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Good idea = good speechA speech is only as good as the idea it advances.

Yes, you need good delivery. If you mumble or speak in a monotone, pepper your speech with ums and ers and ahs, look like you’re about to die of a heart attack — if, in short, your delivery sucks — you can lose people’s goodwill and attention. And then your speech is dead. Kaput. 

But even the best delivery can’t breathe life into a dumb idea. And a good idea can triumph over a middling delivery.

Abraham Lincoln was not known for the power of his delivery. He spoke too slowly. His voice was high and somewhat reedy. Yet his speeches retain their power to this day, because of the driving force of the ideas they set forth.

Lyndon Johnson’s delivery suffered by comparison to that of his predecessor, John Kennedy, but his speech on civil rights, “The American Dream,” still packs a punch, because of the courage and wisdom of its central idea.

Build your speech around one, and only one idea.

Which means your idea has to be a good one.

1. Give your speech’s idea bite.

Give people something to sink their teeth into. Challenge your audience in some way, asking for or demanding their attention and engagement.

You don’t have to be abrasive or unnecessarily confrontational, but there’s nothing wrong with presenting an idea that makes people think.

Critical thinking is a good thing, and to be encouraged.

2. Make your speech’s idea elegant.

Elegance is beauty born of the marriage of form and function.

Structure your idea in a way that makes sense, both intellectually and emotionally. If you can’t explain your idea without referring to your notes or, worse, to your “slide deck,” you’ve probably failed to create a coherent argument. (Coherence — a pleasing unity — is one aspect of elegance.) 

Choose your words carefully. Make them both precise and evocative. Business jargon, corporate speak, and buzz words — mission critical, open the kimono, core competency, best practice, etc. — are the antithesis of elegance. They betray a lack of faith in the idea’s ability to stand on its own two feet.

3. Give your speech’s idea juice.

Juice is, in surfer lingo, the power to move things forward. Since the goal of any good speech is to, ultimately, to change what your audience does, your idea has to be able to move people to take action.

Don’t simply set out your idea, explain it, and illustrate it. Give your listeners reason to take action. Appeal to their most closely held values — to love, fairness, pride, concern for the common good — and to their emotions.

When Demosthenes, the father of Greek oratory, was asked to name the three most important outcomes of a speech, he replied “Action. Action. Action.”

The goal of any speech or presentation is the same: change.

The only reason to give a talk is because you want to bring about some change in your audience. To change what they know or, more importantly, how they think. To change how they feel. And, perhaps most importantly of all, to change how they act.

The biggest mistake speakers make in preparing a speech or presentation is the failure to define its goal: what they want from the audience.

If you’re not trying to change the audience in some way, you’re wasting their time and yours.

Leaving people exactly as they are, in their habitual ways of believing, belonging, and behaving, may be — to your thinking — perfectly fine. If that’s the case, pat them on the back and send them on their way. Just don’t give them a speech.

You can’t make people change, of course. You can only create conditions, or expose people to ideas, images, emotions, and experiences that make it possible for them to change.

So the next time you have a speech to give, or you plan a presentation, ask yourself how you want the audience to change as a result of listening to you.

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