How to Make a Great Speech About a Simple Subject

It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.  

As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.

I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.

How to Organize Your Stories in Your Speech

Every once in a blue moon, a speaker does everything right. Such is the case with Rita Pierson’s gem of a speech on the need for school reform.  She has a powerful, expressive voice and an actress’ touch with language.  She utilizes gesture effectively, effortlessly timing her movements with her content.  But what works best in this speech are the stories.  Well told stories are the lifeblood of any good speech.

I’d like to call attention to the way she builds her stories.  Her initial stories are about her students, and the way she interacts with them, but the most powerful story, the story of her mother’s impact on the lives of her students, comes at the end of her speech, just before her call to action.  With each story, she takes us deeper into both her thesis, and her own emotional life.  The speech builds both intellectually and emotionally.  Just beautiful.

 

 

Two Small Nuances that can Make or Break a TED Talk

I recently poised the question, “is it possible to speak too slow while presenting“?  My answer was “no”, but Brian Little’s pace of speaking would challenge that assumption. I think he picks up the pace adequately around the middle of his TED Talk, but I found my mind wandering off at the beginning.  This is because he is speaking just a bit too slowly, and because he doesn’t have a good story up front in order to attract the audience’s attention.

This changes dramatically half way through the speech. At about the ten minute mark, we get a series of wonderful, hilarious stories, starting with this gem, and the speech really comes to life. Its amazing how a few small changes can lift a speech from good to great. When it comes to presenting, the devil is in the details.

What Makes for A Great Presentation Opener?

One of the trickiest parts of crafting a speech is figuring out how to start it.  Some recommend launching into a story, others recommend letting the audience know where you are heading with the speech, and others suggest using a startling statistic or fact.  I don’t think there is a “right” way to start a speech, but there are a few things that matter.  An opener should be short, and create an immediate impact on the audience; a laugh, a giggle, a sigh, a gasp, etc.  Here are a few great speech openers from some recent TED Talks:

1) Monica Lewinsky –  Ms. Lewinsky is one of my favorite speakers.  I really love this TED Talk.  It’s chock full of courage, wit, pathos, and great storytelling.  She starts the speech with a hilarious, BRIEF story about a young man who tries to pick her up at a bar.  Check it out to hear his pick up line…

Needless to say, humor is one of the best ways to open a speech.  If you can get the audience laughing at the top, they will be more receptive to your ideas.  What makes this opener so brilliant is the way Mrs. Lewinsky manages to get a laugh out of a terribly painful and embarrassing moment in her life.

2) David Miliband – One powerful way to open a speech is to tell a story, but the type of story you tell matters.  In an opener, you need to keep things brief, and personal.  Watch the way Mr. Miliband uses his family heritage to make a startling point about immigration:

3) Anne Lamott – I think this opener is both subtle and startling.  What’s subtle about it is Ms. Lamott’s delivery, which is pleasing, but subdued.  What’s somewhat startling about it is the way she talks about her grandson’s nightmares.  Openers can incorporate paradox:

So what are your favorite openers? Post here or at my twitter.

Is it Possible to Speak too Slow while Presenting?

One of the biggest concerns of my executive presentation training clients in New York City is pacing.  “How fast should I speak” is a question I get a lot.  I tend to think you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  Adrenaline is a powerful substance, and it tends to take over a speech.  Without awareness, it’s all too easy to rush.  But there are those that think speaking too slow is a legitimate problem while presenting.  Let’s compare two TED talks, and analyze their rate of speech, starting with Laura Galante’s speech on Russian hacking:

I think Laura’s pacing is good.  She takes a clear pause at the end of each thought, and highlights important words with her intonation.  By taking her time, she makes complex material clear.

Now let’s check out Bendetta Berti’s TED talk from 2016:

Interesting comparison on a number of fronts.  I would say she is speaking much too fast, especially toward the middle of the speech.  Occasionally, she will take a break at the end of each thought group to allow her thoughts to land, but in general, she is rushing through ideas and concepts.  The problem is made worse by the fact that she is mispronouncing some important words, and dropping the “th” sound entirely.

I did my best to find an example of a TED-talker who was speaking too slowly.  I couldn’t find one.  So I stand by my original premise; you cannot speak too slow while presenting.  What do you think?  Comment below or tweet me your thoughts.