Archives For Speak


Lincoln used long sentences in his speeches.I often hear it said that speakers should keep their sentences short.

Such advice is, in my opinion, a mistake.

It’s true that short sentences tend to be simple, and simplicity can be the servant of clarity. But clarity is the goal, not simplicity.

If you say speakers should keep their sentences clear—immediately comprehensible, able to be understood by their audiences on first hearing—I’m in total agreement.

But I believe in the value, beauty, and usefulness of long sentences in a speech.

Consider some of the masters:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” (75 words)

“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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (141 words)

“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” (67 words)

Long sentences piled one on top of the other can grow tedious, so it’s best to intersperse them with shorter sentences.

But long sentences have several benefits.

1. Long sentences are better able to address complexity.

The world we live in and the problems we face are complex, and we do ourselves and our audiences little justice by reducing our response to them to short and simple epigrams.

2. Long sentences are more pleasing.

Short sentences have a certain pizzazz. (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”) But they quickly grow tiresome. And they lack the pleasure that longer sentences make possible, sentences that add detail and richness, step by step, sentences that have a rhythm and build to a satisfying conclusion.

3. Long sentences are more revelatory of a speaker’s character.

Long sentences provide more information, and in doing so give greater insight into the working of the speaker’s mind, into their reasoning, their values, their understanding.

Agree or disagree? (Feel free to respond in short or long sentences.)


Once again I was asked to help someone deliver a presentation using a PowerPoint slide deck prepared by another person.

And once again I found it a thankless, futile, frustrating task.

And I’ve come to this conclusion:

Don’t give a presentation using PowerPoint slides that you didn’t have a role in creating yourself.

It doesn’t work for any number of reasons.

First, most PowerPoint slide decks are a mess that need to be revised.

Individual slides are frequently poorly designed. Each slide on its own is usually crammed full of too much information and too many words. Individual slides don’t present, explain, and illustrate one central idea.

And individual slides frequently fail to build a coherent story. They are simply tacked on one after another, as if they are free-standing ideas.

PowerPoint slide decks often–almost always–need to be clarified, simplified, and rearranged. And you often only know how to do so when you’re rehearing your presentation.

When you’re presenting a slide deck that you’ve created on your own, you are free to clean up your slides or to rearrange them so they make more sense. But when you’re given a slide deck and told to present it as best you can, you’re left trying to make sense of a mess.

It’s okay for someone to create slides for you, as long as you are given the time, knowledge, and authority to change them.

Second, presenting someone else’s slides puts you in a subordinate role.

There is–or there should be–an intimate connection between you and the message you’re delivering.

Presenting someone else’s material makes you a mouthpiece, a marionette, nothing more.

If you can’t own the slides, you can’t own the message. Which is never a good thing.

Third, presenting someone else’s slides makes you focus more on the message than on the audience.

PowerPoint slides are not, nor should they be, a script. The words and images on the screen should be a prompt for what you are going to say. They should enable a conversation between you and your audience.

But when you’re given a slide deck that is created by someone else and that is a mess (see above), you have to figure out how to make sense of what you yourself don’t understand. (Sometimes you’re given a script in the notes page, which doesn’t clarify a thing.)

So you go over your script again and again to make sure you say what you think you’re meant to say. Your focus, too often, is on being true to the message created by someone else, when you should be trying to help the audience understand and accept your ideas.

Don’t give a presentation based entirely on slides created by someone else without your input. And don’t create slides for someone else to present without involving them in a meaningful way.


See also When Not to Use PowerPoint.

The Idea or the StructureWhen crafting a speech, do you start with an idea or with a structure, with content or with form?

Some Say “Start with an Idea”

There are those who argue, powerfully in my opinion, in favor of beginning the speech writing process with an idea.

They have a point: Any speech worth its salt is built around an idea.

One would hope that the idea being presented is coherent, insightful, supported by reason and evidence, emotionally engaging, and relevant to the audience. Which is, sadly, not always the case, especially in political discourse these days.

As a speech writer, after a preliminary conversation, I ask my clients, “What do you want to talk about?” And then I follow up with the more substantive question, “What do you want to say about it?”

The first question–what do you want to talk about?–simply defines the topic. It could be something like climate change, a recent threat to the company’s future, a new policy or procedure.

The follow-up question–what do you want to say about it?–lays out an idea about that topic: the content of the speech. For example, this is what climate change is, this is what it means for us, and this is what we should do about it.

A speech is nothing without an idea. It’s like a beautifully wrapped package that’s completely empty.

So it seems right to start with an idea.

Others Say “Start with a Structure”

On the other hand, there are those who argue–and I’m beginning to adopt their position–in favor of starting with a speech’s structure.

Speeches are a way of structuring an idea, of presenting it clearly and persuasively.

Most speeches–98.2% of them–follow a form, a structure: they begin with an introduction, proceed through the body, and end with a conclusion. (I made up that statistic, by the way, so please don’t ask me to cite my source.)

