Five Ways to Make Your Speech Stand Out

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

In the last 15 years I have researched, prepared, and delivered over 1,000 speeches and seminars. I’ve also seen my share of other presenters. Some were outstanding, many needed work.

I know I’m critical (not a bad thing if you earned your living as a speaker). And I think I’ve learned a lot about making an audience lean in, pick up their pen, and move to action.

Here are five ways to get more standing ovations and get rehired more often. I know, it’s what I do every speech.

1. Skip the commercial

Sorry, we don’t care you’re happy to be there (duh, who wouldn’t, at $100/minute?) – get to the show. Burning through minutes while you “warm us up” is, well, burning through minutes. (get more details in this post “How to Design a Great Speech”)

If you want to stand out, jump right into a story (one that’s relevant, please), make a bold claim, or fact (like, “Did you know email consumes one third of your day?”), or throw out a big objective (like, “What I am about to share could change your life forever”).

“If you want to stand out, jump right into a story”

At the very least, toss out a teaser (like, “Today, you will learn how to survive any conflict situation – with style”).

2. Make them squirm

The first step in all change theory is awareness. You can’t get a child to commit to cleaning their room if don’t first admit their room is a mess. Same for quitting smoking, losing weight, spending less, and giving a speech. If fact, I like to make ‘em squirm in their awareness a bit (can you believe I get paid for this?).

Once I’m through my opening (see “Skip the commercial”, above), I launch into the “Problem” I know they have. I’ve done my research, so I’m pretty clear what challenges they have that relate to my topic of personal effectiveness at work.

And by the time I’ve describe that problem in three different ways, they are squirming in their chairs like an eight year-old caught lifting liquorice from the corner store.

3. Tell your story

People believe and are more willing to take advice from someone who is sort of like them. That’s your job, after you’ve ramped up awareness of their problem, it’s time to let them know why you are a credible source. (Learn more about delivering the perfect speech in this post)

There’s three ways to do this:

  • Share relevant facts – this can be proof that you are an expert.
  • Tell a client’s story – we always believe a good case study. Do you have one you can tell?
  • Tell your story –  my favourites – explain how you made a similar problem go away

4. Change their mind

People don’t need more advice—they need to change their mind and do something different. Let’s start with advice. Sorry, but I can probably find your advice (and mine) somewhere on line. No worries, no one is doing anything with it.

People don’t need more advice—they need to change their mind and do something different.

Your job (only, that is, if you want to be paid) is to change your audience’s mind and get them moving. Here’s how:

  • help them envision a different/better future. Paint a picture of a realistic, better way of doing something, like working smarter so you need to work fewer hours.
  • get them talking. When delegates have a chance to talk with a partner they get new insights, or even confirmation of their new plan.
  • have them move. Physical movement sparks new emotions that lead to new thoughts. I wrote about that here.

5. Describe the action

Motivation is nice. Motivation, with instructions will get you rehired.

“Motivation is nice. Motivation, with instructions will get you rehired.”

Depending on the agenda, audience, and objectives, you can either go deep with multiple examples. I usually follow a simple model:

I start with a story, or fact, to get their attention, then I segue into my lesson, and finish with examples of how they can apply this lesson in their work/life. It sounds like this:

“[story] Just yesterday I was in a meeting when….[lesson] effective meetings always lead to commitments. [application] You can get more commitment by, at the end of the meeting, having everyone repeat their commitments.”

Download the full speech template you can use immediately.

Three things you should never, ever do

Now that you have a simple, but potent, five-part model for your next speech, here are three things you absolutely want to avoid doing:

  1. start slow, end fast. This is so easy to do (I’ve done far too many times) and it’s the sure sign of an amateur. Instead, have cut-off times for each of the five parts, above and stick to them.
  2. excuse poor planning. Never ever say something like “If I had more time, I’d…” – it makes you look like a punter and the audience feels ripped off. You have the time you have and no more – now do what you can with it.
  3. read your slides. Aaargh! Please don’t look over your shoulder and read the slides! Instead, remove almost all the text and use your slides as bookmarks, not copies of your speech.

Giving a speech is a privilege. And with a little planning and practice it can also be a performance that changes lives.