The 4 Must-Have Ingredients of a Winning Speech

Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a generation with his powerful “I have a dream” address. JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton reached the highest office in the land, in part by delivering moving speeches. TED talks have vaulted unknowns to celebrity status based on their ability to deliver compelling and inspiring messages. Simply put, great speakers change the world.

As someone who delivers over 100 keynotes a year, I’ve spent years studying the art of public speaking. Why do some people totally bomb, while others soar? Why do some of the smartest, most capable people fumble through a speech, leaving audiences confused and uncomfortable? And what makes a talk memorable, energizing, and impactful? Asking these questions for years, and observing nearly 1,000 keynote speeches, I’ve discovered the four key ingredients of a winning speech. Two based on content and two on delivery, these simple guideposts can vault a dull presentation into work of art:


1. Clarity. Instead of a buzzword-laden data dump of everything you’ve ever learned, craft your message so that your audience can follow and absorb it. A great keynote is about the audience, not the speaker. Accordingly, make your points crisp, concise, and accessible. Structures such as a numbered list (the three laws of customer service; the 5 steps to sales greatness) or an extended metaphor (what soccer moms and top execs have in common) can help set guideposts for audiences to understand and remember your content. Fewer messages, backed with memorable examples, are far better than trying to shoehorn in your encyclopedic knowledge.

2. Story. Fact spews nearly always fall as flat as that dull, frumpy professor you had in college. Instead, bring your messages to life in the context of rich story telling. Shake it up, from humorous to touching to intellectually stimulating. The more evocative the stories, the bigger impact you’ll create.


3. Authority. If you’re off-balanced, jittery, and pacing like a caged animal, your audience will absorb that vibe and your whole message will land with a wet, nervous thud. Instead, think of a news anchor delivering important content. Poised, centered, confident, and speaking from the gut. Replace that high-pitched, heady voice with your own version of “This is CNN,” and your content will land with much more power.

4. Passion. Confident presence and posture alone only comes to life it is injected with burning passion. What moves you? What pisses you off? What delights you? What makes you cry? Make it personal, injecting energy and emotion, and your audience will feel you, not just hear you.

Mastering public speaking is a lifelong pursuit, but the first step to improved delivery is understanding and embracing these principles. While you likely won’t command the stage like Jerry Seinfeld or Beyoncé on day one, small steps in the right direction will yield significant results. Deploying these four key ideas will even boost your communication impact beyond the stage, improving team meetings, one-on-ones, and sales pitches.

Each of us has the opportunity to share our ideas, develop our unique voice, and make a positive impact on others. Leverage these ingredients, and you may even change the world.