Think of the most powerful speeches you’ve heard. What set them apart from all the rest? What made them persuasive, moving, memorable?
There are many elements that contribute to the success of a speech, but if I had to identify the three most important elements, I would name character, content, and context.
Your character — who you are as a person, what you value, your accomplishments and contributions and reputation, your personality — is your speech’s core message.
Who you are as a person determines how the audience interprets and how much they trust what you say.
Even if you’re working with a speechwriter — especially if you’re working with one — make sure that every idea, insight, image, principle, and story rings true to you and your experience.
Don’t simply surf the internet to figure out what you want to say or to find the perfect quote. Start with your own convictions and insights.
And don’t put distance between yourself and your message. (Less confident speakers do this all the time, when they stand off to the side of the stage in semi-darkness and force the audience to focus not on them, but on their PowerPoint slides.)
The content of your speech — its message— is made up of ideas, information, images, and stories, carefully pieced together and artfully worded in a way that changes how people think and feel and act.
Memorable speeches have a single, clear message. You can present a lot of information and cover a lot of ground (hopefully not too much) in a speech. But your audience should be able to sum up your message in a single sentence.
One of Winston Churchill’s most moving speeches, commonly titled “We shall fight on the beaches,” delivered in the early days of the Second World War, is quite a lengthy speech, conveying a lot of information. But its message can be summed up in one sentence: “We shall never surrender.”
The context of your speech covers a wide range of issues and elements: your audience (the group you are addressing as well as the individuals), the event (why they are gathering), the venue (where they’re gathering), the schedule, and the room layout.
The audience, of course, is the most crucial element in this instance. As a speaker you always have to ask who they are and why they should care about what you’re saying. What do they already know about your subject? How do they feel about it? How are they affected by it? What do you want them to do about it and why would they want to do it?
But don’t overlook the importance of the practical elements. A great speech can be sabotaged by poor planning. Pay special attention to the schedule. (Audiences are more alert and attentive in the morning than late in the afternoon or after dinner.) Make sure that the audience can see you (and your slides, if you’re using them) and, more importantly, hear you.
There are other elements, of course, that make or break a speech. If I were to mention one more element, I would add delivery. How about you? What would you say is an important element of a speech?