10 Ways to Make Your Speeches More Powerful and Persuasive

Speaking to groups of people — large and small — is unavoidable in business. No matter who you’re talking to, you want them to listen to you attentively, understand what you are saying, and remember the most important ideas that you are trying to convey. The ability to do this does not come naturally to most people. However, anyone can learn to make unforgettable, persuasive, and inspiring speeches. The secret is in the preparation — the time you spend on your speech before the actual event. As Muhammad Ali said about boxing, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

Here, then, are the 10 best ways I know of to power up your next presentation:

1. Tell them something useful. This is the most important rule in speechmaking. What you say must benefit your listeners. Many novice speakers see the podium as a place to show how smart they are or to demonstrate their latest thinking. Nothing could be less interesting to an audience. Unless you are a guru of sorts — in which case you are speaking not to an audience but to a fan club — your job is to help or enlighten. Remember, these people have taken the time (and in some cases have spent money) to hear you. You owe them something valuable in return.

2. Tell them something they don’t already know. It’s not enough to give your audience useful information. At least some of it has to be new to them. How do you know what’s new to them? You don’t. But if it’s new to you, chances are it’s new to them as well. My favorite trick for coming up with new and different ideas is to read what others with a contrary point of view have said on the same subject. Think: “In what way is this guy’s thinking wrong or specious or shallow?” Most of the best ideas I’ve had over the years have come from my using this simple tactic.

3. Unify your speech with a single, overarching theme Ask yourself: “What is the overriding idea here? If I had to summarize my message in 12 words or less, what would it be?” A group of solid ideas linked together by a single, strong theme will resonate in your audience’s memory. A list of disparate ideas will disappear almost as quickly as it was put together. A unifying theme makes all the facts and perspectives in your speech easier to understand. And by designing your speech around a single theme, you’ll find it easier to edit out all the fluff.

4. Follow the “Tell ‘Em Three Times” Rule At the beginning of your presentation, tell them what you’re going to tell them . . . then tell it to them . . . and, finally, at the end of your speech, tell them what you just told them. This is probably the oldest rule in speechmaking — and with good reason. Because it works. It makes it easier for your listeners to follow the details of your speech and easier for you to stick to the point.

5. Let the audience see how much you care about what you’re saying. If you care about your message — and you should — you will be enthusiastic when talking about it. This is perhaps your greatest asset as a speaker. Let that spirit show. It will ignite interest in everyone who listens to you.

6. Stick to what you know is absolutely true. The only way you can feel sure of the validity of your big idea is if it is one with which you’ve had experience. If, for example, you are talking about the best way to hire new employees, be sure your overriding theme is something you personally discovered — some interesting little trick you employ or some larger observation you’ve made. If you do so, your words will ring true. If your big idea is something you’ve only read about, you are setting yourself up for trouble.

7. Structure your speech in small “sound bites.” According to Business Week magazine, the typical U.S. executive has an on-the-job attention span of six minutes. So, think of your presentation as six-minute “sound bites.” If you are using visual aids, make sure each one has its own headline. And always plant a verbal flag in each six-minute sound bite with a statement such as “Let me highlight this idea for you.” This signals the main idea of that particular section and grabs attention.

8. Create “the perfect moment.” One goal of your presentation should be to create what Spalding Gray called “the perfect moment.” That’s the moment in a speech when your big idea is suddenly made to seem powerful, correct, and even brilliant. One way to do this — after you’ve introduced your idea, have shown how it works, and have provided data to support it — is to present it in the form of a metaphor. You might, for example compare your big idea on hiring with pitching in the World Series . . . or singing the blues. By going at your big idea from a different direction — by using a metaphor, allegory, quotation, etc. — you can often give your audience a “Eureka!” moment. (“Yes! I get it! That’s right!”)

9. Speak to individuals, not the entire group. Look at one person in your audience when you start your speech. It might be someone you know or just someone who seems friendly. Make eye contact. Smile. Try to get a reaction. Then move on to someone else and try, again, for a reaction. Build rapport with your audience one person at a time. As Ron Hoff says in his book “I Can See You Naked” [insert amazon code], act like a dog that’s glad to see its master — and convey that simple message clearly and unpretentiously.

10. Memorize the first and last lines of your presentation, but nothing else. The speaker who reads his speech is sure to fail. He can’t make eye contact. He can’t become passionate about what he’s saying in any genuine way. He can’t light up his audience. You need a strong opening and a strong close. But in between, you need to speak from the heart. So, instead of using a script, prepare your speech on index cards. What you write on each card should be no more than a short phrase that will remind you of a story or an idea about which you can speak confidently.

(Ed. Note. The above is an excerpt from Michael Masterson’s soon-to-be-published leadership book.)