Every speech should be built around one—and only one—idea. But, here’s the thing, it has to be a big idea.
Peggy Noonan, one of President Reagan’s speechwriters, wrote, “No speech is big without big policy to talk about. Trying to write a great speech without having great policy to work with, to assert and argue for, would be like trying to write a great play about nothing. Great plays are about something, great essays have meaning, and great speeches do, too. The meaning is found in the policy that is being explained and advanced.” (From On Speaking Well, page 77)
I agree with her assertion, although I would say, “No speech is big without a big idea to talk about.”
In Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, I cited examples of speeches that advocated big ideas:
- Hillary Clinton, speaking to the UN Conference on Women: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
- Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “Global warming isn’t just a political issue, it’s the biggest moral challenge facing our world.”
- Kathy Cloninger, CEO of the Girl Scouts: “Overwhelming research and nearly a century of experience in Girl Scouting show that, in an all-girl environment, girls feel much freer to try, to fail, to succeed, and to express themselves and their dreams.”
- Bill Gates’ commencement speech at Harvard: “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries—but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.”
- Randy Paush, professor of computer science, giving the professor’s last lecture: “Brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things.”
These days a speech’s packaging (its visual aids, graphics, PowerPoint slides) and delivery get more attention than its content. And that’s to our detriment.
You want—or should want, as far as I’m concerned—people to leave your speech talking about the idea you set forth in it. If they say, “Wow, great slides” or “You’re a great presenter,” and say (and remember) nothing about what you said, I think your speech was a bust.
Start with an idea. Be sure it’s a good idea: clear, fair, honest, supported by the evidence, and capable of changing the way people think and feel and act. Refine that idea. Give it a pleasing shape. And express it in the most compelling way you’re able to.
At least, that’s what I think. How about you? Do you agree or disagree? Would you add any examples of speeches built around a big idea?