In literature, oxymoron is often used to express sarcasm, but in a speech setting, it’s most effectively used to create ideas that are “more than the sum of their parts.”
A beautiful mess
We were alone, together.
A deafening silence.
Why it works:
In most cases, you’ll want to use oxymorons that have become idioms, to communicate an idea in a succinct and interesting way. When we hear expressions like “beautiful mess” or “deafening silence,” it can create a strong visual image.
Other instances, like being “alone, together,” despite not being an idiom, are also effective–operating in this role similar to zeugma. Hearing the words combined instantly creates a mini-story in the minds of listeners, which can carry powerful and personal emotions with it. These can be harder to craft, since they require a careful balance of creativity and clarity (if your oxymoron isn’t clearly understood, it can’t possibly create an image in your listener’s minds), but it can be quite impactful if done correctly.
A few important notes:
Firstly, you’re typically best off avoiding sarcastic usages of oxymoron. Joking about “military intelligence” or “government intelligence,” being oxymorons is a great way to severely offend or alienate any audience members with friends or family in either profession.
Secondly, if you’re trying to use your oxymoron to “paint a picture” of a person or situation, generally try to focus on uses of oxymoron that are common enough to be universally known, or simple enough language that your creative use of it will not risk any confusion.
One last note–oxymoron as a rhetorical technique isn’t necessarily limited to simply combining two words. It can also represent combining two ideas which seem contradictory in a single phrase. For instance:[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”[Text Wrapping Break](Mark Twain)
“A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”[Text Wrapping Break](Samuel Godwin)
METAPHOR: is something most of us learned about early into our English classes; a figure of speech that compares two different things that share at least one aspect in common. In the process, it direction’s attention to the ways in which the two are similar, frequently to encourage the reader or listener to think of the subject in a particular way or frame an idea in a particular light.
Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.
Austin O’Malley’s Keystones of Thought
He was my rock.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 28 August 1963
In the boardroom, she was a shark.
Why it works:
Metaphors are possibly the most common rhetorical device in the English language. Most of us use metaphors multiple times a day–sometimes, we use it so often that we barely catch ourselves doing it.
In some cases, metaphors are a kind of shorthand–when you describe someone as a shark in a boardroom, your audience can quickly discern multiple points about your subject: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, a pitiless hunter, etc. It helps that in this case, there is a history of relating aggressive business personalities to sharks, so the metaphor can be quickly and easily understood with minimal risk of confusion.
When you’re using metaphors in this way, the technique is effective for its brevity. It packs a lot of meaning in very few words.
Other times, metaphors can be a great way to add striking visual imagery into a speech, making a description jump to life in the imagination of your audience.
Perhaps the most challenging, but most impactful use of metaphor, however, is to inspire a new perspective on an old idea.
When Austin O’Malley describes memory as “a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food,” we’re presented with an image loaded with layers of meaning. We have to agree that hoarding rags, with no apparent value, while tossing away the things that enrich us and make us stronger, is irrational and destructive. Yet, O’Malley suggests this is what each of us do every day; our memories clinging to irrelevant (or even painful) details, while ignoring or discarding the things that could value or enrich us.
The power of this technique–similar to the strength of similes described earlier–is that, once we agree with the “moral” of the metaphor, then as long as we agree with the similarity between the metaphor and the topic, we therefore must agree that the lesson carries over to the main subject. In other words, if we can see that it’s irrational to keep rags and throw away food, and we can imagine how this is a reference to our memories, then we have to agree that it’s equally irrational when our minds undergo the same habits.
This can be a great way to challenge a sticky or controversial subject. By creating a parallel example or image that your audience can agree with, you can stir the imagination of your audience to consider your main topic from the new vantage point and perhaps reconsider an idea–without necessarily making them feel as though their old perspective is being directly threatened or triggering a defensive (and possibly hostile) reaction.
Ultimately, the visual nature of metaphor–the fact that it takes an idea and turns it into a clear picture for the mind to imagine–makes it an incredibly potent tool for any speaker, and can leave a strong impression long after the speaker has left the stage.
A subcategory of metaphor is metonymy. With metonymy, a speaker uses a metaphor for a subject that is closely related to the subject itself.
The White House changed its policy (‘White House’ being metonymy for “The President”)
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Shakespeare’s “ (‘Ears’ being metonymy for “attention”)
The pen is mightier than the sword (‘Pen’ being metonymy for ‘words’ or ‘communication’
And sword being metonymy for ‘violence’ or ‘weapons’)
Why it work:
Metonymy and synecdoche fulfill very similar functions in a presentation; they allow a speaker to avoid using the same words repeatedly.
In doing so, metonymy can help a presenter seem “better spoken” and add color to the speech.
A few important notes
As with synecdoche, avoid getting overly creative with metonymy–if you’re using it to make a connection that may be unclear for your audience, you risk confusing or alienating them.
SIMILE: We all had to learn about it in English class, but the truth is that similes can be even more useful in your speech than they were in your poetry assignments. A simile, in case you need a friendly reminder, is a technique that compares two seemingly unrelated things together, most commonly connected with “as” or “like.”
We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Martin Luthor King Junior
Blind as a bat
Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe
Why it works:
In some cases, similes can help create a superlative, to give your expression more dynamism, creativity and intensity (ie being “blind as a bat,” describing an event as being “quick as lightning,” as “slow as a sloth,” etc.).
Perhaps the most powerful use of simile, however, is taking ideas and concepts, and turning it into a powerful visual that can stick in the mind of your audience long after your presentation.
The problem with discussing ideas is that we are naturally programmed to think in visuals. When a speaker describes more abstract concepts, listeners are typically left without any easy visualizations to imagine. That gap often leads to listeners being subconsciously distracted imagining other things, and in doing so becoming disengaged from the speaker.
Fortunately, when you use a simile, you avoid this trap. Suddenly, listeners have an image or even a story they can connect to your argument or idea, making it instantly more memorable and stimulating.
This imagery also has another advantage–it can add to the persuasiveness of your idea. If worrying really is like paying a debt you don’t owe, and I can clearly imagine and understand that it would be foolish to pay an unowed debt, then I have no choice but to concede that worrying must not make sense, either.
Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, simile can influence the emotions an audience associates with an otherwise neutral idea or concept. When justice flows like a mighty river, suddenly
A few important notes:
Once again, the question of “would you use this in a 1-on-1 conversation with a good friend?” works as a valuable litmus test here.
This is especially true when you’re using similes as superlatives; if your simile would sound out of place, over exaggerated, or like a strange use of language in an intimate setting, you’re often best avoiding it in your presentation.
As a tool to enhance the descriptiveness of a scene or event, it’s especially important that the visual image you create is crisp, clear, easily visualized, and adds to your audience’s understanding. Describing your plane as “soaring like an eagle,” for example, wouldn’t really fit the bill, since it doesn’t suggest any unique attributes that wouldn’t already be captured by the existing mental image of the plane soaring.
SCESIS ONOMATON: Scesis onomaton falls into two categories; Firstly, it can be the repetition of two or more different expressions, with identical meanings, in a single sentence. Secondly, it can also be defined as a series of phrases or sentences which also share identical meanings.
I had a horrible, awful, miserable, disastrous date.
This is going to be amazingly hard. Brutally painful. Unbelievably difficult. Incredibly challenging.
You’ve been tricked. Lied to. Deceived.
Why it works:
Scesis Onomaton uses repetition to create a sense of energy and emphasis. The speaker is literally “doubling down” (or in this case, tripling or quadrupling down) on a point or idea.
The repetition can be a very effective tool to showcase the magnitude or importance of the topic being discussed.
A few important notes :
Because scesis can be so effective at stressing a point, it’s important that the idea being emphasized is “worthy” of the attention you’re giving it. If it feels like there’s a gap between how hard you’re emphasizing a point, and the actual weight or magnitude of what’s being discussed, it can make you come off as exaggerating over-the-top.
As well, it’s usually a good idea not to stretch the repetition out too far. Piling on the expressions one after another can start to feel exhausting and obnoxious is overdone.
TRICOLON: related to the “rule of three” we’ve spoken about earlier. Tricolons turn this principle into a rhetorical device.
When you’re using a tricolon, you’re dividing a sentence into three clearly defined segments, typically of roughly equal length.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I will learn.”[Text Wrapping Break]– Benjamin Franklin
[Text Wrapping Break]“I came, I saw, I conquered”
“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”[Text Wrapping Break]-President FDR
Why it works:
As touched on earlier, “the rule of three” is a powerful guiding principle in public speaking, so it’s no surprise that the rule extends to sentence construction. The tricolon creates a mini narrative whose three parts neatly divide into a “beginning, middle and end” that make it easy to remember and pleasant to hear. Also, because so many classical sayings and religious texts use tricolons, it can endow your point with a spirit of timeless wisdom.
A few important notes:
In many (even most) cases, you’ll want to repeat one or more words in each section of your tricolon. You’ll see this in each of the three examples; it creates a sense of flow and rhythm.
Also, each section in a tricolon should also typically move a narrative forward (arriving, exploring, conquering), or involve some form of escalation (tell me / teach me / involve me).
Lastly, keep each section of your tricolon as short as possible, to keep the overall effect “bite sized” and memorable. Similarly, make sure that each part of your tricolon is of roughly the same length, so that no one section overpowers the others and hurts the rhythm of the rhetoric.
EPANALEPSIS: is the repetition of a word or phrase in both the beginning and end of a sentence or clause. It typically used to add extra emphasis, but can also be used to demonstrate a cyclical pattern.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
-Shakespeare, Henry V, 3.1.1
The king is dead; long live the king!
Why it works:
Generally speaking, we tend to repeat things that we’re emphatic about, so the repetition in epanalepsis can create a sense of relentless intensity and momentum.
In cases like the second example, we can see epanalepsis combined with a reversal of the sentence that should remind you of another rhetorical device we’ve discussed (chiasmus). Used in this way, the circular structure of the sentence serves to reinforce the circular nature of what’s being discussed (in this case, the seamless dynasty of the king repeating from one generation to the next).
A few important notes:
Because of how rare it would be for most of us to use epanalepsis in our day to day lives, it’s important to be cautious in how we use it in our speeches. Its rarity can often make it sound “weird” or “theatrical” and insincere when it’s used for emphasis. Epanalepsis CAN work, and elicit genuine passion and emphasis, but it needs to feel genuine and earned. Use the technique only when the strong feelings it reflects are a genuine fit for the subject.
As a final point, note that epanalepsis isn’t limited to only using a word at the very beginning and very end of a sentence. The repeating words can be early and late in the sentence, respectively, and still be considered epanalepsis. The words themselves also don’t need to be exact copies of each other, either, just similar enough to clearly reflect each other.
PARALLELISM: can cover a wide range of techniques. In the broadest sense, parallelism is the repetition of similar words, phrases or structures to create a sense of balance and symmetry.
[Text Wrapping Break]Examples:
“We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight” Speech
“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”
Why it works:
Parallelism is one of the most powerful tools in a speaker’s arsenal to create a sense of structure and rhythm. As we will outline below in the subsequent breakdown of rhetorical techniques, you will see that there are many individual tools to create these parallel effects. As you become more familiar and experienced with writing and thinking in parallel structures, you will quickly see how much more memorable and clear your message can become as a result.
A few important notes:
At its best, parallelism can transform a sentence into a memorable quotation, and give it a feeling of ageless wisdom. In other cases, it can create a sense of forward momentum, clarity, and intensity. However, to be effective in those goals, your sentences should be sharp and concise. Parallels that drag on too long can go from clever to exhausting very quickly.
CONNOTATION: is another rhetorical device that we regularly use in our day-to-day lives.
Connotations are words or expressions that have two meanings; their literal meaning, and a second, well-known meaning or implication frequently related to it.
This is a house, but I want a home.
Protest vs Riot (one having a POSITIVE connotation, one having a NEGATIVE connotation)
Why it works:
When a speaker uses a word or expression that has deeper underlying meanings or implications, it allows the presenter to “say more with less.” When we hear about a character longing to go “home” after enduring a hardship, we as the audience “fill in the blanks” and understand that they are thinking of more than just returning to a physical house with which they are familiar; we can imagine that they are craving a sense of safety, warmth, and other attributes we associate with the idea of what “home” means to us.
Used in this way, you can choose your words to evoke a range of ideas, thoughts and emotions without the need for excessive additional description.
In many other cases, a speaker can choose particular expressions to create a positive, negative or neutral feeling from an audience. In the example above, both a riot and a protest are both simply a form of demonstration; yet “riot” sounds volatile, dangerous, and uncivilized, while “protest” (generally) sounds empowering, democratic, and positive.
The more aware you are of the power of a word’s connotations to influence the mood and tone it sets, the more consciously you as a speaker can choose the best possible words and expressions to create the atmosphere that best supports your values and message.
A few important notes:
As hinted at above, the key to employing connotations effectively is to first be aware and conscious of the implications of your words in the first place. Too often, a speaker may not be aware of the unfortunate and / or unintended implications certain words or expressions may have to different listeners, especially outside of their own communities and demographics. Naturally, this challenge becomes even more difficult for a non-native speaker, or someone with limited experience with cross-cultural communication.
If possible, receiving diverse feedback on your speech, before you have to officially deliver it, can be a way to examine your speech from a different perspective, and potentially catch any unintentionally negative connotations. Similarly, it can be an effective solution to spot any “obvious” or “universal” connotations which may not necessarily be clear or understood by a more diverse audience.
EPITHET: is a nickname or descriptive term used to refer to someone, somewhere or something. As a rhetorical device, it can be a powerful way to create a “sticky” mental image or association for a subject you’re speaking on.
-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
-Homer, The Odyssey
“Once again, Flip-Flopping Flloyd has changed his position on the issue.”
“The Land of Smiles”
Why it works:
At their best, epithets can create powerful, visually and emotionally evocative images in a listener in very few words. Superman’s longtime epithet as “the man of steel,” implies strength, durability, and an unbreakable nature, which may carry over to both his physical and moral attributes.
Relatedly, visually impactful epithets for places or things can be a powerful way to transport listeners into the world of your description, adding layers of feeling and sensation that help to make your story come to life for your audience.
