How to rock the world with one speech

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

This will sound self-serving, coming from a guy who teaches speakers, but I can’t think of a better way to influence people and save the world than being a speaker.

History gave us outstanding examples of speakers who rocked our world, including: Gandhi, Angelou, Churchill, Steinem, Kennedy, Lincoln, San Suu Ky, King, and Bieber (kidding).

Smaller seismics were triggered with speeches by business leaders, not-for-profit volunteers, community organizers, and maybe you.

And let’s be clear – I’m not talking about stutter-free, prose, peppered with multisyllabic Oxford English. No siree, I’m talking from-the-heart, what-you-need-to-know missives delivered with conviction and anchored to powerful stories.

That’s how you influence people.

The first real speech I delivered was to 1,000 Rotarians who didn’t know me from, well, anyone.

I shouldn’t have been there.

Teaching marketing in lunch rooms at local Chambers, doesn’t exactly prepare you for speaking on stage for an hour in a ballroom with dual IMAG screens, A/V crew, and a Madonna-style mike.

For weeks I sweated over my script (yes, I thought “real speakers” memorized a script) trying desperately to knit together enough stories so nobody would notice the lack of any meaningful content – those were early days.

I’d read somewhere that you should rehearse your speech, so I invited friends (victims) over for wine, hooked up my projector and attempted a “dry rehearsal.” They were polite.

The day of my presentation was reminiscent of my many Ironman and marathon races – mostly feeling completely unprepared and nervous-as-hell, interrupted with frequent trips to the bathroom.

I gave the speech and, sure, it wasn’t pretty, but it made enough difference that people asked for more. In fact, that one speech (as rough as it was) continued to lead to referral business for many years.

Why the world needs you

You’re a speaker, whether you have a team reporting to you, or you work alone. You need to sell your ideas, paint a picture of the future, and help people reach their goals faster and easier than they can on their own. Call it a speech, a presentation, a conversation, a sales meeting, or a chinwag – whatever – it’s a speech.

I’m writing this near Playa del Carmen, Mexico where I gave a speech yesterday (nice work, when you get it) to an international construction supply firm. Before I got on stage for my bit, three of the 150 managers in the room gave mini-speeches about their work at the company.

Some spoke about their team, others talked about family and values, while others shared stories from their early days with the company. They weren’t speakers, but they were brilliant.

Their hands shook and occasionally they lost their place, but they each did more in 5 minutes to build trust with their colleagues than they could have in 5 years of regular, daily communications.

That’s being a speaker.

How to immediately be a better speaker

I’ve written before about mistakes you want to avoid as a speaker, how to get any audience to love you and how to make your speech stand out.

In this post I want to share one tip that will immediately make you a better speaker (promise.) The tip is: deliver less content, better. I fought this advice for years, but once I (slowly) started to resist my old habit of cramming every minute with content delivering the speech became more fun and my referrals improved (go figure.)

Here’s the reality –

Within 24 hours most people will have forgotten 70% of what you said. Not only do they have a hard time remembering your presentation, yours was probably 1 of 4 they went to that day.

If you want to be memorable, impact the audience – even turn your speech into sales, deliver less content, better.

Here’s how:

1.       When in doubt, delete it. All of your stories, examples and insights should support your main message. Even though your dog story gets a laugh (mine does), if it doesn’t reinforce a key point – drop it. You’re better off reinforcing a point you’ve already made (see “Get them moving”, above) than taking them down a trail that goes nowhere.

2.       Deliver no more than three points. The Rule of Three reminds us we tend to remember three things better than four, five, or more. The Rule of Three shows up in children’s books (Goldilocks and The Three Bears), politics (Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and movies (The good, the bad and the ugly) – it should also show up in your speech.

3.       Anchor every lesson to a story. We love a good story—a picture created in the minds of your audience will always be stickier than some statistic about cell phone usage in Uruguay. When in doubt, add a story.

4.       Improve your slides (see “Use fewer slides”, above). If using slides avoid these three mistakes: too many slides, too many words and boring (or lack of) visuals. For inspiration see Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, Slide:ology  by Nancy Duarte, or any of the late Steve Job’s presentations at WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) events.

5.       Repeat the best parts. A simple technique to boost retention is to repeat your key lessons at least twice. I typically revisit my main points once in my summary and again in my closing.

6.       Use props. Even a simple prop will make your lessons more memorable. My friend David Irvine brings a rubber ball and a glass ball on stage to represent the parts of life that are resilient and the parts that are fragile, non-negotiable and need to be protected (see what I did there? Three points).

7.       Give them examples. Don’t assume your audience is relating your message to their life/work—give them examples. For example, if I’m talking about creating Time Boundaries to get work done, I’ll suggest a 90 minute boundary when you first arrive at work, an afternoon boundary to catch up and plan the next day and boundaries at home for reading, exercise or music.

8.       Summarize. A quick summary toward the end of your speech reminds the audience of your key points, shows you’re organized, and segues into your close. If I have time, I follow my summary by getting delegates to announce to their partner the most important lessons they’re going to put into action.

Being influential can start with a 5 minute presentation to your colleagues. And that’s a start. What are you going to do this year to rock your world?