Over the past 17 years, I’ve probably seen well over a thousand speakers and speeches. Some were good, some bad, some memorable, and some unforgettable. Though I sometimes joke that I’ve seen more speakers that anyone should be humanly subjected to in their lifetime, I actually consider myself lucky, as these experiences have provided me with a continuing education and perspective that most people don’t have access to.
I am often asked what I look for a in a speaker, or what makes for a great speech, and I’ve boiled it down to three essential elements: education, entertainment and inspiration. Here’s what I mean by each of these key ingredients:
First and foremost, I believe the purpose of a speech is to educate or enlighten an audience, and provide them with new insight and perspective on the given topic. Regardless of the subject matter, a great speech needs great content. Without substance, it’s purely fluff, which at best can be entertaining and at worst, mind-numbing. Even great comedians have substance, and make you not only laugh, but also think! This may be accomplished with facts and research findings, stories and anecdotes, unique insights, or original thinking and ideas. In general, I believe that stories trump data, but depending on the topic, data may be an essential element of a speech.
The second element of a great speech is entertainment. While not everyone is a stand-up comedian, nor should they try to be one, interjecting a bit of humour or levity to a speech can elevate it from good to great. The late Victor Borge famously said “Laughter is the closest distance between two people,” and there is no better way for a speaker to connect with an audience than through humour. I’m a big believer that people are more engaged when they’re having fun, and many of the best speakers are able to interject humour into even the most serious of topics.
I believe that the final element of a great speech is inspiration. This is not just about sharing a story of climbing a mountain, winning an Olympic gold medal, or overcoming a terrible tragedy. This is about providing the audience with the impetus to act on what they have heard, learned, and felt during the presentation. Without this “call to action,” a speech may be interesting or entertaining, but it will not achieve what I believe is its core purpose: to inspire positive change.
There are many different ways a speaker can accomplish each of these ingredients, and some speakers will be more naturally inclined to excel in one or two areas over the other(s). Above all, a speaker must be true to themselves and their personality, but they should also strive ensure that they have incorporated each of these key elements into their presentation if they wish to truly connect with their audience.
Finally, I believe a great speech should have one very clear message or theme. When I attend a presentation, I always hope to walk away with one strong idea that I can take away to apply to either my business or my personal life. There may be many different pieces of information and examples incorporated throughout the presentation, but they should all be tied back to one compelling point to enable audience members not only to put it to use for themselves, but also to share it with their colleagues, family and friends.