We all know a great speech when we hear one. Your breath catches in your throat; you forget the world beyond the auditorium’s walls. You don’t check your phone or fidget. You just listen.
Some speeches leave indelible marks, even past their audiences’ lifetimes. Think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” We have no sound recording of the latter, but we know it by heart.
We’re not all capable of world-changing rhetoric, but we can deliver captivating speeches with the right preparation.
Here are four tips for giving a compelling speech worthy of a standing ovation:
1. Use narratives to craft a story
Stories tug at our emotions in ways admonishments cannot. You might choose a well-known story, such as the Christmas Truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers on the Western Front, or a personal one. Either can illustrate and add gravitas.
Stories cannot, however, stand in isolation — they must be spun into a coherent narrative. Watch Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk. While Zander’s anecdotes first seem unrelated, the listener realizes the overarching message exceeds the sum of its parts. After dozens of views, I still come away dabbing tears.
While preparing a speech, I analyzed what makes the movie Rocky so inspiring and found numerous effective components. The iconic music builds energy, and an underdog’s rise is a time-tested theme. As Rocky trains, he builds character and determination, along with muscle, and overcomes obstacles — regardless of the final fight’s outcome.
2. Support the story; don’t distract
Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis championed the shapes of stories. A story including supporting data and your worldviews reinforces themes from multiple angles and extrapolates a larger, shared experience. Remember how Sarah Palin used the story of Joe the Plumber to attack Barack Obama in 2008? Politicians love this trick.
Be careful with visual support, however. Visual materials can help, but they do so only when words alone cannot convey the message. I’ve seen too many orators read off slides, ruining their speeches. To plan a talk that will resonate, read Nancy Duarte’s books about persuasive argument.
3. Practice makes perfect
Budget time to over prepare, especially if the speech lasts a certain critical length. Shorter speeches require less planning, while longer speeches allow more flexibility. However, 10-minute speeches are the hardest to deliver; they require complexity but leave no time to recover from mistakes.
I time my rehearsals. For a difficult speech, I record my delivery with a video camera to put myself in the audience’s shoes. Sometimes, I’ll even rehearse before a trial audience.
4. Engage the audience
It can be lonely on a lighted stage, so break the fourth wall and involve the crowd.
Before going onstage, I chat with audience members and listen for relevant stories so I can refer to them by name and recruit them to my cause. I sometimes ask for a raised hand if they identify with my point.
Musicians often do this to build connections with concertgoers. U2 is famous for creating intimate experiences in giant stadiums; its stages are built so Bono can touch people’s hands or kneel and sing directly to one fan.
For a serious speech, eye contact can be equally powerful. Don’t stare at one audience member, but don’t sweep the audience like a windshield wiper, either. Engage one person for a single idea, then move on.
Politicians also use rhythm to help audiences connect — notice the near-musical cadence of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech.
The key to great speeches
Patience is a must-have for orators: Listeners need time to digest and react. Comedians speak of “stepping on a laugh,” when a speaker starts the next joke before the audience finishes laughing at the last. Let your messages breathe so the audience has time to absorb them.
To deliver a speech worthy of a standing ovation, the formula is simple: Pick a story you love, help the audience connect and practice until you’ve got it down. When you deliver it with heart and passion, wait for the standing ovation — you’ve earned it.