Commonly known epithets can also be a way to play with expectations in ironic ways. Perhaps a company has a slogan or epithet that denotes a sense of joy and compassion, and the story of your experience presents a wildly different experience. This contrast has the potential to be comedic, or even emotional and tragic, depending on the nature of your story.
Lastly, for better or worse, epithets can additionally be a way to limit and focus the scope of an audience. Using epithets with diminutive characteristics that draw attention to one particular, usually negative trait, can be a strategy to draw attention away from other more flattering aspects.
A few important notes:
There always needs to be a balance between finding language that can be visually and emotionally impactful, and taking your creative language so far that it makes your presentation feel more like poetry or a performance than a real, raw, “human to human” connection.
While it may be obvious in most cases, you never want to use epithets that risk offending your audience, or epithets that evoke such unpleasant imagery that they may create a negative experience for your listeners. Similarly, in the vast majority of cases, you’ll want to avoid epithets that bully or insult its subject (unless it explicitly fits into a narrative, such as a character who receives an insulting epithet from their peers ultimately overcoming their hardships and finding success).
As with many other rhetorical tools, you also want to be mindful that your use of epithet doesn’t require a background or familiarity that your particular audience may not actually possess in order to be clearly understood. For instance, in the Odyssey, Homer uses the epithet “Gray-Eyed Athena.” In his time, audiences would have clearly known that “gray-eyed” was an expression that denoted Athena’s ability to see truth clearly and without obstruction. However, if you were to use the term in a modern audience, it’s fair to say that most of your listeners would not be able to make this connection, causing confusion.
CLIMAX: in rhetoric, climax referees to the ordering of words so that they build up in intensity and/or importance. It can be a powerful tool for generating focus, momentum, and energy.
Look at the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! Superman!
-Jerry Seagel, Adventures of Superman
“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
Why it works:
By definition, a climax is a buildup in momentum. When you’re organizing your words and ideas into the structure of a climax, you’re tapping into that momentum, and giving your message your delivery both a sense of clear structure, and a powerful sense of forward movement. The rhythm of such lines can also create a hypnotic drumbeat, building up louder or faster with greater and greater intensity. This crescendo demands attention, reflecting a sense of importance and enthusiasm.
A few important notes:
While a climax can consist of statements containing 3 or more segments, it’s generally a good idea to avoid stretching it out into so many parts that an audience gets exhausted, bored, or overwhelmed. You never want to feel like you’re going “on and on,” since at a certain point of build up, it can start to feel “over the top” and starts to call attention to itself as a technique.
You also want to make sure that your segments genuinely build up in importance, weight, or intensity, and clearly interconnect or flow into one another in such a way that the organization of your examples feels logical and intuitive.
Of note, you can also have fun flipping the script and subverting the expectations of your audience by building up to an “anticlimax,” where either the final point is the least impressive or impactful, or where the entire structure goes from most dramatic to least dramatic. This is generally done for comedic effect or to let the audience personally feel the same sense of surprise that you or your character may have felt when an expected outcome failed to build up to the anticipated result.
In covering such a wide range of rhetorical devices, the goal is to equip you with an understanding of the tricks and tools used to produce particular effects with your choice of words and the way you communicate your ideas.
The more familiar and intuitive these techniques become, the easier you can “reverse engineer” great speeches to understand the specific rhetorical devices that were used to generate particular effects on their audiences. In turn, the more you can apply your understanding of rhetoric to understand such speeches on a deeper level, the easier you can tap into what made them so powerful, and inject that same potency into your own speeches.
PART 3: DELIVERY
Introduction to Delivery
“It’s not (just) what you say–it’s how you say it.”
In our final section, we’ll be exploring ways to improve your delivery–the body language, movement, and vocals to bring your speech to life.
Some speakers imagine that there is a guide that can provide the “perfect” outlines for exactly what they should do with their hands; exactly how to move around the stage; precisely the tone they should in a key moment.
To be sure, we’ll definitely be going over some advice you can immediately put to use to address exactly some of those questions, and a whole lot more.
At the end of the day, though, I don’t want you to “lose the forest in the trees.” In other words, while we focus on some specific techniques and pieces of advice, you always need to keep in mind the core, founding principal–congruency.
At the center of every technique, and every piece of advice we’ll be looking at, is the singular focus on having your what you say match how you say it.
Talking about something mundane, in a dramatic tone or flamboyant hand gestures?
It’s going to feel off. Phony. Theatrical.
Acting out parts of your story in a way that you would never honestly do in real life, if you were having a 1-on-1 conversation? Again–it’s going to be obvious to your audience that you’re “putting on a show,” and that’s going to shatter the sense from your audience that they’re hearing an authentic message.
Conversely, are you talking about something heavy, emotional, tragic, or extraordinary, with a tone or body language that sounds like you’re reading the tax code? Or performing at amateur night improv? It’s not going to work, for exactly the same reason.
When your tone and your body language seem genuinely authentic and organic–when your audience imagines that you’re channels the real, raw emotion of the stories you’re sharing, as if they were happening to you in that moment; when your listeners feel as though you’re having an unfiltered conversation with each one of them, personally, *that’s* when you’ve succeeded in your delivery.
The individual techniques and advice that help you get there, and avoid bad or distracting habits, are just the road signs–giving your audience a sense of authenticity, by making your words, tone, and movement congruent with one another–that’s the destination.
SECTION 1: MOVEMENT
Introduction to movement and body language
Movement is life.
When you watch someone talk about a subject they’re genuinely passionate about, what do you see? A twinkle in their eye, a shift in their voice–they just look more…”animated.”
A big part of that sense of someone being animated, excited, and passionate is their body language. It’s as if they’re so excited and so moved by the story they need to tell, that it literally bubbles over into how they move their hands, how they stand, how they carry themselves.
By contrast, just the thought of someone standing still, not moving their body or their arms, immediately creates a mental image of “low energy.” You can close your eyes and almost hear a monotonous, semi disinterested voice.
If *you* don’t come across as excited, enthusiastic, and passionate about your subject–why should anyone else be? Why should your audience bother to get engaged in your material, or be persuaded by your argument, if you don’t seem to be?
What’s more, animated body language–done right, and we’ll get into that later–breeds trust. When we’re seeing someone speaking on a subject that’s close to their heart, or that they strongly believe in, we just naturally expect to see their body language reflect that same level of intensity. When there’s a contrast between the emotions or the ideas that a speaker is expressing, and their body language, there’s an almost instant sense of something being “off.” What you’re saying and how you’re saying it aren’t congruent, and it’s a surefire way to make your audience feel ill at ease. At worst, it can make an audience doubt your integrity.
For most speakers, the main issue I have to address is to open up more–be more animated and more energetic with their hands, movements, and general body language. It *is* definitely possible, however, to be *too* animated–where your physical actions and energy level come across as a mismatch for your content or tone. In those cases, you ultimately have the same issue–it makes a speaker look less genuine and more like they’re “putting on a show.” In the discussions ahead, we’ll deal with both of these extremes, and everything in between.
While this section will dive into a variety of elements of body language, it’s important to understand the key takeaway. The most important two words in this entire opening on body language were CONGRUENCY and AUTHENTICITY. The real, ultimate goal of becoming more aware of your body language is–ironically–to have your body language on stage mirror the same body language you probably already have naturally, when you’re speaking to a good friend about a subject you’re passionate about. When you can do that, your presentation stops feeling “low energy” at one extreme or “stagey” on the other, and starts feeling real, raw, vulnerable, and genuine.
To begin, we’ll be looking at a key–but often overlooked–aspect of effective body language: how you use your hands.
Especially for people who generally gesticulate less often–who typically don’t talk much with their hands–there can be a lot of confusion of how to use hand and arm movements effectively and naturally in a speech.
Like all other elements of body language, one of the keys to using hand gestures effectively is for them to be congruent with the energy and content of the speech. In other words, an audience gets thrown off by huge, sweeping gestures that seem to go way above and beyond the energy level of what you’re saying, or, conversely, hand and arm movement that seems limp and lifeless when a speaker is trying to sound engaged and passionate.
As a guiding principle, I would advise you to think back to times when you were excitedly describing a subject or telling a story to a close friend you felt comfortable with. Try to close your eyes and image–what kind of hand gestures were you using? How did you move your arms?
The more you can tap into your own natural, comfortable use of hand gestures and movement, the less “stagey” you have to worry about your movement looking. If a gesture or a position with your hands will feel “weird” or awkward when you try to picture yourself using it when you’re talking to someone you’re close to about something you’re enthusiastic about, you should probably scale it back to something that would feel more natural.
Using this as a rule of thumb can dramatically change and improve the choices you make for gesturing.
For example, the painfully common “karate chop” or “hammer fist” gestures you see all too many inexperienced or untrained speakers making. Often, you’ll see the same movement repeated, two or three times, to lend some kind of “dramatic emphasis” to whatever the speaker happens to be saying. Now, can you ever imagine yourself, talking to a close friend, randomly karate chopping the air or pounding your fist in mid conversation? Probably not–in 99% of conversations, you’d look and feel completely ridiculous. You look just as ridiculous doing it in a public speech.
The same holds true for gestures like aggressive pointing, huge, sweeping, outstretched arm positions, or any other gesture or movement that would “feel weird” in an animated one-on-one conversation.
The Big Picture
In the last section, we gave a basic introduction to the do’s and don’ts of hand movements and gesturing. The biggest takeaway–using your hands is important to give off energy and build a connection with your audience, but a major key is to make your movements feel genuine and not overstated.
To carry on with that theme, it’s important to discuss why certain types of gesturing works better than others.
In theory, using hand gestures correctly can sound like something that should be intuitive–oftentimes, it’s something as simple as using a gesture that mirrors a word or description that a speaker is giving. It’s easy and natural to imagine a speaker motioning their thumb and pointer finger together as they describe adding “just a little bit” of an ingredient; grabbing their chest as they describe the moment their heart was broken by a lover; one by one, slightly outstretching their arms, with palms up, as they compare between two choices.
Yet, even just trying to imagine other gestures, trying to be a reflection of the words of a speaker, can make them come off as strange, excessive, or even ridiculous. Picture someone gesturing a baseball swing when describing hitting a “home run” business deal. A speaker cupping their hands around their eyes like binoculars as they describe the need to “look far into the horizon for opportunities.”
Why do these examples feel so obviously “off” when you picture them?
For starters, it’s a pretty reliable rule to avoid “miming” gestures. In other words, it’s one thing to use your hands to “paint a picture” — to slightly extend your hand, open palm, when you’re describing a need to “reach out” — it’s another thing to look like you’re auditioning for mime school.
Again, if a gesture would be too exaggerated to use in an emotional one-on-one conversation, it’s usually too exaggerated to use in your presentation.
So, at this point, it’s abundantly clear–keep your gestures natural and avoid over-exaggerated movements. But that still leaves some major unanswered questions.
Let’s start by addressing the biggest elephant in the room–what are some natural-looking, effective gestures and techniques you can use with your arms and hands?
Some of the answers to this, as we’ve hinted at in the past two sections, might be pretty intuitive. There are relatively obvious, universal gestures to make for “tall” or “stretched,” for example, that would feel normal and appropriate in everyday conversation (in many cultures). But what should you be doing with your hands for less obvious words or paragraphs? For that matter, what should you be doing with your hands when you’re not using them for emphasis? Where should they be positioned?
The first thing to remember is that you’re using your hands for emphasis–to give energy or weight to a word or idea you’re communicating. By extension, since you’re using your gesturing for emphasis, it wouldn’t make any more sense to have a gesture for every word and paragraph anymore than it would make sense to shout every word of a presentation. Just like raising your voice, if it’s overdone, it can become exhausting and frankly counterproductive.
General rules aside, let’s get to the good stuff–specific examples of common, effective gestures and gesticulations.
1)Greetings: slightly outstretched arms, open palms.
With palms open and arms slightly outstretched, you are giving off an open, positive body language, signaling that you have nothing to hide. It also resembles similar body language to reaching out to give someone a hug, which subconsciously communicates inclusiveness and warmth.
2)Counting: Obvious, or awkward?
It’s fairly common to see it suggested that a speaker should use their fingers to numerate, or generally when using numbers in their presentation. Common examples might be to physically stick up three fingers when suggesting “We are going to explore *three* (sticks out three fingers) ideas today.”
I disagree quite strongly. This looks unnatural–ask yourself, how strange would you feel when speaking to a waiter and exclaiming “I want two (stick out two fingers) cups of coffee!”
Now, cultural mileage may vary, and there may be some regions in the world where such gestures would be perfectly normal, but for most of us…you’d look and feel pretty strange.
On the other hand, where I *do* believe that using your fingers in relation to numbers and counting can be effective and natural, is when you’re breaking down a list point by point. In other words, something like this:
” We’re going to explore three ideas today. First (stick out one finger / thumb), is chocolate, in fact, the most popular flavor of ice cream. Second, (stick out two fingers)…”
Why the distinction? Because one is much more natural than the other. You can close your eyes, and imagine a good friend, so emotional and animated when they’re discussing all of the chores their spouse forgot to do over the week, that they begin to use their fingers as they list them off to you. (FIRST he didn’t do the laundry…THEN he didn’t clean the dishes….THEN he finished putting the groceries away…)
Now, try to picture that same person, coming up to you, equally emotional and animated, and saying “Let me tell you the THREE (sticks out three fingers) things that John didn’t do today.”
Even just trying to imagine the latter, it feels much less natural and realistic.
And as we’ll hammer down on, again and again, the key to great hand gestures and arm movements is for them to feel as natural as possible.
3)Emphasis Words and accompanying gestures:
It’s natural to want to use your hands to reflect verbal stresses. For example:
“This small decision proved to be extremely important”
In this case, it would be effective to gesture on both “extremely” and “important,” so that your body language remains congruent with your inflection and verbal stress.
THE CHEAT SHEET: Keeping it simple
Overall, there’s a few simple rules you can’t go wrong with:
1)You typically don’t want to repeat a gesture more than two consecutive times. If you need to place emphasis on your words on three occasions in rapid succession, it is more natural to the audience to make a slight change to your gesturing or body language for the third piece of emphasis.
2)“Keep it real.” As we’ve mentioned, one of the most important parts of making gestures effective in your presentation is having them feel organic, and congruent with the idea that they’re being used to emphasize.
