Three Pillars of a Great Speech

This spring I almost had an overdose of public speaking. I addition to my usual work as a startup pitch coach, I represented my Danville Toastmasters club in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest and was invited as the Test Speaker during the District 57 Division B contest. Hours of preparation, listening to many good speeches, and receiving priceless evaluations helped me gain some new insights about making a great speech, and I would like to share them with you.


Pillar One. Message

First things first. When you start thinking about a speech, start with your message. A good speech may be clear, fun, and full of interactive tricks – but a great speech must make an impact. It must provide value to the audience.

The best proof of your impact is change. Your listeners will start thinking or acting in a different way, they will do something they have never done before. Ask yourself: “What do I intend to change with my speech? What will my audience do because I told them so?” That’s impact.

There are many speeches when speakers share their experiences, tell us about something that happened to them. When a speaker is good, such stories are quite amusing. But most of the time we just listen to them, appreciate the effort and skill – and move on, untouched. Someone else’s experience rarely means anything to us.

“How I Overcame My Anxiety”, “How I Met My True Love” are potentially great speeches, but they are empty without a message that relates to me. “How You Can Overcome Your Anxiety” or “Where You Can Find True Love” are more interesting, they contain the promise of a powerful message, they can change my life. So think about your message. Without it, your speech is only a passing amusement.


Pillar Two. Storytelling

Understanding the critical importance of the message, it is also necessary to learn the best way of delivering the message to the audience – storytelling. Any idea becomes more powerful and understandable when supported with an emotional real-life example. Here are a few hints how to tell a great story.

  1. Tell your own story

Forget about things that happened to other people. Forget about well-known tales, biographies, historical facts, and quotes. Every time I listen to people who speak of Caesar, Napoleon, or Mark Twain – or Steve Jobs, for example, it feels extremely artificial and powerless. Storytelling is about feelings and emotions, about living through the experience as you speak – shivers, joys, tears, trembling fingers… You do not feel that when you retell something you read or heard from someone else. If you want a story that can touch and move your audience, the story must be your own.

  1. Weave a plot

A good story needs all the classic elements of the plot: introduction, development, climax, and conclusion. You need to share the conflicts and emotional context of the events.

“I used to be lonely and poor, but then I read this book, and everything changed” is an extremely weak and uninspiring story. It is not even a story, just a short recap. To make it work, show us how your state worsened day after day, how miserable you felt, how other people reacted and failed to support you, what was the worst moment of that period of your life. Let the story evolve, give us time to understand and share your emotions. Let us feel your loneliness and despair, as well as later hope and joy.

Conflict is an essential part of the plot. It can be internal: conflicting needs, desires, expectations – or external: between you and other people, antagonists. Describe the development of the conflict, the growing tensions, make us feel it – and you will tell a great story and make us accept your message.


Pillar Three. Structure

OK, now we have a great impactful message supported by a personal story. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough. A speaker has to break through the audience’s short attention spans and distractions. To succeed, you need to structure your speech correctly. I am ready to give you a couple of good tips.

Let me start with my own sad experience. My speech for this year’s International Speech Contest, “When Leadership Fails”, was really, really good: strong message, cool interactive tech, and a great story with pieces of fun roleplaying. And what was the result? Everyone enjoyed my speech, but too many attraction points disrupted the listener’s perception. They could not understand what the speech was all about and I failed to make a strong accent on the practical leadership recommendations in the end. It turned into an enjoyable performance without any real impact.

The same thing happened to me when I made another speech, “Level Up Your Creativity”. I focused on visual aids and interactive techniques, engaging my audience with drawing exercises. The speech was certainly memorable and unique and managed to win the Best Speech award. But I received great feedback pointing out that I spent too much time playing with the audience instead of pressing my message. Again, I turned a potentially great speech into a simple amusement.

Do not repeat my mistakes. Be serious about the structure of your speech.

  1. Think about the timing of various elements of your speech. Do not allow one element to completely dominate over the rest.
  2. Focus on the message and impact. Remember that story and interaction are important but supplementary. They must support and illustrate your message, not overshadow it.
  3. Make the ending strong. Your story and interactive techniques will keep the attention of the audience till the end, and you must not fail it. Preserve your energy for a powerful display of emotions. Use your body language to the full. Stress the message.
  4. Give people something simple yet useful to take away from your speech. Some do’s and don’t’s, everyday algorithms, clear call to action. Link your message to their lives and actions.


Are you ready to make a great speech now?  Good luck!