Within that basic structure, there are other ways of structuring a speech.

You can use the “They Say/I Say” structure, a variation of which I’m using in this piece. Or the “Problem/Cause/Solution” structure. Or the “Past/Present/Future” structure. Or the “Where We Want to Go/Why We Want to Get There/How We Can Get There” structure.

And certain kinds of speeches necessitate certain structures. A keynote address takes a different form, from example, than a panel discussion.

Knowing how to structure a speech shapes the idea being presented.

Structures may not generate a specific idea for a speech, but they do make possible the meaning of any idea.

A speech without a structure is, like a drunkard’s monologue, incomprehensible and tiring, or, like Macbeth’s view of life, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So it makes sense to begin with a structure.

I Say “It Depends”

I favor starting with a structure. I agree with those who believe that you can’t even begin formulating an idea without structuring it.

But here’s where the it depends comes in.

Experienced speakers and speechwriters can begin by focusing on the idea they want to develop, because they intuitively think in terms of how they are going to structure it. They create a structure as they think about the speech’s idea.

But beginning speakers should start crafting a speech by choosing a structure that will work for them, a structure that forces them to formulate and express their ideas in a meaningful and moving way.

What do you think?

The first order of business when crafting a speech is to be clear. Clear about what you want to accomplish. Clear about explaining, developing, and supporting your main idea. Clear about the terms and concepts you use.

All good speeches are clear. That should go without saying.

But not all clear speeches are good.

A safe and nutritious meal can be tasteless. (Think of the food served in a college dining hall or cafeteria, or at most conferences.) So, too, a clear, easily comprehensible speech can be flat, boring, and insipid.

To praise a speaker for giving a clear speech is like praising a chef for preparing a meal that doesn’t make anyone sick. Faint praise, indeed.

Too often–and I’m guilty of this–speechwriters and speech coaches advise keeping speeches “short and simple.”

Keep your sentences short. Don’t use big words. Eliminate all inessential words, phrases, or thoughts. Chop out all digressions, asides, parenthetical remarks. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Follow that recipe too slavishly and you’ll sound like the runner-up of the Bad Hemingway Contest, speaking only in nouns and verbs, eschewing adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors, piling on one short and direct sentence after another.

A speech isn’t an impersonal reporting of the facts, objective and unadorned.

A good speech is a window into your thinking, your way of seeing the world, your personality. It should be as rich, deep, and uniquely interesting as you are.


Beyond the basics of speechwritingIt’s fairly easy, with experience and a little study, to craft a “good enough” speech.

What I call a good enough speech has a goal and achieves it by…

  • Developing a single point: a clearly developed, logical, and supported-by-the-evidence idea.
  • Focusing on the audience’s needs and experience, giving them insight or information they can use to their benefit.
  • Providing the right balance–determined by the circumstances and the audience–of right-brain and left-brain appeal.

To turn a good enough speech into a great speech, you need to add three elements: myth, metaphor, and musicality.


1. Myth

A myth isn’t a fable about gods and goddesses or ancient heroes, a legend that is demonstrably false.

A myth is a story that reveals a truth worth pondering, that resonates deeply in people’s psyches, and that sticks in their memories because it feels like something they already know.

Good stories–even contemporary, personal stories–have a mythic dimension.

A story you tell about something that happened to you–an event, an encounter with someone who changed your life, an obstacle you met and overcame–has the power to become everyone’s story.

And that’s the reason to tell a story in a speech. Not to brag about your accomplishments, wisdom, or virtue, but to illuminate your audience’s lives.

2. Metaphor

I use the term metaphor broadly to include all figures of speech–similes, metaphors, and analogies–that compare one thing or situation to another.

A metaphor, in the sense I’m talking about, lets people visualize, not just conceptualize what you’re talking about.

A metaphor doesn’t just clarify an idea by comparing what is known to what is unknown. A metaphor links the feelings evoked by one thing or situation to another.

Lincoln’s entire Gettysburg Address is one, extended metaphor of a nation’s birth, decline, and rebirth. And in ten sentences it managed to evoke feelings of hope and the willingness to persevere.

3. Musicality

Great speeches are pleasing to the ear.

They have a rhythm and a pace; they start slow, they build up speech, they pause, they pick up speed again.

They have an approximation of rhyme in their use of assonance and consonance.

They use parallel structures and repetition.

A great speech isn’t just an exposition of truth. It is also a thing of beauty.



the person of the speakerThe four elements of a great speech, according to Demosthenes–the greatest of ancient Greek orators–are:

  1. A great person
  2. A noteworthy event
  3. A compelling message
  4. A masterful delivery

In my opinion, the person giving the speech is what matters most.

This is becoming increasingly clear as the presidential primary season plays out here in the United States, and as attention is being given more to the candidates than to their message

To take the most obvious example, whatever is reported, discussed, or analyzed about Donald Trump, positively or negatively, has more to do with his character than with what he says he will do, if elected.