3)Make sure the rest of your body language is aligning naturally with your gestures. For instance, let’s say you’re calling on the audience to take action. By the very nature of the line, “We need to take action now” is reaching out to the audience, trying to actively engage them personally.
What would someone’s body language look like, if they were having this conversation with you one on one? If what they were asking you to do was something extremely important to them, you might see them leaning in closer when they ask, to make the favor that much more personal and trying to build that much stronger of a connection in the moment.
It’s a small change, but it helps to give your body language a consistent, singular impression. The more congruent your body language is, the more honest and genuine you’ll seem to your audience.
Now, we’ve reviewed at length about hand gestures and how to move your hands–but what should you be doing with your hands when you’re *not* gesticulating?
Here are some common positions you SHOULD STOP DOING IMMEDIATELY:
1)Hands at your side: We’ve all seen a speaker that kept their arms limply positioned on their sides during much of their presentation (or even worse, in their pockets). This quite literally makes a speaker look “as stiff as a board” communicates extremely low levels of energy and engagement. Avoid like the plague.
2)Hands over groin: Less common than hands on sides, but just as awful. Sometimes referred to as the “fig leaf” position (for the hands resembling a fig leaf covering the groin), it projects an immediate image of weakness, insecurity, and defensiveness. Because it’s very uncommon to see in everyday use, it also draws the audience’s attention to the groin, which is probably not the intention of most speakers.
3)Hands behind podium: Obviously only relevant in cases where a speaker is in front of a podium. It’s surprisingly common to see speakers keep their hands and arms hidden behind the podium, which has the same effect as a speaker putting their hands in their pocket. It gives the impression that the speaker has “something to hide” or is insecure–both body language to be avoided.
4)Hands coming together to form the “steeple position”: If you’re exposed to speeches and presentations on a regular basis, you’ve probably seen someone put their hands into the steeple position–as if their fingertips were coming together to make the pointed roof of a house.
The position of the hands can make a speaker appear ill at ease, stiff, distant, or artificial. It’s very rare to see an effective speaker use it–and for good reason.
On the other hand (no pun intended), what are natural and effective positions for your hands when you’re not gesticulating?
Generally, you want to keep your hands hoisted in front of you, with your elbows bent at approximately 90 degree angles. You also want your palms turned upward slightly.
One of the reasons for this in being a very effective “starting position” is because it reduces the range of motion for your hands and arms when you gesticulate to make a point, which can often make the flourish look and feel more natural to the audience then having to dramatically reposition your hands and arms to make a point.
As a variant, it can also be effective to keep one hand in this position, while leaving the other one relaxed at your side, specifically in cases where your “active hand” (the hand not at your side) is doing the majority of the gesticulation.
Just be mindful that you don’t only want to use one hand during your presentation–while it’s perfectly acceptable practice to use one hand more than the other (if that’s your choice), after a certain point a dramatic imbalance in the level of your gesticulation between your left and right hand will eventually becoming jarring and distracting for the audience.
2 ) EYE CONTACT
I remember watching a politician come in to give a guest lecture while I was in university.
He was a bit of a mumbler, and had a fairly thick accent, but he seemed to speak with sincerity, and came off as being genuinely fired up about the agenda he was proposing.
And then, at the climax of his speech, when he was preparing for his magnum opus, his home run swing to connect with the audience…
“And let me tell you, from the bottom of my heart, if there is one issue I’m truly passionate about, it’s…”
…And then he broke his eye contact, paused, and looked down at his paper to find the end of his sentence.
It was absolutely disastrous–several students burst out in laughter in response. The spell was instantly broken, and the plucky, awkwardly charming politician lost any hope of winning over his audience.
Eye contact is an incredibly powerful tool for connecting with your audience. It heightens the audience’s attention. It makes listeners feel like they’re being spoken “with” instead of spoken “at.”
Just how powerful is eye contact? We all know it’s a big deal, but just how big a deal it is might still manage to surprise you. In one study, scientists found that consumers were significantly more likely to purchase a particular brand of cereal in cases where the CARTOON CHARACTER on the front of the box was positioned to “look” at customers at eye level as they passed by.
Obviously, eye contact has a mountain of other positive effects on listeners. It’s been shown to make a speaker more memorable, appear more sincere, more authoritative, etc.
But we’re not here to pad out these lessons with pages of studies and thesis papers. My goal for these lessons is to get you to where you need to be asap, with as little fluff and as few detours as possible along the way.
Eye contact matters–the better you get at it, the more effective you’ll be as a speaker.
Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the do’s, don’ts, and how-tos.
THE BIG PICTURE:
When I sit someone down to address their eye contact during a presentation, there are a few scenarios that generally come up again and again.
One of the most common issues are from speakers unsure of how to balance strong eye contact with an audience, and the need to read through their written speech. A lot of folks get nervous that the more time they spend looking out to their audience, the more chance there is of losing their place in their speech. Similarly, a lot of clients view it as an “all-or-nothing” scenario: believing that the only way to have strong, consistent eye contact is to completely memorize their speech, and therefore not needing to use or glance at any notes at all.
Of course, if your entire presentation is memorized, it absolutely makes a steady, powerful rapport with your audience much easier, since you can maintain unbroken eye contact with your audience throughout your presentation. If you’re worried that your memory isn’t up to the challenge of memorizing a speech, don’t worry–I have plenty of material available on techniques you can use to help in memorizing your material.
In the BONUS SECTION we’ll go over at the end of this book, I’ll provide exercises and tricks to help you to either completely memorize all of their material, or to only need to rely on a single page with key bullet points–both of which make eye contact much easier to maintain consistently with the audience.
For now, though, the good news is that with a few simple tricks, you can still give enough effective eye contact with your audience for it to have a dramatic impact on the quality of your presentation.
Studies have found that spending as little as 30% of your total speaking time giving eye contact to your audience can produce dramatic effects on their level of engagement and interest.
What does that mean in practice?
It means that with little to no memorization skill, you can still develop memorable, impactful eye contact, with a few simple tips.
In the next section, we’ll break down specific techniques to achieve just that.
1)Eye contact during pauses: Quite a few sources suggest that the ideal time to break eye contact, and go back to your notes, is during a pause or a break in your speech. This is wrong.
On the contrary, using a pause in your speech to look up and give eye contact actually does several things: First, it adds to the weight and the resonance of what you had just said, by making the pause more dramatic. Secondly, It works as a “speed bump,” effectively forcing you to take a longer pause than you might do normally, as you stop to give your audience eye contact. Lastly, it’s the easiest opportunity to give eye contact for someone having trouble with memorization, since there’s literally no memorization required–you’re only looking around after you’ve already read the end of a sentence. Once you’ve finished looking around the room, you can always take a quick moment, find your spot, and resume your presentation.
2)Eye contact as emphasis: It might take a little more practice than giving eye contact during pauses, but giving eye contact during moments of your speech you want to give some real “oomf” to still isn’t too difficult, and can make an incredibly strong impression on your audience.
The politician from the opening example had tried to memorize his whole speech–giving great eye contact when he went on about economic figures and statistics, only to forget his content and read his “more heartfelt beliefs” from his notes. He would have been *much* better off if the *only* segments he took the time to memorize were, in fact, those heartfelt beliefs, looking directly at the audience as he gave them as a way to give extra weight and a deeper connection to his most important message.
As a general rule, you want to be giving eye contact to your audience whenever you are delivering a statement intended to generate an emotional reaction from your listeners, or to “hammer home” a key idea in your presentation.
Of course, the more eye contact you give, the more interactive your presentation will feel, and the more engaged your audience will be. However, even if you are only giving eye contact during pauses and when delivering your most impactful content, that alone will already be enough to substantially improve your rapport and your connection.
CHEAT SHEET: Keep your Eye on the Prize
Now that we’ve gone over a few tips on when to give eye contact, the most important question comes up: what’s the most effective way to make eye contact with your audience?
Once again, a few simple tips will go a long way.
1)Try to not look at any one person for more than 5-15 seconds: You want people to feel like you’re connecting with them, not like you’re trying to win a staring contest.
2)Mix it up: If you follow a pattern of eye contact–for example, looking left, looking center, looking right, and repeating–your audience is going to catch on quickly and notice the pattern, and it’s going to become distracting while making you look more robotic and less sincere. Instead, “go with the flow” and vary your glances throughout the room.
3)Be considerate: If you give someone eye contact and they immediately seem to be uncomfortable or look away, just switch your attention over to someone else. Also, in some cultures, strong eye contact may carry very different connotations, so try to be mindful that no suggestions or solutions are ever “one size fits all.”
4)Shift between pauses: For smooth, natural transitions in your eye contact shifts, you should generally time your transitions from giving eye contact to one audience member to another to occur during a pause in your speaking. This should also help to keep you well within the 5-15 seconds per person range.
3) MOVEMENT AND STANDING
In some cases, your movement as a speaker will be necessarily limited. In some presentations, you’ll be stationed at a podium; in others, you’ll be working from a stationary microphone, or giving a toast or a speech from your place at a dinner or banquet table.
In these cases, no one is expecting you to move around the room.
On other occasions, though, you get to play with a little more freedom. Some examples might be:
-Giving a presentation in the front of a classroom or lecture hall
-Speaking at an event with a pin-on mic in front of an audience or on a stage
-Giving a talk to staff members in an office
…among many other possibilities (including most speech competitions!)
In these cases, it becomes absolutely crucial to know how to use your space effectively.
Unlike environments where your movement is limited, speaking in open areas can often lead to your audience judging your lack of movement through the room as a sign of “low energy.” By contrast, too excessive movement or bad form (more on that later) will be *extremely* distracting to your audience. In the worst case scenario, “working the room” badly can end up being worse than not moving at all, and can heavily distract from your listeners ability to pay attention to your message.
In the sections that follow, we’ll teach you everything you’ll need to know to find just the right balance.
THE BIG PICTURE:
In my experience, much like gesticulation, the movements you make across your stage or speaking area can exude a sense of energy, enthusiasm and sincerity. Just don’t overdo it!
It can help to conceptualize how and where to move through the room by comparing it–as we’ve done with other examples–to being in a one-on-one or small group setting. To carry over the analogy, imagine walking through the room as leaning towards someone when seated in the more intimate setting.
Think of all the times you mean lean in during a group discussion. Perhaps you lean slightly when you’re excitedly making a key point. Maybe you’re leaning in to make the conversation feel more private and intimate. As a general rule, these two uses for leaning in–building energy, and creating rapport–are the most common factors you should consider when planning how and when to move through a room.
1)Moving through the room to build energy: Similar to the advice we went over on using your hands, even taking a few steps can create the impression of “bubbling over” with energy, as if your words alone cannot contain the importance you ascribe to your content.
Importantly, note that the steps taken should typically serve as the punctuation to a particular point or train of thought, and not simply occur midway into a sentence or at the halfway point of an idea.
2)Moving through the room–building rapport: Speaking behind a podium creates both a physical and a metaphorical sense of distance and a divide between you and your audience. It makes sense, then, that your movement on stage–walking towards your audience at key moments–does exactly the opposite. It physically (and metaphorically) brings you closer together. It builds a sense of a more personal and intimate discussion, and makes your listeners feel more directly engaged. You can do this effectively with even very small movements.
As a part of building rapport, you should generally move in the same direction as your eye contact. This can make the segment of the audience you’re embracing feel doubly engaged, helping to generate a strong feeling of connection.
Of course, it’s not enough to just walk towards your audience–there are some important do’s and don’ts to be mindful of :
1)Do try to time your movements to punctuate a point: in other words, don’t start taking steps towards a new section of the audience in a way that interrupts the “train of thought” you were already engaged in with your previous eye contact target. Much like gestures,
2)Don’t: Walk, stop, pivot, repeat: It’s impossible to create a sense of intimacy with a ping pong ball. If you’re walking back and forth, rapidly zig zagging this way and that, it’s all but guaranteed your movement will be distracting and even annoying to your audience.
3)Don’t: Get *too* close: most often, just a few steps in a direction, with good eye contact to match it, is enough to create a heightened sense of engagement. If you push it too far, and walk closer and closer towards that segment of the audience and the edge of the stage, it can change the sensation in your audience from intimate to aggressive or overbearing. It can also come off as less nature and more “stagey” in the same way that grand, sweeping hand gestures do.
4)Do: Let your movement reflect your words and your tone: much like your gestures, your movements can often be a physical expression of your verbal content. If you’re describing a scene of something slowly building up to a climax, you might take a slow step forward to match each part of the story which “slowly” moves forward. Rapid movements, on the other hand, might be timed to match a section in which someone in your speech is frantically trying to perform multiple actions or decide between a variety of options.
Do: Remember–Two steps forward, two steps back: Last but not least, remember to also take steps back, especially if you’ve just walked forward to engage a section of the audience. This is pretty intuitive–if all you did was constantly move forward towards a new part of your audience, at some point you’d literally find yourself walking off the stage.
Most commonly, you can do this in a natural, organic looking way by waiting until the end of a sentence, or the culmination of an idea.
CHEAT SHEET: Move yourself to move the audience
Moving around the room can add a lot to your presentation–just remember these simple lessons, and keep it natural!
Where I’ve seen movement go wrong is when it becomes exaggerated–speakers making giant, cartoony strides, pacing back and forth, and generally moving in excess. Instead, the key is simply to make your movements feel like a natural extension and reflection of your words and your emotions. Keep in mind the analogy we used about when you would naturally “lean in” while telling a personal story, and you should have a reliable guide to follow.
However, a few other questions also tend to come up, related to your movement (or lack thereof) on stage.
Where to position your feet: The question of where a speaker should position their feet has come up surprisingly often over the years.
Some new speakers tend to point their feet straight forward. Standing in the “feet forward” position isn’t an inherent deal breaker–it’s not going to distract your audience or ruin your presentation. That said, it can somewhat limit your range of motion.
By comparison, most professional speakers generally stick with the “V Position,” with feet slightly apart, and each foot pointed outward approximately 45 degrees. This position offers a few unique benefits.
Both for your own sake, and for the audience, you always want to avoid jerky or awkward looking movement. (As per our earlier discussions on gesticulation). When your feet are already pointing out in both directions, it both feels and looks much more natural when you pivot left or right towards a segment of your audience.
