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.

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.

The Power of a Single Sound

Let’s give Benedetta Berti her due.  Her TED talk is packed with fascinating information about the way that terrorist states operate, and how to effectively combat them.  I love her inventive Power Point slides, her creative use of statistics, and her rousing call to action.

But as is the case with many Ted-talkers, there is something to be desired in the way she is delivering her speech.  To begin with, she is speaking much too fast.  Keep in mind folks, the audience does not know nearly as much about your topic as you do.  It’s important to take your time, so your concepts can really land.  She also appears to be reading her speech, rather than coining her ideas in the moment.  Since she is so knowledgeable about her topic, it might have been a better idea to bullet point her speech, rather than write it all out, so she could keep things loose.

I’d like to call your attention to her articulation.  She is mispronouncing the “th” sound consistently throughout the speech, lending to some confusion.  Is that “den” or “then”?  “That” or “dat”?  This single mispronunciation is a major flaw in the speech.  Yes, native English speakers will probably be able to translate, and understand the mispronounced word, but what about non-native English speakers?  Will they be able to parse her speech, identify the mispronunciation, and figure out which word she is really getting at?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If English is not your native language, and you have a speech coming up, run it by a friend, or a coach, or your spouse… anybody who has good speech.  This will allow you to identify where your articulation problem areas lie, and correct them before your big day.