The person giving the speech has, for better or worse, taken center stage.

That’s why character matters so much.

By character, I don’t mean a person’s ego, personality, image, or–gag me–personal brand.

Character, to my way of thinking, involves a person’s long-established, deeply rooted values, integrity, experience, knowledge, compassion, and wisdom.

To be a great person, in Demosthenes’s understanding (and in mine), doesn’t involve status, or wealth, or renown. A great person is one whose virtues contribute to the welfare of others.

PS I build my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Publishing) around Demosthenes’s four elements of a great speech.

Photo courtesy of Death to The Stock Photo.

complex speechAll speeches have to be clear.

If you confuse an audience, they tune you out. They may even turn on you, angry at you for wasting their time or making them think harder than they want to.

One way to make a speech clear is to keep it simple. Reduce the scope or complexity of the idea you’re presenting, and focus on a single feature or aspect of it.

The problem is, although simplicity can facilitate clarity, it can also dumb down an otherwise smart idea.

Some ideas—some of the most insightful and incisive ideas—are by nature complex. And if you simplify their complexity in an effort to make them clear, you’re doing a disservice both to your ideas and to your audience.

Don’t confuse “complex” with “complicated.”

Something is complex if it is composed of many interconnected parts.

Complicated is something else altogether. Complicated means “difficult to analyze, understand, or explain.”

I’m in favor of complex speeches, not complicated ones.

If your idea is complicated, you’d be better off writing a research paper or a white paper or a formal proposal. Written pieces give people time to digest what they’re reading, to pause when needed, to refer back to a previous point, to look something up, to think about one point before moving on to the next. None of that is possible in a speech.

Complex speeches don’t have to be complicated. They can be quite clear, even elegantly clear. It’s a matter of identifying the various pieces of the idea and arranging them in a logical fashion.

If you are yourself simpleminded or if you think your audience is, then by all means eliminate all complexity.

That’s what most people running for political office are doing these days. They’re taking complex issues, involving problems that have stumped people for years, and proposing a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

Here’s the real issue. The simplicity or complexity of your speech should be determined by the idea itself. If the idea is simple, make your speech simple. If it’s complex—yay for you!—make your speech complex.

Either way, make sure it’s clear.

Check out How to Plan a Speech.


Political rhetoric has become ugly, stupid, and brutish.

We can, of course, blame the politicians. Some more than others.

But politicians only say what they’re saying because people turn out to hear them, applaud them, support them, give them money, vote for them.

I grieve over the sorry state of political rhetoric. But I worry more about what our willingness to tolerate it, even celebrate it, says about the kind of people we have become.

Is this what we want? Is rage our only response to loss, change, and injustice? Is greatness to be found only in strength and the willingness to use violence to get what we want? What good do we expect to come from contempt, divisiveness, and bigotry?

I don’t know if, as people say, we get the kind of leaders that we deserve. But I believe that we get the kind of speakers and speeches that we’re willing to listen to.

One way — not the only way, but one way — to change the nature of political rhetoric is to change our response to it: to be a kinder, wiser, more discerning audience.

7 Habits of Successful SpeakersGiving a speech–at a sales meeting, an association event, or a general convention–is a great opportunity and a scary proposition.

You have one chance to promote your idea and to build your credibility.

Successful public speakers have mastered a set of practices and made them into habits they consistently use to make the most of every presentation.

1. They Obsess Over Preparation

Great speakers make what they do in front of an audience look effortless. You might be tempted to call them “naturals.” But here’s their secret: they’ve worked long and hard to get ready for their moment.

Know your audience. Establish your goal–what you want the audience to do as a result of listening to you. Create your message, refine it, simplify it. And then practice it out loud at least twice, preferably three times.

Continue Reading…

Confusing an audience is always a mistake.

But being precise, definitive, and conclusive in a speech isn’t always a virtue.

Sometimes your goal as a speaker is to educate your audience. Or it’s to persuade them to take a specific action—to support your initiative, to green light your project, to implement your procedure.

In those cases—and in most workplace presentations—you’ll want to avoid any and all ambiguity. By the end of your speech, your audience should know exactly, in no uncertain terms, what your point is and what you want them to do.

But when you seek to inspire an audience, you need to take a more open-ended approach.

Sometimes, when you’ve finished speaking, you want the audience to have more questions than answers. More wonder, less certainty. More to think about, mull over, and investigate.

Sometimes you want to plant an idea in people’s imaginations and trust them to bring it to fruition.

Sometimes you want people to invest your words with their own wisdom. And you’re willingwantingto see where that takes them. Even if it’s in a direction you had never imagined.

Ambiguous can mean obscure, vague, or cryptic. Which isn’t what I’m advocating. It can also mean “open to more than one interpretation.” Which is a quality many great speeches share.

If everyone in your audiences ends up thinking exactly the same way, you may have given an effective speech. When they each have a different take on what you’ve said, a unique insight, you may—you may—have done them a better service.

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