Also, because it feels more comfortable to pivot your movement from the V position, many speakers also describe it as feeling more relaxed and comfortable than having their feet together in the same direction–which can feel much more stiff and restricting. Given how important it is to feel loose and relaxed during your presentation, You’ll likely want to stick to the V–especially when you have freedom of movement (ie, you’re not stuck behind a podium).
4) FACIAL EXPRESSIONS
Barring any wildly distracting body language, most audiences are going to be looking a speaker in the face when they speak.
You would think that instructions on what to do with your facial expressions might be overkill, even getting into the realm of “micromanagement.” But having watched as many speakers as I have over the years, it never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise great presenters would make faces or expressions so jarring and distracting that it would end up affecting the entire experience of their presentation.
In the next few sections, we’ll go through a range of concepts, expressions, do’s and don’ts. Our goal will be to turn your facial expressions from a potential distraction to a fantastic asset, building even more rapport with your audience and giving even more energy and emotion to your speech.
THE BIG PICTURE
A person’s face is one of the first thing’s we look at when we try to get a read on someone. We’re programmed to catch even the subtlest of changes–a curled lip, a raised eyebrow–and associate it with a mood, attitude, or expression.
Because of how hardwired we are to try to get information from facial expressions, it’s crucial to be mindful of your own expressions as a speaker. Oftentimes, whether it’s from our own lack of attention or nervousness, we can find ourselves making unintended or unconscious expressions that may be distracting, awkward, or even at odds with the tone or message of our actual spoken material.
Now, before we get too far into the intricate details, I can let you know one quick, simple tip that can single handedly have a huge impact on your expressiveness *and* ironing out some of your worst habits.
It’s your cell phone. Or your webcam.
However you do it, recording yourself speaking can go a long, long way to improving your facial expressions.
Since we rarely get the opportunity to actually watch ourselves speak, most people have very little idea of how they look when they do it. While it can be awkward or even uncomfortable for some, being able to watch a recording of yourself speaking lets you see yourself as your audience does. You’d be amazed how often students, watching themselves speak, *immediately* catch all kinds of bad habits themselves, without any need for coaching or coaxing. When you have the added asset of having an experienced coach with you to catch any quirks or odd moments you may have missed, it becomes that much easier to have a clear and prescient picture of exactly what you’re doing that may be taking away from your presentation.
Ideally, the best possible recording would be one taken while you’re speaking to an actual audience. Sometimes, when speaking directly to a webcam or into a phone, It can take practice to deliver a natural presentation that doesn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable for many people.
Nevertheless, even if recording yourself alone is your only option, definitely take advantage of it, and invest the time to practice doing it until you can feel as comfortable as possible recording yourself.
[Text Wrapping Break]If you’ve finished watching yourself speak, and you found a few wrinkles you’d like to iron out, the odds are good that most of them had to do with you giving off an expression that somehow looked unnatural.
Maybe you were giving an expression that looked exaggerated. Maybe you noticed that your face looked calm and detached, while you were supposed to be delivering an emotionally charged segment. Whatever the case may be, you’ll quickly find that almost all issues both you and your audience will notice about your facial expressions will focus on one key theme: authenticity.
In every case, whether it looks like your face and your words aren’t agreeing, or when it looks like you’re giving an expression that feels stilted or exaggerated — the biggest reason why the expression looks so obviously “wrong” is because it’s inauthentic.
Being mindful of these small details will be extremely helpful as you prepare your presentation. Asking questions like, “is the tone of my sentence, story or segment reflected in my face?” can go a long way to appearing more congruent and sincere to your audience.[Text Wrapping Break]
Enhancing your “facial awareness”
In the heat of the moment, when we’re telling a story in person that stirs up a strong emotion in us, there’s not really a need to consciously consider the facial expressions we’re giving off. We’re experiencing a genuine emotion, in a comfortable setting, so it’s only natural for our faces to accurately reflect what we’re feeling in that moment.
When we describe an awful date to a friend, our faces might twist into a look of contempt as we retell a moment in the evening where someone was rude or socially unacceptable. When we retell a story where someone was unfair or discriminatory to us, or someone we cared about, it’s almost impossible not to give off a look of anger. Recall a story of the time you ate something that turned out to be slimy or disgusting, and your face is going to naturally twist into an image of…well…disgust.
Unfortunately, because it’s something we do so rapidly and so naturally in everyday communication, we never really stop to analyze our expressions. *Exactly* what does our “angry” face look like? Could you describe, in detail, all of the things you do with your face when you see or hear something that scares you?
If you’re like most people, you probably can’t, or at least couldn’t describe your physiological responses in detail without sitting down and thinking long and hard on the subject.
Of course, that doesn’t particularly get in the way of our day-to-day communication. We don’t need to teach ourselves to give off accurate facial emotions to match what we’re genuinely feeling in the heat of the moment of relieving or retelling an experience. The real challenge comes when we’re giving a speech.
Unlike speaking to a good friend or calling someone immediately after we’ve just gone through some emotional experience, it’s entirely possible that you’ll be telling a story to an audience long after the fact, or telling the same story multiple times. It’s possible you may be telling a story about someone else entirely, that you’ve never personally experienced.
This is where most people start to run into problems. Most often, when the same people go on stage–who’d have no problems looking animated and clearly expressing their emotions facially when they tell a personal story to a friend–they often either tell stories with either little to no facial emotions, or grossly exaggerated, unnatural ones.
The reason for this is pretty obvious–since we’ve never really had to think about or break down our facial expressions and physicality when we react genuinely to something, we don’t really have a clear playbook on how to accurately reproduce such expressions on command artificially.
So…how to overcome the divide? How can we facially emote as naturally and authentically in a pre-written speech, as we can in the heat of the moment when we’re genuinely experiencing an emotion?
Visualization, analysis and practice.
Let’s jump right in to the exercises and techniques you can practice to give your facial experiences sincerity, emotion and power in your presentations.
Firstly, consider these emotional states:
2)Contentment (sitting on a gorgeous beach, feeling perfectly at peace with the world)
8)Shame / Guilt
12)Incredulity / Disbelief
13)Smugness / (The “I told you so” moment when you’re proven right)
14)Hurt (the moment you discover someone you trust has betrayed you in a deeply personal way)
Now, for each of these, stop for a moment, and remember back to a time you felt that emotion particularly strongly. Take your time to genuinely relieve the memory, as vibrantly and fully as you can.
If you’re really in the heat of the moment, you should almost feel your face reflecting the emotion you’re reliving. Even if you don’t, though, you should still be able to think back and feel or remember how you reacted in that moment.
Hold on to that. Play it through in your mind a few more times.
Then, as best you can, write down in your own words what you feel your face doing as you express that emotion. Technical terminology or finding “just the right words” doesn’t matter–just communicate the feeling in a way that will be clear to you when you come back to it later on.
Repeat the process for each emotion listed, and others that might come to mind that may not have made it on the list.
CHEAT SHEET: Face the facts
The more you practice the exercises listed in the EXAMPLES section, the more expertly you’ll be able to add even more emotion and sincerity into the delivery of your presentation.
If you’re opening your speech with a story of tragedy or hardship, communicating it in a way in which your facial expressions and physicality reflect and embody those emotions goes a long way to connecting with your audience and giving an air of sincerity.
When *you* look extremely emotional discussing the plight of those experiencing hardship, the effect can be almost palpable. You can feel it in the air.
Likewise, when you’re describing the story of someone acting cocky, or experiencing a shocking predicament, or feeling fearful, if your face can capture those same emotions as you tell the story, you’ll find that it will instantly add an electric spark that will jolt your audience to attention.
The more time you invest in asking how your facial expressions can best capture the emotion and tones reflected in your presentation, the sooner you will see just how powerful a role your facial expressions can play in bringing a whole new dynamic to your delivery.
SECTION 2 – VOICE (BASIC)
Introduction to Vocal Delivery
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”
In my early days as a speech writer, it would drive me absolutely insane to spend days–or even weeks–putting together a top quality speech, only to later watch a video of it being absolutely butchered by a client.
From then on, I refused to take on any speech writing work with clients who didn’t also have the time for practice and coaching with their delivery.
Obviously, there are many, many factors affecting the vocal delivery of a speech. Some of us are simply naturally soft spoken, with quieter voices. Some speakers are also trying to overcome accents which may be difficult for audiences to understand clearly. Others fear that they simply have “monotone voices.”
The good news is that virtually every challenge you may have with your voice and how it influences your presentations can be overcome.
We’ll be breaking down our focus on vocal control into two main sections. In this first segment, we’ll focus on the basics, with a particular focus on physical exercises you can do that can offer easy and immediate improvements on your delivery.
In the second section, we’ll get into a more in-depth analysis of some of the specific aspects of speaking that you can address and optimize.
Overall, we will systematically work through common challenges–in projection, pacing, volume, pitch, tone and more–and also through exercises and techniques you can apply to dramatically improve your verbal presentation.
There’s an age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Before we get to anything else–pausing, intonation, emphasis, style, and the rest–we have to address the most basic, and most important part of your vocal delivery.
If no one can hear what you’re saying, nothing else will matter.
When we’re nervous or uncertain, it’s common for a speaker to become quieter. Some speakers tend to become quieter as they reach the end of a sentence. Still others just naturally speak in a very soft spoken, quiet tone of voice. Whatever the case, if the end result makes you difficult for your audience to hear, it needs to be fixed asap.
First of all though, it’s important to get an objective idea of just how effectively you’re already projecting.
The Big Picture
You’d be surprised how many speakers I’ve run into who are convinced they are barely audible on stage, who are, in fact, speaking more than loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the room.
Before we get too far, then, the best place to start is to get some feedback on just how loud you are now.
The easiest way to do it: find a friend, colleague (or me!) to come in and listen to you give a presentation. Have them sit in the back of the room, ideally of a similar size to the venue you’ll be giving your presentation. Deliver a few lines of your speech as loud as you can without shouting–then confirm with your friend that they could hear you clearly, and ask for any additional feedback. Then, go back and read a portion of your speech as quietly as you can, while still trying to have your friend be able to hear you.
Again, get their feedback. If they can’t hear you, practice the exercise again, just a little louder.
Repeat the process until you can clearly be heard in as quiet a voice as possible in the back of the room.
You can have fun with this exercise, practicing a broad range of levels; finding just the right volume for your friend to hear you in your “normal” speaking voice, practicing delivering some of your content in different emotions (reading the same line as if you were sad, overjoyed, confused, etc), and finding just the right volume for your colleague to be able to clearly hear you. The more practice and feedback you receive, the more comfortable you will be with your voice and your projection by the time you give your actual presentation.
What do I do if I hit a brick wall in my practices?
If, while practicing, you really run into difficulties speaking loudly enough for your practice partner to hear, try to get additional feedback from them. Your partner may catch you in certain bad habits that could be hurting your ability to be clearly heard at a distance. In the example section to follow, we’ll look at some of the most frequent offenders.
When it comes to not being heard loudly and clearly, there are a few common culprits:
1)A lack of eye contact: It might surprise you, but eye contact is a frequent reason for speakers to fail at projecting their voices. When a speaker isn’t giving eye contact, they’re typically aiming their head away from their audience–either looking downward, or looking at their notes on the podium. In doing so, their voice is projecting at an angle that makes it very difficult to project to the back of the room.
The more you can look directly at your audience while you speak, the easier it will be for the soundwaves to naturally project towards your audience and be heard at a much greater distance.
2)A lack of confidence with the material: This might be the most common source of poor voice projection of all.
Imagine reading an excerpt from a famous speech you’ve heard a million times–maybe something like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, or a comparably famous political or film speech in your own native country. It wouldn’t take much practice to have at least a few lines completely or nearly memorized. You can almost hear the tone and pacing of the original speaker in your head.
Now, go and practice saying those lines out loud. 99 times out of 100, it won’t be much of a challenge for you to deliver them loudly and clearly.
As a comparison, find a technical or instruction manual. Read it over a few times, then try to deliver a few lines from the text as part of a pretend presentation.
If you’re like most people, the delivery for this second part will be much, much worse–choppy, stilted sounding, and, oftentimes, much harder to hear.
The more unsure we are when we’re delivering a line (even moreso if we’re directly reading a line we haven’t memorized) the more likely it is that we will deliver it with volume and clarity.
3)Nerves: Obviously, if you’re feeling extremely nervous or uncomfortable while you’re speaking on stage, it will only be natural for you to have less control of your voice. This can translate into speakers delivering their speech too quietly, speaking too quickly, and a host of other challenges.
CHEAT SHEET: Loud and clear
For many speakers, practicing with a partner can potentially have a dramatic impact on their speaking volume. In other cases, reviewing the three questions above can help to pinpoint what might be otherwise holding you back from speaking as loudly and clearly as you should.
As a final point, you should also consider if there are any sections that just don’t feel authentic. You might be telling a story in a style that simply “isn’t you,”or trying to portray an emotion about a certain subject that you simply don’t really feel. If so, it’s often the case that your delivery (in this case, your volume and enthusiasm) might give telltale signs of your lack of enthusiasm.
If you don’t like the sound of your voice, you’re definitely not alone.
In all of my years of working with clients, it’s honestly rare to find someone who *does* like the sound of their voice. “It’s too monotone,” “It’s too soft,” “It sounds wimpy,” “I sound like a kid”…..the complaints have covered just about every variant you could imagine.
There’s a ton of techniques to review that will definitely give you a lot more power and control over your voice, as we’ll cover over the next few sections.
Much like the previous section, though, the best place to start is to get a good, objective idea of what you’re actually working with.
THE BIG PICTURE:
I’ll recommend to you the same thing I’ve recommended time and time again: as a first step to improving your voice–as much as some of you might hate it–take a second out and record yourself.
You can be reading lines from a book, delivering a few lines from your speech, you name it. The important thing is to have a recording available you can listen to, to give yourself a baseline of how your voice actually sounds to other people.
Of course, many of you might hear your voice and judge it far more harshly than other people might, being overly critical and feeling extremely self conscious over elements in your voice that might not even be noticed by your listeners.
Either way, having something recorded as a baseline will be invaluable as we work together to help you to broaden your range and build your confidence.
Now that you have a recording, we’ve got something concrete to work from.
As a first step, I want to break you out of the idea that you’re somehow “stuck” with your voice. A huge amount of how our voice sounds comes from factors completely in our control. Over the course of the next few exercises, I’d like to prove it to you.
EXAMPLES – For A “Nasal” Voice:
A sizable number of speakers, especially from certain regions or dialects, are very self conscious of their belief that they speak in a very nasal voice. While there is obviously no “best” voice, and different dialects and regions each speak in their own wonderfully celebrated ways, if you are someone who is actively trying to speak in a less nasal tone, there are exercises you can attempt to address your concern.
Some of the exercises might feel or seem a little silly while you perform them, but please go through with them all the same–I’m hopeful the end result will be an interesting and informative one for you.
Nasality Exercise 1:
A sizable number of speakers, especially from certain regions or dialects, are very self conscious of their belief that they speak in a very nasal voice. While there is obviously no “best” voice, and different dialects and regions each speak in their own wonderfully celebrated ways, if you are someone who is actively trying to speak in a less nasal tone, there are exercises you can attempt to address your concern.
As an exercise, do a quick video search for an actor or other speaker known for having an extremely nasal voice. I won’t pick on any in particular, but I’m sure you’ll know it when you see it.
With your recorded, do your best impersonation of the nasal tone of the actor or speaker whose video you found. Actively try to be as “nasal” as you can.
If you need help with it, I often suggest imagining that you’re speaking with a strong cold. You can also warm up by tensing up your nose and mentally focusing on your nose while you speak. Another tool that many people find helpful is to actually imagine that your voice is coming directly from your nose as you speak, imagining that you are “projecting” your voice from a place above your mouth and throat.
After a few practices, rewind your recordings and listen to them, comparing them to your first recording.If you’ve done everything right, your nasal recording should sound a whole lot worse than your first effort.
Next, record yourself reading the same lines again in your natural voice.
While you speak, try your best to notice any differences you feel in your breathing, your face, your nose and your mouth. Feel free to write them down, in case any observations strike you suddenly.
If you’re a nasal speaker, you may find yourself more self aware when you’re speaking after your “nasal video” imitation, feeling similar sensations in the tensing of your nose, your breathing, and your projection that you may have not noticed yourself doing previously.
Nasality Exercise 2:
The next exercise is quick and easy.
Take the section you just recorded, in your natural voice. Record yourself again–but this time, halfway into your reading, take your fingers and pinch your nose closed while you speak.
Now listen to the recording. How much of a change did pinching your nose closed make?
The more nasally you speak, the more dramatic the difference should sound. If you’re highly nasal, pinching your nose may have made it difficult or almost impossible to speak at all.
Nasality Exercise 3:
The good news–there’s some very simple exercises we can do to dramatically reduce your nasality.
As you might have noticed, if you are a nasal speaker, pinching your nose can make it much harder to speak, as we reviewed a few moments ago. The reason for this is that, as a nasal speaker, one of your biggest challenges is that you are likely doing most of your breathing through your nose when you speak.
One potential cause of this is that your mouth may not be opening widely enough when you speak.
If you want to test that theory, hum with your mouth closed, then pinch your nose mid-hum. You’ll immediately fall silent.
The less open your mouth is, the more you’ll be breathing through your nose–it sounds obvious, but it has a profound effect on our speaking voices.
Test it out for yourself: Record the same segment, but this time, as you speak, make a point to open your mouth as widely as you can with each syllable. Exaggerate it to the point where it feels a little silly, if you’d like. The goal isn’t perfection. It’s contrast.
Once you do this, and you listen to the recording, the odds are high that you’ll hear a significant difference from your earlier recordings.
Practicing the exercise, you can make it feel more natural, and find a “sweet spot” that allows you to speak with less nasality.
Nasality Exercise 4:
If you still feel like your voice is heavily nasal, don’t give up hope yet. The next thing we can check on is your tongue placement.
If you’ve ever had singing lessons, you’ll know this already, but as a general rule, the lower your tongue is in your mouth, the deeper (and less nasal) the sound.
Test it out: say “Aaah” (like you’re at the dentist) and hold it, while keeping your tongue on the bottom of your mouth. Then, say it again, but this time raise your tongue up in your mouth as high as you can, with the tip of your tongue touching the back of your top teeth.
You’ll feel the sound that comes out being much more nasal.
This can be a change that requires some practice, but the more mindful you are of keeping your tongue lower in your mouth, the more you’ll potentially be able to overcome your nasal sounding voice. Practice speaking a few lines while consciously keeping your tongue as high as you can, then read the same lines keeping your tongue as low as you can.
In a very short time, you can make keeping your tongue lower feel more and more natural, and your speaking voice will noticeably change as a result.
Nasality Exercise 5:[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]The last suggestion to address your nasality might be the trickiest to practice, but it can be a very powerful tool–especially if you haven’t achieved the complete success you’re looking for from the previous two exercises.
Take a few minutes and find a speaker–particularly one with a foreign accent–that you find especially pleasant to listen to (and decidedly un-nasal).
The first time, just listen to a clip of that person speaking, and make any notes that come to mind on a piece of paper (or your laptop) about the tone or features of their voice.
Next, listen to it again, and write down a few sentences from the speaker. You only need to jot down about 20 or 30 seconds worth of dialogue at most.
With this written, listen to the same clip a third time. You’ll be writing down what they’re saying again, with one difference. This time, you’re writing what you hear, exactly, not the actual words themselves. What do I mean?
For example, if you’re listening to a British speaker with a strong London accent, the word water might come off sounding to you like “wah’ah”as if the speaker isn’t pronouncing their t’s or r’s. If you’re listener to an American speaker, you might hear “Wa’dur” instead of “water.”
If you’re not familiar, this type of exercise–writing what you hear, instead of writing the words “correctly,” is called phonetic writing.
With your 20-30 seconds or so worth of phonetically writing dialogue, now practice saying it, exactly as you wrote it, with a recorder. Do it a few times, if you like, until you feel like you’ve given it your best effort.
Now, the goal of the exercise isn’t to master foreign accents–don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t sound all that much like the speaker.
What you *should* notice, though, is a difference in tone and nasality.
This sort of exercise forces you to use your mouth in unusual ways–possibly speaking with your mouth open more widely than usual, stressing your vowels differently, or using your tongue differently to pronounce some of the odd spellings and words you’ve written down. In the process, you’ll probably catch yourself pronouncing at least a few words in a much more pleasing inflection. Make a note of it, and think back to any differences in your mouth, tongue and general feelings when you said the word or words in this new way.
The purpose isn’t, of course, to have you walking around and speaking in a new accent. However, by getting in practice saying words in different ways, you can become more self aware of the physical sensations in your mouth when you speak nasally, and have alternatives to compare and contrast that feeling to. The more conscious you are of the physicality and properties that make up your sounds, the easier it can be to practice speaking in a less nasal way.
EXAMPLES – For a “Stronger” Voice
It’s extremely common for speakers to feel like their voices lack the depth and resonance they wish it had. After all, when we imagine a powerful, charismatic speaker, one of the first things to come to mind is a speaker with a strong voice.
Some clients have even claimed that their “weak” voices directly affect their professional lives–I’ve had more than one client who avoided speaking opportunities that could have come with huge professional opportunities because of how self conscious they were about their voice.
The good news is that there are techniques and exercises that will have an immediate and potentially drastic effect on the strength and timber of your voice. With practice, they’ll become second nature.
Voice Strengthening Exercise 1:
How easy is it to get a deeper, richer voice?
Step 1: Go to sleep.
Step 2: Wake up.
If you can manage those two simple steps (and I’m certainly hoping you did!), you’re well on your way to improving your voice.
That might sound like I’m being flippant–but I’m actually completely serious.
When you first wake up in the morning, you’ll notice that your voice is naturally at a lower pitch than it is for the rest of the day. Sometimes it gets described as sounding “groggy” or “rumbly,” but something very specific and very important is going on to cause it.
The reason your voice tends to sound deeper when you first wake up after a good night’s sleep is because your vocal chords are at their most relaxed. They’ve been resting for hours, and more importantly, so have you.
The more relaxed and at ease you feel, physically, the more relaxed your vocal chords will be, and the muscles in your throat responsible for your tone and timber.
If you want to have a clearer idea of the muscles at work, put your fingers on either side of your throat, then, briefly force your “gag reflex” to go off. Allow your fingers to feel the muscles tensing in your throat as you do.
These are the muscles that are affecting your tone. The more stressed they are, the harder it will be for you to have a deep, rich voice.
Simply being mindful of this fact can often be enough to make a difference in your presentation. When you catch your voice sounding thin or strained, reflect on your level of stress or tension, and try to become more self aware of the connection.
Voice Strengthening Exercise 2:
The next set of exercises will be to address something commonly known as “uptalk” or, in the UK, as “high rising terminals.”
You might not be familiar with the terminology, but you’d immediately recognize the sound.
You could also know it more commonly (and possibly politically incorrectly?) as California “Valley-Girl Talk.” It’s a verbal habit to end sentences with an upward intonation, as if each sentence was a question rather than a statement.
If you think back, you’d be hard pressed to remember any powerful, confident-sounding, or deeply resonating speaker using uptalk. On the flip side, when you do remember speakers who used uptalk, you probably remember their voices and presentations sounding weak, thin, and indecisive. It’s very, very hard to use uptalk and give off any kind of strong, commanding, authoritative presence.
Despite it being so detrimental to the quality of our voices and presentations, it’s an easy habit to fall into. Oftentimes, speakers simply pick it up through osmosis–being surrounded by speakers who have similar uptalking habits, or living in regions where upward inflections may simply be more common. This effect can be exacerbated when speakers come from regions where upward inflection is a core part of a non-English native language–it’s just that much harder of a habit to break out of.
Other times, though, falling into uptalk has less to do with our surroundings, and more to do with our confidence. When we’re uncertain, nervous, and generally lacking confidence, it can subconsciously creep into our enunciation, and betray our insecurity.
So, now that you know what it is, how do you deal with it?
Easily, actually. In fact, this might be one of the easiest bad habits to break a speaker out of.
For starters, simply practice the following by yourself:
Firstly, say a statement, matter-of-factly. For example: “It’s raining today.”
Then, say the same statement, but imagine that you’re asking it to someone as a question: “It’s raining today?”
Repeat this several times with similar sentences.
Doing this will make you instantly recognize the difference between the two, and the more you do it, the more self aware and self conscious you will be of when you are falling into the rising inflection.
With regular practice, this one, simple change can make a *dramatic* difference in how your tone and intonation are perceived by others, making your voice sound stronger, more self assured, and more commanding. Simply put, you’ll sound like someone who knows what they’re talking about.
CHEAT SHEET: Own Your Tone!
Whether you’re concerned that your voice is too nasal or too “weak,” always remember that you have the power to change and influence your tone with patience and practice.
By following the exercises above, and having the courage to regularly record yourself and observe your changes, you can make significant progress rapidly in sculpting your voice to be clearer, more confident, and more authoritative.
3) BREATHING[Text Wrapping Break]
If you’ve ever taken public speaking lessons in the past, one of the first lessons you’ve probably heard is the importance of good breathing on your delivery.
Sometimes, it can be easy for those sorts of lessons to go in one ear and out the other. After all, if you’re primarily focused on your nerves, your content, whether or not anyone is even going to hear you clearly, if you’re going to fall back into old, bad habits, etc…it’s easy to imagine that the mechanics of good breathing are pretty much the last thing in the world that’s going to really make the difference when it comes to the quality of your presentation.
And…you’re right. Sort of.
THE BIG PICTURE:
I’ve seen teachers who spend so much time focusing on breathing drills that their entire public speaking training feels more like a series of singing exercises than a complete course on developing competent, confident public speakers.
The fact is, if you don’t have strong fundamentals across a broad range of areas, then obviously simply breathing effectively isn’t going to overcome challenges in other areas.
But, with all of that said, good breathing can be surprisingly and remarkably helpful in overcoming a wide range of seemingly unrelated challenges you may be facing.
That dry mouth or voice cracking that may have crept into your last presentation? It’s far more likely to be how you breathe than just your nerves acting up.
The shortness of breath you felt after your first few moments on stage? Again–it might not be your nerves or your anxiety, so much as your breathing habits.
Bad breathing can even dramatically reduce the power and richness of your voice, making it sound strained and weak, and stealing away much of the impact from your delivery. Of course, it can also dramatically reduce your ability to project consistently and clearly over the length of your presentation.
￼So, without further adieu, let’s take a deep breath and get started.
We discussed earlier how a major problem some speakers experienced was nasality–sounding as though they were “speaking through their nose,” instead of their mouth. When it comes to breathing, one of the most common problems is the opposite–speakers taking air in from their mouths, instead of their noses.
When you take a big breath in through your mouth, all of that air is actually doing a number on your throat. It’s making your mouth dryer with each breath in, and it won’t take many such breaths before you can begin to feel a sensation of dry mouth, or even begin to feel hoarse. That tends to be the point where projection tends to weaken, voices crack, and overall vocal quality drops off dramatically.
Additionally, your breathing can also be affecting your flow. When you’re not breathing optimally, your shortness of breath may force you to take unintended pauses or breaks that detract from your presentation, rather than add dramatic tension or emphasis at a key–intentional–moment.
Likewise, with poor breathing habits, you’ll be limited in the sorts of techniques you can achieve consistently–for example, if you have a line or two in your speech in which you are speaking very quickly to achieve a dramatic effect (say, rapidly reciting a series of work tasks you were given in such a way that makes your audience share your sense of how overwhelming or stressful the situation felt), it will be *much* harder to do when you’re short of breath halfway through.
All of this is why it’s critically important to be comfortable with breathing through your nose. Your nose’s natural filters actually moisten the air as it passes through. By simply switching from breathing through your nose, instead of through your mouth, you will be eliminating a major source of dry mouth and hoarseness that can sap the power out of your voice.
The other key shift you’ll need to practice will be breathing with your diaphragm. Breathing with your diaphragm will give you *much* more air to work with, as compared to breathing in with your chest. Most of us have heard the same thing a dozen times–it’s healthier, it gives us more air, clearer voices, etc.
Given that breathing with our diaphragms is so uncommon for most people, the most effective solution is to apply training exercises to make it feel more natural.
One extremely effective exercise is the following:
1)Lie down on your back.
2)Find a small household item you can comfortably balance on your stomach, and put it there. A TV remote, cell phone, or small weight should work perfectly.
3)Take slow, big breaths out, trying to raise the item on your stomach as high as you can.
4)When you breathe in, do the opposite–try to sink the item on your stomach as low as possible.
5)repeat the exercise with slow, steady breaths, for one to three minutes.
In addition to being extremely relaxing, the exercise will help to make you mentally and physically more accustomed to breathing with your diaphragm. Over even a few days of steady practice, the repeated exercise will begin to feel more and more natural, and you’ll quickly appreciate how much more air you bring in with each breath.
Another extremely important exercise for good breathing is practicing reading as you exhale:
The practice routine is simple, but you’ll find it having a major–and positive–impact on your breathing as a speaker.
1)Pick a document to read. It can be a book, a poem, or even the text of a speech you’ll be delivering.
2)Breathe in as deeply as you can with your chest.
3)Once you’ve breathed in as deeply as you can, immediately begin to read from your text. Don’t rush, or speak any quicker than you would naturally. As soon as you can feel yourself running out of breath, stop immediately. (again, Don’t try to “cheat” and sneak in any extra–you’ll know perfectly well the second you run out of air).
4)Repeat this a few times. Try to get a feel for where your “wall” is–the general part of the text where you’re consistently running out of air and stopping.
5)Now, breathe in with your diaphragm. Hopefully, the previous exercise should make taking a deep breath with your diaphragm easy to do, but if you have any uncertainty, put your hand on your stomach, and push it out as you breathe in, as if your stomach was being inflated like a balloon.
6)After inhaling using your diaphragm, read the same text and once again measure how far into the text you can read before you begin to run out of air.
7)Repeat this process a few more times, until you have a reliable average of how far you can get into the text while breathing with your diaphragm.
(Don’t forget to breathe in through your nose, not your mouth!)
Most people will immediately discover a significant difference in how far into the text they could read after breathing in with their diaphragm, compared to breathing in through their chest. If you aren’t finding any difference between the two, it means that you should go back to the previous exercise and get extra practice breathing with and strengthening your diaphragm.
CHEAT SHEET: Breathe Easy
SECTION 3 – VOICE (ADVANCED)
From Monotone to Magic
What we’ve dealt with up to this point has mostly been the physicality of your vocal delivery–breathing, tongue and mouth exercises, etc.
Of course, that’s all only one part of the story.
At the end of the day, what *really* takes the vocal aspects of a presentation from good to great is variety. You instantly recognize it when you hear it–there’s an almost theatrical quality to it, without seeming inauthentic or artificial. It feels energizing, infectious, sincere, and powerful. Something about the flow and the tone of the delivery just pulls you in, and doesn’t let go.
The actual material matters immensely–if someone tries to convince you that “it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s all body language and delivery”…well…that’s nonsense. But, I can absolutely say, with first hand experience, that I’ve written plenty of speeches that were absolutely destroyed by monotone, lifeless speakers, who sucked every inch of energy and emotion out of them with their deadpan deliveries.
1) VOCAL STRESSES
When we’re speaking naturally in a stress free environment, it’s human nature to add stress on certain words. For example, the friend who comes up to you and tells you “You wouldn’t *believe* what happened to me today!”
Yet, somehow, many speakers lose this habit as soon as their nerves strike them. Most of them don’t even notice the difference until they hear themselves recorded.
I’ve heard 20 minute speeches without a single word stressed over any other. To say that it sounded stilted and unnatural is an understatement.
On the other hand, I hear speeches where nerves and a lack of preparation or foresight cause speakers to seemingly pick their stresses at random in the heat of the moment. At best, this can cause a speech to sound disjointed and “off”–at worst, it can cause an audience to completely misinterpret the meaning or focus of a line.
Over the next several sections, we’ll address these common issues of vocal stress. I will provide you all of the tools you need to give your presentation with a rich, varied and engaging delivery.
You have my word–if you can invest the time to practice the exercises we’ll be going over, your audience will *immediately* notice a dramatic improvement in the quality of your presentations–and so will you.
THE BIG PICTURE
To get a clearer idea of exactly how easily a change in stress can affect the meaning of a passage, consider this age old example:
I didn’t say I liked him
I didn’t say I liked him
I didn’t say I liked him
I didn’t say I liked him
I didn’t say I liked him
I didn’t say I liked him
Each line carriers a very different connotation; stressing “didn’t” suggests that speaker doesn’t actually like him; but take the same line, and stress “say” instead, and suddenly the speaker probably *does* like him, but seems more upset over it being some kind of revealed secret. Stressing the second “I” and suddenly we have a mixup between who it was that felt affection for “him.” And so on.
A six word sentence–and six very different meanings, just based on which word a speaker chooses to stress.
Yet, despite how obvious it is from such an example of how much impact stresses can have on meaning and comprehension, how many of you have taken the time to plan out your stresses in your speech?
Whenever I write a speech, I make a point of marking each stressed word ahead of time, either writing the word in bold, putting stars before or after it, or underlining it.
1)If you have one, read over a speech you have written. (If you don’t have one, search for a famous speech you admire online).
2)After quickly reading over your speech, recite a few lines out loud, recording yourself if possible.
3)For the first recording, deliver the lines without any stresses at all. Make a point of keeping each and every word equally stressed. Once you’ve recorded it, give it a good listen over, and write down any notes you have or observations you make on how it sounds to you.
4)Next, practice reading and recording the section at least 3-4 more times. This time around, though, stress words at random–make a point to stress different words each time you go through it. Don’t feel limited to make stresses where they would sound natural–in fact, go out of your way to mix them up.
Afterwards, listen back to your readings. Make notes. Are there any changes to the meanings, tone, or overall effect of each sentence caused by your changes in stressed words? In cases where your randomly stressed words make a sentence sound strange or stilted…why? What about it makes it sound so clearly off?
5)Lastly, put yourself back in control. Silently read over the section once again, but this time choose which words to stress that you believe will make the section sound best.
Now, record yourself reading this version, having chosen the stresses to place in each line yourself.
Once you’re done, listen over it, and make any notes and observations that jump out to you. Does it sound effective? Are there any changes you would make? Why or why not?
CHEAT SHEET: Master Your Stress!
Moving forward, I want you to be fearless when it comes to playing with your word stresses. As you’ve seen, a change in stress from one word to another can have a significant impact on your presentation–so don’t be afraid to experiment and be playful when you’re preparing your presentation!
Try one way, then another, then another–listening back to your recorded experiments, and deciding which versions you like best.
By itself, integrating this into your speech writing process will give your delivery a variety in tone and delivery that will end any worries you might have about sounding monotone. But it’s just the beginning.
2) SLOWER PACING
Out of almost all of the topics we’ll be discussing in this section, pacing might be one of the most poorly understood aspects of giving an effective delivery.
A cursory glance across “how to” videos and blog posts generally repeat the same main talking points. When they discuss pacing, the points generally come down to addressing how nervousness can make a presenter speak too quickly; a few, more advanced instructors might address the importance of pausing for a dramatic effect.
We’ll cover those points too, but the truth is that there’s a whole lot more to pacing than that.
When you really understand just how much you can change your presentation through your use of pacing, you’ll be equipped with a lifelong tool that will give color and emotional impact to all of your speeches to come.
The Big Picture
First off, let’s acknowledge the most basic fact of pacing–the odds are, unless you’re already an experienced speaker, you’re probably speaking too quickly.
It’s brought up again and again by various public speaking teachers for a reason. Consciously or not, almost all new and upcoming speakers deliver their presentations at a pace much faster than they would if they were speaking normally.
Some of it is obviously nerves–just wanting to hurry up and get it over with as quickly as possible. It can also be an unconscious insecurity. In the back of their mind, a speaker may fear that their content isn’t good enough or interesting enough to keep a listener’s attention; so speeding through the material is a way to “try to get through it all before they zone out.”
Unfortunately, the faster you speed through your material, the more clearly you’re communicating to your audience “don’t worry, you won’t have to put up with this much longer, I promise. I’m sorry I’m here wasting your time.”
That’s not exactly a recipe for a great connection with an audience.
So, before anything else–slow down.
As an exercise, record yourself giving your presentation. The length doesn’t really matter, but it should be at least 30 seconds to 1 minute. Ideally, you want to do this with a friend or a trainer (don’t be shy to give me a call–I’d be happy to help you with it). And very importantly, you want to be recorded.
After you finish up, don’t jump to watching the clip, and don’t ask for feedback. Instead, immediately give the same presentation, but try to deliver it just a little slower–say, 15-20% slower. Once you’re finished, repeat the process one more time.
Now, you can finally sit down and go through the clips.
If you’re like a lot of speakers, you’ll probably catch a huge divide between your expectations and the reality of your recordings.
By the time you’re doing your third recording, you might be feeling almost silly in how slowly you’re going through the material. Most people at that point find the speed incredibly slow, convinced that they probably sound absolutely ridiculous to their audiences.
The truth of the matter is that those fears are almost always unwarranted.
In the vast majority of speakers doing the exercise, even your slowest version will sound perfectly fluid and natural on your recording. If anything, taking the extra time can start to make many speakers appreciate the power of a slower, more deliberate reading of their presentation.
After all, when you imagine someone powerful, poised, confident, and supremely in control of themselves and their surroundings…do you imagine them rushing through everything they say, or speaking slowly and deliberately?
I want that to be you. So pace yourself–be confident enough in your material to give it the time it deserves.
Also, depending on how your last exercise went, you may have noticed certain passages in particular that sounded especially impactful when you were reading them more slowly.
Of course, that depends a little bit on just what “reading the lines more slowly” actually meant for you. Some speakers perform the exercise by sllllowwwinnnggg dowwnnnn the proooonunnnnciattionnn off individualllll worrrdddss.
There was no wrong way to perform the exercise, so if you did it this way, not to worry. It’s possible (even probable, for newer speakers), that your “nervous speaking speed” was so fast that even deliberately trying to drag your words out still didn’t manage to make them sound exaggerated.
Some of you may have instead put more focus on pausing, giving…each..word..more..time..to.. breath.
Being able to take either of those approaches, and push them even further, can actually turn out to be an extremely useful speaking tool.
CHEAT SHEET: Pace Yourself
As we’ve gone over, the two main aspects of using slower pacing to your advantage come from slowing down the your pronunciation of individual words (less common), and adding longer pauses to slow down the flow of a particular section or sentence, to draw emphasis and importance to a key moment or idea. We’ll cover both of them in a little more detail below.
1)Slowing your pronunciation
When you’re slowing down your pronunciation of words, you’re also really forcing yourself to annunciate–that is, to be that much clearer in how you pronounce each and every syllable. No room for mumbling!
Because of that, practicing slowing your pronunciation can be a great ongoing exercise for speakers who notice that they have a tendency to mumble, or not speak as clearly as they should. Even if you’re practicing in “ultra slow mo” you’re still getting the feeling in your mouth of making each sound clearly, and over time it will become easier and easier to call on your “muscle memory” to annunciate more clearly in your regular speaking speed.
On the flip side, it might surprise you to learn that there are times when you actually want to speak exxxtttrrraaa sllllowwwllly in your actual presentation.
If you’ve seen the Disney movie “Zootopia” you’ll probably remember a comedic scene where the main characters, in a frantic hurry to meet a deadline, need to get paperwork completed by a literal sloth working at the department of motor vehicles. His everrryyy linnneee isss deliverrreddd verrrryyyy slowlllyyyy…. While the main characters become more and more frantic as they are forced to endure his torturous speed.
We, as the audience, hearing the pace ourselves, instantly relate to their impatience.
Likewise, if you’re describing a story involving a long wait, incredibly slow service, or something similar, actually embodying that slowness by delivering a related line or two in that same, slow, sloth-like style can be *extremely* effective in making the audience physically feel that same sense of impatience. While you might be worried about making your audience feel impatient or frustrated, it’s actually highly effective–suddenly, they can relate to the story you’re telling on a personal level–they’re literally *feeling* the same anxiety as the character in the story you’re telling. They’re connecting with the imagery and the story you’re communicating on an emotional level–and as we’ll come back to again and again, that’s one of the most consistently effective steps to giving a powerful presentations.
2)Taking. Longer. Pauses. Between. Words.
Mozart observed that, “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”
This is the other direction you can go with speaking more slowly: intentionally…adding extra pauses….as you speak.
Now, why in the world would you do this? Because it can be INCREDIBLY powerful.
1)It gives a sense of emotional weight to what you’re saying: when you’re saying something that you really want to “sink in” with your audience, delivering the key piece of information with pauses can be extremely impactful. I can think back to a speech in which a speaker described the pain a relative had to endure after getting caught in an earthquake in the speaker’s home town. The speaker had described the incident so vividly, and the pain with such evocative language, that all of us in the audience could nearly feel the pain ourselves. We could imagine every agonizing minute of being in their situation, and wondered on our own how many minutes they could have possibly held out against the pain. Just then, the speaker described how his uncle “cried out in pain…trapped in the rubble…for seven..teen..days.”
Here we could barely imagine what it must have been like to endure the pain for a few moments…and then we discover that he was in that state for SEVENTEEN DAYS? Most impactfully, the long, drawn out delivery serves as a mirror of the long, painful wait.
Delivering in this slow, methodological way can be powerful to let the scope and scale you’re describing sink in…whether it’s the amount of people who died in an accident, the frequency in which a terrible act occurs, or a declaration or judgment that seals someone’s fate. You give the words “space to breathe” — which is to say, that you say the words slowly enough that you give the listener time to really soak them in, and imagine in their own mind the feeling or visuals related to the message.
2)It can exude sincerity: We will discuss this point in greater detail when we explore how speaking softly can produce powerful results in your presentation, but for the sneak preview–speaking slowly can give the impression that you feeling vulnerable, or even shaken, as you’re delivering a line. This can be powerful in a number of ways, as we’ll outline momentarily.
4) FASTER PACING
Usually, one of the most frequent critiques you’ll see of new speakers is “you need to slow down! You’re speaking too quickly – you sound nervous!”
In most cases, that’s all completely true.
Across cultures, there’s an unspoken understanding that a person who’s speaking extremely quickly is often nervous, embarrassed, uncomfortable or somehow seen as insecure.
Conversely, a speaker who speaks at a steady, conscious pace, taking their time to speak with purpose and emphasis, is regarded as much more confident and powerful.
*But*…there are circumstances, surprisingly, when speaking extremely quickly is exactly what you want to do.
The Big Picture
Why would you ever want to speak “too fast” on purpose? It might seem like we’ve repeatedly stressed that many speakers are already going faster than they should; so the idea of pushing it even farther can obviously seem unexpected.
However, as you’ll see, “stepping on the gas,” when it’s done with purpose, can have extremely unique and useful effects in your presentation.
The exercises we’ll cover below will help to illustrate exactly what those benefits are, and when best to apply them.
Intentionally induce a sense of anxiety in your audience: Imagine that you are telling the story of your life as an overworked single parent, pushed to the breaking point. You’re listed your daily responsibilities.
I want you to practice telling a hypothetical story from this perspective in three styles:
1)Slowly: Put in some of the tips and tools we just finished covering in the last “Pacing” section. If you’re able to record yourself, and then replay it, that’s ideal. What you should notice is how the slower delivery makes you feel: you can imagine it coming from someone who’s reached a stage of exhaustion. You, sounding slow and almost exhausted in the way that you’re reading it, creates an energy that makes the audience exhausted as they listen, and almost subconsciously internalizes the energy of the emotional state of your “character” for themselves.
2)Normal speed: Recite the same story at the same speed as your regular speaking voice. Again, if possible, record it and listen to how it sounds. Likely, the passage won’t give any clear emotional signal at all, except that the audience becomes a little distracted and eager to hear you move on.
3)Fast: Now, in the third version, you’re describing your day as an overworked parent at breakneck speed. Suddenly, your audience is struggling to keep up, barely able to remember what you’re saying, and feeling a sense of stress and anxiety at feeling “overwhelmed” by the speed and volume of the content. This, however, is exactly the emotion YOU feel as the overworked parent. Suddenly, just by the way you delivered the content, the audience is now in your shoes, feeling the sorts of stress and emotion you felt in that situation–making the whole section come alive in a much more emotional and internal way for your audience.
CHEAT SHEET: Pick Up the Pace
If you can imagine yourself telling your story to a good friend, and you can picture it feeling natural to speed up as you tell it (possibly because you’d be feeling overwhelmed by the emotion of what you’re saying, exasperated, etc), then be consistent and deliver it the same way on stage. The more how you’re presenting feels like the “real you” the more authentic and genuine you’ll seem to your listeners.
As one cautionary note, however, do try to make sure that, if you’re speaking very quickly, that it’s for a relatively short time-like using extreme loudness, it’s far more effective in a short burst.
Many speakers, in an effort to sound more “powerful,” “energetic” or “engaging,” fall into the trap of either speaking extremely loudly throughout nearly the entirety of their presentation, or shout out a word, sentence or expression multiple times throughout their speech.
The result in both cases are the same–exhausted, annoyed audiences. No one likes to be yelled at–especially repeatedly!
However, loudness–even a near shout–can still have many valuable uses for a speaker. The key is knowing how best to raise your voice effectively.
Here, we’re differentiating from our earliest section on “volume.” That earliest section was primarily focused on simply projecting your voice clearly and fully. Here, we’re looking at the applications of specific, targeted moments of loud inflection.
The Big Picture
Getting loud isn’t something that’s going to always be necessary in a speech. Regardless, understanding why it works and what its effect can be on an audience can help you to provide you with an additional tool in your toolkit.
It shouldn’t surprise you by now, but the best guide for when to be loud should be a question of authenticity. The central question here is “would I deliver the line this way, if I was speaking to someone in ‘real life’?”
This simple test can usually eliminate most cases of using a moment of loudness incorrectly. After all, if you imagine yourself telling a friend “YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE what happened to me yesterday!!” it will probably sound totally unnatural for you. Considering how many speakers think that this style of OVER THE TOP SHOUTING is the best way to look “theatrical” and “dynamic,” being more self aware about your authenticity will already give you a major advantage.
I can recall a speech that opened with a woman shouting “NO!” as the opening line of her speech, in which she proceeded to relive a moment in her life in which she reclaimed her power, finally standing up to a father who had spent a lifetime disrespecting and controlling her. The loudness and the power of her expression made it feel real, as if we were in that moment with her, instead of hearing a speech.
As an exercise, imagine the last (non triggering!) time you’ve gotten angry. Really angry.
Maybe you shouted in the heat of the moment, maybe you just wanted to. Either way, tap into that moment.
Now, in an environment where you can be by yourself and get loud, shout out what you said or wish you did. Let it out!
Inasmuch as it’s comfortable for you to do so, reconnect with that energy and use it to break through any natural hesitation you might have to get loud. Repeat it, but louder. And again. Keep it up until you’re “letting it all out.”
Hold onto that feeling, and that delivery. When the situation demands it, use this as a reminder of what it sounds like and how it feels to use your volume and your power to communicate the emotion of an experience.
CHEAT SHEET: SPEAK UP!
The key takeaway to remember–loudness can be a tool in your arsenal, if used very consciously and for a very specific effect, but only when it feels truly congruent and authentic to the message.
Because it’s relatively uncommon to hear a sharp spike of loudness in our everyday lives, it can be extremely effective in commanding an audience’s attention. By the same extension, however, it needs to be done in very small doses to maintain its power.
Outside of “capturing the emotion of a moment,” there are also other “corner cases” where a spark of loudness can be the right choice. Some examples could include onomatopoeia (a word that matches a sound, like “BOOM” or “BANG”), or intentionally creating a specific emotional state in your audience (for example, getting louder and louder while playing the role of an overly demanding boss listing out a schedule, to let the audience internalize the sense of annoyance, frustration experienced by the listener in your story, and emphasize the overbearing nature of the boss).
Don’t feel pressured or obligated to inject moments of loudness into every speech. There will be many, many speeches where it simply doesn’t feel natural or justified given the content you’re delivering. However, when it serves to capture a moment or an emotion with greater authenticity, it can be a phenomenal addition to your presentation.
Just like how short bursts of EXTREME LOUDNESS can have their place, when they add authenticity to your delivery, so can intentionally speaking much quieter than your natural speaking voice.
Speaking softly often comes together with speaking slowly, to create a sense of vulnerability and “realness.” It’s you, stripped away of all of the bold, strong confidence, speaking in a tone of sadness, emotion, disbelief, longing, grief, weakness, shame or regret.
For reference, you can watch nearly any film–and wait for the inevitable scene when a character finally opens up emotionally, or admits a hidden truth, or reports tragic news, or a hundred other examples. You can *feel* the emotion in their voice. You can *feel* their hurt or their sadness, or how much what they’re saying means to them.
Used sparingly and conscious purpose, it will have exactly the same effect for you.
Of course, quietness can have other uses. For example, you can imagine someone telling a story involving a person hiding, and by telling a suspenseful part of the story in a quiet tone, you can add to the suspense and the tension of the moment.
The Big Picture
If it’s rare for me to find a speaker who uses loudness well, it’s even more rare for me to find someone who uses moments of quiet to their best effect. I suspect that one of the main fears of speaking quietly as a speaker is a fear that they will not be heard clearly by the judges or audience. That’s a legitimate concern, and I would agree that whispering or speaking particularly quietly in a speech, unless you are either using a microphone or have had some practice at raising your overall volume and projecting, might not always be advisable.
The good news is that, in the sorts of environments that you’re likely to be giving a speech, even a quiet tone should be relatively easy for your audience to hear. As long as you’re avoiding any of the common mistakes we discussed in the earlier section on “volume,” and you’re speaking clearly with good annunciation, your audience should generally not have any issue hearing you.
1)You can be quiet, and still be heard: The first exercise will be to become comfortable with being able to speak in a quiet tone, while still being confident that you can be heard clearly.
1)Find a quiet, closed room where you can practice speaking. If you can find a room roughly as large as the venue you’ll be speaking in, even better.
2)In the opposite end of the room from where you’re speaking, set up your phone to record you.
3)As far away from your phone as possible, deliver a few lines in your regular speaking volume, and then one or more lines slightly more quietly, then a few more lines slightly more quietly. You can repeat this process as often as you like, going slightly quieter each time. Be mindful to follow all of the instructions we covered in the “volume” section (ie not looking downward when you speak, etc).
4)Listen to your recordings. What levels of quietness could be heard clearly? Were there any levels that became too faint or too quiet to be audible?
Using this practice, you can find your ideal volume that allows you to be quieter than your regular speaking voice, to create a unique feeling in your presentation, while still being easy for your audience to hear.
2)How loudness affects the message: Practice saying the following phrases three times–loud, normally, and quietly.
1)How could you?
2)Where were you?
3)She waited. And watched. And waited.
Ideally, record yourself saying each version of each line, so you can go back and listen to it.
When you go back to listen to the variations, you should notice that the difference in speaking volume should give each line a very different feeling and connotation. You can almost imagine a different inner feeling in the person saying it each way. Even the descriptive example, #3, changes its feeling depending on how loudly you say it; in a loud voice, it suggests an almost annoyed, irritated state of mind; whispered, it might suggest tension, fear, and anxiety.
CHEAT SHEET: Quiet words, loud impacts
The exercises above should help you to get more and more comfortable with being able to punctuate a key moment or expression with a quietness that deepens and richens your storytelling. The more experience you develop with integrating quiet moments into your speeches, and the more opportunities you have watching others using it effectively as well, the more intuitive and effortless it will feel for you in the future.
Some elements that can be enhanced and emphasized by a quiet delivery include:
The last section we’ll cover in our look at delivery might be the most important on the entire list.
We’ve emphasized how the most important core of your presentation is creating a sense of authenticity and congruence between your words and your delivery. In order to achieve that connection, it’s crucial that your tone, in communicating an emotional message, reflects the sort of emotions you’re attempting to convey.
If you’re saying how heartbroken someone was, but you’re delivering the line in a way that’s flat, it instantly takes away from the “realness” of what you’re saying. Conversely, if you can share a story, and use your voice to add an air of frustration, regret, joy, or uncertainty, you can create an entire additional layer to your message, that will add depth and emotional resonance for the audience. I cannot stress enough how crucial this skill is to achieve, in order to reach a level as a speaker where you can consistently connect emotionally with an audience.
The Big Picture
When we discussed facial expressions, we went over the importance of having your facial expressions and body language mirror your words. If you remember, we discussed tapping into experiences or emotions you may have had, and allowing yourself to remember what they felt like, physically. From there, we reviewed the power of letting your face and your body reflect those emotions, when you used words or told stories that related to them.
In other words, if you’re using the word “furious” and you want it to carry weight, your face should look furious. Do it right, and your audience will walk away remembering your performance as “emotional,” “powerful,” and most of all “real.”
Why do I bring all this up? Because we can apply the same techniques to your voice–with perhaps an even stronger impact on your audience.
In the following examples, we’ll provide straightforward exercises and examples to make this key skill easier to integrate into your future presentations.
1)Review a range of emotional states:
2)Contentment (sitting on a gorgeous beach, feeling perfectly at peace with the world)
8)Shame / Guilt
12)Incredulity / Disbelief
For each emotion, remember back to a time where you personally felt it strongly (while being mindful of your self care to avoid experiences that may be triggering or overly uncomfortable). Do your best to recall it as vividly as possible. Breath it. Smell it. Make it absolutely as real as possible.
Now, for each moment you’re reliving, say something that captures the emotion of that moment. Maybe for anger, hear yourself expressing that anger at the person or situation that wronged you, full blast, with nothing held back.
If you’re self conscious, or not in an environment with a lot of privacy, some of these examples might be hard to actually say with full force out loud. Do your best to find somewhere you can be completely alone and not have to hold back, though–it’s important. Don’t think about feeling silly or weird either–in this exercise, you’re in that moment. You’re there. Just let the emotion run through you and don’t try to judge or second guess what comes out.
Then do it again. And again. Each time, it’ll feel a little more comfortable–you’ll hold back just a little less. The memory will be that much more vivid, and so will be the emotions you feel in that moment.
Many people find the exercise works best for them in front of a mirror. This is a deeply personal experience, though, so I won’t presume to give you any hard-and-fast rules for it.
Just find the environment that makes you the most comfortable and gives you the most emotional freedom to cut loose.
2)Recite the same emotional states:
2)Contentment (sitting on a gorgeous beach, feeling perfectly at peace with the world)
8)Shame / Guilt
12)Incredulity / Disbelief
In a variation of the same exercise, that might seem simpler, I would like you to once again look over the list of emotions. I want you to take the same experiences you recalled, and the same emotion that you expressed in finding the words to capture each moment. This time, though, I want you to take all of that emotion, and try to express it in the way you say each word on the list.
In other words, for the word anger, I want you to bundle those aggravating experiences, and the power you let out in expressing your anger in the last section, in the way you say the word “Anger.” I want the word itself, in the way that you say it, to instantly show just how angry you felt in that moment. From there, repeat the exercise for each emotional state listed.
If possible, I strongly encourage you to record your delivery. You should be able to feel a strong emotion coming off of each word, from the way you delivered it.
CHEAT SHEET: Emote Emotionally
The more natural it becomes for your words to be spoken with a tone that captures their meaning (to sound angry when you discuss anger, to sound joyous when you say “joy”), the more your audience feels your emotion radiating from the podium. It’s one of the most powerful ways in your entire arsenal to make the audience feel as though you really, genuinely mean what you’re saying. It’s what most of us do when we’ve reached a point of being completely unfiltered and transparent with our emotions.
It’s ultimately extremely intuitive. All of us can imagine the exact tone and emotional expressiveness of someone saying “I’m not annoyed…I’m FURIOUS!” or “I think I’m in love.” Yet, even though it’s easy for us to imagine in a real conversation with others, it is still one of the most challenging habits for most new speakers to integrate into their presentations.
Regardless of the challenge, however, it’s one of the most important parts of your entire delivery, so it’s crucial that you spend the time to do it consistently. Eventually, it will become second nature, and the more you practice it, the more you’ll catch the moments of other speakers using the technique effectively (or poorly!) in their own presentations.
Over our time together, we’ve covered the three most crucial aspects of your presentation — content, rhetoric, and delivery.
Each phase will take time, practice, and feedback. Some aspects may come quickly and easily–others concepts or techniques might require extra reflection.
Now that you’ve read the book from start to finish, I would encourage you to go back to whatever sections you think might give you the easiest “quick wins” by rereading. In turn, if you’re coaching or advising others who are looking to improve their public speaking, I would encourage you to jump around the book as necessary, to zero-in on particular lessons that you see as offering the biggest opportunities for improvement in the speakers’ you’re looking to assist.
I’ve mentioned it multiple times throughout the book, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough; the cellphone is one of the best tools ever invented to rapidly improve as a public speaker. For the vast majority of advice and strategies in this book, the ability to record yourself, and then look back at your material, is an invaluable resource. These recordings can feel even better to look at as time goes by; being able to watch yourself weeks or months after you’ve been steadily practicing and growing can be one of the most inspiring ways to see just how far you’ve progressed.
At the same time, even being able to see yourself on camera, and as much as you may try to use your footage to catch and improve on your weaknesses, it is absolutely crucial to always seek out and reflect on the constructive feedback of others. I think I can say that my hunger to actively seek out constructive criticism from judges in speech competitions might have been one of my greatest advantages as a speaker. I didn’t necessarily agree with every comment, but there were far more occasions where a different perspective may have made me realize when my delivery may have been distracting or incongruent; when a joke may have missed the mark; or when a message or theme, that I may have thought was universal, might have overlooked cultural or social differences among my judges or audience.
Exactly how much feedback to take in, and which feedback in particular to accept, isn’t an easy question to answer. You want to be careful not to overreact to “corner cases” of fringe perspectives that would lead you to cut out a section that 99% of the rest of your audience will absolutely love (with the obvious exception of finding out that some part of your speech might be unintentionally hurtful or disrespectful to a particular group–especially if it’s a member of that particular group who’s making the point to you).
Overall, though, I’ve definitely seen far more speakers lose out on valuable crucial opportunities for improvement by rejecting feedback, than good speakers get hurt by accepting it. Especially assuming you’re in an environment where you’re regularly getting feedback from your listeners, always try your best to keep an open mind and find as many opportunities as possible to see yourself, your speech, and the world from a new perspective. Above all, never allow yourself to feel personally attacked by constructive criticism–even if it’s particularly harsh feedback, they’re ultimately directing at some element of your presentation, which can always be changed and improved, and not at YOU, personally.
As you actively and continuously observe yourself, watch more and more effective speakers, and seek out constructive criticism, you’re inevitably going to grow and improve as a speaker. Through the tools in this book, you’ll be better equipped to speed up the learning process. When you watch excellent speakers, you should now be better equipped with a foundation and a vocabulary to understand more explicitly the individual choices or techniques that made their presentation particularly effective. That knowledge will help you to learn faster and develop rapidly.
I wish you well on your journey as a speaker. Improving your skills in public speaking will open up doors in virtually every aspect of your life. No matter what path you embark on professionally, being able to connect more effectively and persuasively with your clients and colleagues will be crucial to your success. I applaud you for having the courage to step onto the stage and share your message. Public speaking is the second most common fear, so the mere act of walking onto the stage already sets you apart from nearly everyone you’ll ever meet. Whatever the results of your competitions, remember to keep up the perspective of Nelson Mandela:
“I never lose. I either win, or I learn.”
BONUS MUSINGS: TOURNAMENT WINNING SECRETS
So, since there wasn’t any obvious place to put this, I’m adding a bonus section as a “thank you” for taking the time to read the book (assuming you haven’t just skipped to the end!) in full.
In no particular order, I’d like to share some musings on advice I would give to someone outside of what we’ve already covered together, on how best to craft a “tournament winning speech” at the highest levels.
1)Bend, but don’t break:
If you’re in public speaking competitions, you’re often given a topic to speak on. Sometimes, you can get the topic well in advance, other times it might be an impromptu competition where you’re given the topic on the spot.
Especially in competitions where a topic encourages a very predictable type of speech (for example, a speech on a “Great Leader” you admire), it can become extremely monotonous for judges to listen to speech after speech that are basically just variations of each other. Especially for that reason, I would typically encourage picking as “outside-the-box” of a choice as possible. So, for a speech on a great leader, you might pick someone who, on the surface, could seem like the last person anyone would consider to be leadership material. They could be an entertainer who is typically mocked for being unintelligent or irrelevant; someone who invented something seemingly insignificant; or someone who, when first introduced, may seem like the absolute opposite of a great leader (though not so extreme of a choice that the organizers attempt to pull you off of the stage immediately, or one that risks offending your audience to a point of effectively disqualifying you from the competition). In each case, you start off with an example that seems to ignore the entire “rules of the game,” a topic that appears to fail to ignore the requirements of the speech entirely. However, in each case, my goal would be to structure the speech in such a way to catch my audience off guard; to show them how each of these cases, that might appear to “break” the requirements, only bends them, and that each is ultimately revealed in the end to be a great leader after all.
For example, if I had chosen the supposedly irrelevant or unintelligent reality star, I might construct the speech to go through that person’s devastatingly troubled upbringing; then, the incredible, unseen or underappreciated hard work they needed to do behind-the-scenes; and ultimately, the work they may have been quietly doing to support a range of charities or valuable causes–ideally capped off by a 1-on-1 experience that had that may have resulted in saving a fan’s life or dramatically impacting someone in an undeniably powerful and personal way.
In this case, the initial dismissal of the audience is basically “used against them.” The audience is ultimately forced to re-evaluate their own bias or smugness, and the massive gap between their expectations and the content they delivered gives them both something extremely memorable, and material they’d genuinely enjoy sharing with others long after the speech. Combined with the speech being sprinkled with emotional moments throughout, and I’d feel confident that I ultimately had a very strong speech on my hands.
If I instead chose the second option, picking an inventor of something seemingly irrelevant, I might try to start it the same way as our first example; finding some emotionally resonating challenges or key moments in their youth.
From there, my focus would be to play with expectations in a different way; to construct a narrative that showed how this seemingly irrelevant invention (really, the sillier than better), was directly responsible and required for another invention to occur, which led to another, which led to another, which directly led through a wildly unexpected chain of events to the landing of humans on the moon (or the invention of the computer, or some other pivotal landmark). It would allow me to end with a clear “moral of the story” – a central lesson to make the speech personally relevant and resonant with my listeners – that the real contributions we have in the world might not be obvious, or appreciated in our lifetime; whether that’s a person’s professional legacy, their children, or just the impact they had on the world. After all, if the invention of (something ridiculous) could ultimately be responsible for putting a human on the moon….who are we to judge the impact our life will have on those to come?
Ideally, I’d try to conclude that thought with a line,a famous quote, or a pun that directly ties into the “amazing invention” revealed in the speech.
Lastly, if I was to choose a wildly unlikely character as a leader, my approach might be similar to the “celebrity” example. I might try to find someone “comically flawed,” or else someone who had clearly made several bad decisions in life (although, carefully, not engaging in actions that might be so triggering to certain members of the audience that they became irredeemable) , and then showing their transition to becoming an incredible source of good and positive influence in the world; emphasizing that even if you didn’t know who this person was, maybe you should, and the theme that their life shows the potential for anyone to take a stand and decide to change their lives and be a positive influence in the world.
As an “asterisk,” I might add that there are rare occasions where I might recommend pushing this “unlikely leader choice” MUCH further. Particularly, someone who may in fact seem far more irredeemable, and who may even seem to be a shocking and totally unacceptable choice (who then goes on to wildly transform their lives for the better, in a way that actively opposes their initial unacceptable actions or positions). HOWEVER, I would only do so under one crucial condition–I represented the constituency that should be most offended or was most hurt by their actions. These speeches can be EXTREMELY powerful but need to be selected VERY VERY CAREFULLY, and oftentimes aren’t worth the minefield you have to navigate to deliver them effectively (at least until you’re at a very senior level in your speech crafting skills).
The key in all of these examples is that, initially, it will look like you’re “breaking” the rules you’ve been given–that you’re not talking about a real leader at all–but by the end of your speech, they can see that you’re only bending their expectations.
Always keep in mind that one of your biggest goals in a speech competition is to be memorable (and hopefully not in a bad way). One of the best ways to leave a lasting impression is to have one or more “shocking twists” in your speech.
For me, I generally break down “twists” into two areas–1)extremely unexpected outcomes, and 2)shocking facts and statistics. Done right, both of these are great additions to your speech.
When we’re talking about the first type of twist, focused on unexpected outcomes, it’s crucial that there is some kind of real emotional weight connected to the outcome, and that the audience GENUINELY doesn’t see it coming.The twist is usually delivered extremely abruptly, to maximize their effect of catching the audience off-guard. The twist shouldn’t be delivered in such a way that it feels like it’s trying to draw attention to itself and say “wow, bet you didn’t see that coming!” It should just come out, unexpectedly, give the audience a second to gasp, or sigh, or gape in disbelief, take it in, and continue.
Shocking facts and statistics aren’t just data points that your audience might be surprised by or unaware of. I could tell an audience some surprisingly high statistics on the crime rates of a country they haven’t heard of, and they might be surprised, but it would lack the emotions that would come with feeling truly “shocked” by a piece of information. To be genuinely shocking and impactful, the data should take an idea that the majority of your audience may have in their minds, and completely turn it on its head. You know you’ve done it right when you can see a look in your audiences’ eyes that almost says “no way…that’s not possible…right?”
In these cases, you want to make sure that you firmly back up your data with a reliable source, since it’s going to seem so improbable and surprising to your listeners that their first instinct will be to challenge it.
If you’re looking for more in depth, particular examples of how to structure shocks and surprises for your audiences, I would suggest for you to go back and review the variety of suggestions on what makes for good (and less than desirable) twists in our “Rhetoric” section, with twist-related openings accounting for several examples of highly effective ways to start a presentation. The dos and don’ts still apply here.
As we’ve said, most speech competitions contain highly repetitive content; even the most enthusiastic of judges, halfway into the event, will be struggling to pay attention (or sometimes, even awake).So, by seeming to go on a predictable route, then throwing them a massive curveball, it offers such a shock to the system, such a jolt to their expectations of continued monotony, that you immediately “wake them up,” and give them something to remember. It also subcommunicates in general “hey, this person is actually worth sitting up and paying attention to!” Lastly, because novelty makes such a powerful imprint in our memory, giving someone a wildly unexpected end to a story, or completely overturning an idea or assumption they may have had in their head for years, is one of the most potent things a speaker can do to ensure that they’ll be thinking of you for hours (and days!) to come.
3)Emotional, Personal and Influential:
In choosing a topic and planning out a speech, it’s crucial that your choice revolves around creating an emotional, personal and Influential experience for your audience.
No matter how many of the lessons from this book you implement, if your speech focuses on a subject that’s merely “interesting” for your audience (or even worse, mostly just interesting or relevant to you), you drastically reduce your chances of winning in a speech competition. A great speech, especially within the scope of a speech competition, needs to be built from the ground up to take the audience through an emotional journey; to offer up themes or ideas that stir up deep self reflection; makes them re-evaluate their old opinions or beliefs in a new way; and ultimately inspired them to feel something in themselves stirred up or awoken.
In some cases, that might seem particularly difficult–for younger people competing in speech competitions, for example, the age gap between themselves and their judges might add to the difficulty of finding a message that can truly and deeply resonate with someone who may have dramatically different life experiences. Done wrong, it’s easy for a speech intended to be deep and impactful to come across as shallow, naive or presumptuous to an older listener.
To overcome this, try to take advantage of some of the storytelling advice in the book that “short circuits” your audience’s skepticism or dispositions. Communicate with vivid stories that create a “simulation” in the minds of your audience, that encourages their imaginations to allow them to “live out” your stories as you describe them, and experience the emotions connected with it in real-time. Think of your goal as creating a “virtual reality” experience for your audience, where your speech is not so much heard as it is experienced.
Ultimately, though, those vivid storytelling devices need to be in the service of a theme and a message that is personally impactful and deeply relevant to an audience. The best themes tend to fall into one of three broad categories:
1)Conflict: Inducing genuine outrage and/or panic in the listeners, then offering a response or a way out that each listener can act on.
2)Us vs Them: Stories of optimists vs haters (aka “follow your dreams”); “Them,” that takes an obviously wrong / hateful / shortsighted / counterproductive stance on an issue, vs “Us”, who take the right approach (and how we can overcome “Them”).
3)You’re special: Follow the passion that “you know” is the right choice for your life; believe in yourself; If (people used in your stories and examples) can do X, even though they had to overcome Y, so can you; It’s not you, it’s them; You deserve to be happy (and here’s how to achieve it);
Virtually every speech I’ve ever written that’s won a competition, or any speech I’ve seen that’s won a major competition, has fallen into one of these three categories. They work because they speak (when written well) to the elements that are so primal to the human experience that they can stir emotions across cultures, ages, and social demographics. They speak to our hopes, our fears, and our sense of justice and “fairness.”
The more speeches you write, and the more speeches you watch being performed, the more intuitively you’ll notice how speeches follow these patterns. Over time, developing speeches with these key themes and focuses in mind will become second nature. Similarly, you’ll soon find yourself watching speeches that fail, and noticing how often they fall outside of these three categories. Once you know what to look for, you’ll see just how central these elements are to powerful presentations and resonating rhetoric.
4)Everything is a metaphor: Perhaps the single most useful piece of advice to close out our time together; start pushing yourself to constantly ask “what could this be a metaphor for?” We touched briefly on this earlier, but it’s so central to effective storytelling that I wanted to close on it, particularly in relation to our last point, on the need to make your speech personal and emotional for the listener.
Every story, every example, every quote you employ in your speech needs to be a metaphor. The woman who overcame incredible hardship to achieve her dream isn’t just a story about some specific person who accomplished a goal; it’s a metaphor that shows that YOU can achieve your dreams no matter what obstacles stand in your way. The story of the victim of injustice isn’t a story of one person’s wrongful persecution; it’s a story of how all of us are under threat until the status quo is overturned.
The key here is that every story you tell about someone or something needs to be transformed into a symbol or a metaphor that directly and personally reflects or impacts your audience. That understanding needs to be at the absolute center of your thinking as a public speaker.