Public speaking, by definition, has been with us as long as spoken language.
Professional instruction in public speaking as a persuasive tool is slightly newer, but only slightly. Ancient Egyptians received formal training in speech, and by the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E. it was the default method of conflict resolution in Athenian Greece.
These days, we mostly think of speech as the purview of politicians. (Though in our internet age many politicians are just as likely to use a bullet-point list and a two-minute press conference to present their agenda.) But the reality is that any “speech” longer than a few sentences qualifies as a persuasive exercise, as long as you’re trying to convince someone other than yourself of some point or perspective.
A sales presentation in a boardroom is public speaking. So is a lengthy explanation at the bar of why Hank Aaron was a better hitter than Barry Bonds. (Though if you’re putting as much preparation into your baseball argument as you are into your sales pitch, you might need to adjust your priorities!) But the same fundamentals underlie both situations — and the better you are at them, the more convincing you’ll be in both cases, whether you’ve done extensive prep work or are improvising on the fly.
The Three Fundamentals
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject of public speaking, but in this article we’re going to break it down to three fundamentals:
If you do your job in those three areas, you’ll probably make a good impression.
All three fundamentals share a common theme, and it’s the most important piece of advice we’re going to give you:
All the fundamentals of public speaking are improved by the groundwork you do ahead of time.
The more effort you put in ahead of a speech, the less work you do during a speech.
Let’s first look at the anatomy of a good presentation, and then dive into each of the three pillars in turn.
Anatomy of a Speech
If you ever had to write “five-paragraph essays” in grade school, congratulations! You already know how to structure a speech.
That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general framework for the majority of speeches looks something like this:
- Opening, including a statement of the overall thesis.
- First piece of supporting evidence and your analysis of it.
- Second piece of supporting evidence and your analysis of it.
- Third piece of supporting evidence and your analysis of it.
- Conclusion, summarizing your analysis and re-stating your thesis.
Or in the famous words of Dale Carnegie: “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”
If you watch long speeches, you’ll see that the speakers mostly follow this “five paragraph” format. Written out, something like the State of the Union address might be dozens of pages long, but still has an opening and a conclusion, with three general sections in between: a domestic policy outline, a foreign policy outline, and a specific agenda of the president’s own priorities.
Three pieces of evidence is not mandatory. Nor does every “piece” require its own separate analysis. You might open a section of your speech with a quote, tell an anecdote, and cite a scientific study, all demonstrating the same basic fact or theory.
Do make sure to keep every supporting fact separate. For example, say you’re arguing for a food service requirement that diners put real cream on the table rather than non-dairy substitutes. If you’re going to present evidence that the substitutes are unhealthy, that restaurants with real cream receive higher tips, and that a stronger dairy industry is good for the state’s economy, each of those should be clearly separate points, rather than throwing in arguments on each piece of evidence throughout the whole speech.
As you get more advanced as a speaker it certainly becomes possible to deviate from this basic framework. And there are some cases in which it doesn’t work at all (long first-person narratives told for entertainment rather than persuasion, for example).
But for beginners, and for most persuasive situations, be thinking in terms of “opening, supporting point one, supporting point two, supporting point three, conclusion.”
The focus of a speech is, at its most basic, what the speech is about.
It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much more. If you know your subject matter, you’re a long way toward a good speech.
The trick lies in really knowing your subject matter — not just the topic in general, but what you want to say about it specifically.
It’s the case you want to build, and if you know that case inside out, you’ll give a good speech. If you have a topic you’re speaking on but you haven’t really thought through your specific arguments, you’re in for a rocky ride.
From Topic to Thesis
Unless you’re participating in a public speaking club or something similar, you’re not likely to be asked to give a speech on “any topic.”
Most public speaking situations are predictable. You have a topic and a goal.
The key to a good speech is knowing how to go from a topic to a thesis:
- The topic is a general category of interest. “Great baseball sluggers” is a topic; so is “the new model of leak-proof ballpoint pen.” It’s a subject rather than an opinion on said subject.
- The thesis is the specific argument you’re making. It’s a summary of what you want the listener to walk away believing. “Hank Aaron was a better slugger than Barry Bonds” is a thesis. So is “It’s worth the price to upgrade your ballpoint pens.” A good thesis can usually be summarized in a single sentence or short paragraph, which may or may not appear in the text of the speech itself.
The goal of your speech is to go from a broad topic to a specific thesis. A long, complicated speech might present several theses; most shorter speeches only focus on a single overall argument.
Your key question should always be: “If my speech works, what do people believe after it’s done?”
You need to have an answer to that question before you put pen to paper. It’s the litmus test for your entire composition: words that help make your argument can stay; words that don’t add to the case get cut.
Knowing your thesis ahead of time keeps you from meandering around and speaking about the topic in general. Information about the overall subject might be interesting, but if it’s not advancing your thesis it’s getting in the way.
The more specific your thesis, the better you’ll be at using the broader topic to make your case compellingly. Never confuse the topic for the thesis itself.
Assembling Your Evidence
“Evidence” has a courtroom sound to it, but in rhetoric (more on that later) it simply means anything that supports your thesis.
Evidence is not always factual. A quotation from a famous and inspiring individual doesn’t actually “prove” anything, in a logical sense, other than that one person felt a particular way at a specific time. But it can be a compelling appeal that helps transfer your audience’s affection for a famous person to your specific cause or goal.
In general, most evidence breaks down into one of three categories:
- Factual evidence includes statistics, scientifically proven conclusions, statements of historical record, and anything else verifiable as hard fact. It’s powerful because it can’t be directly contradicted, which makes the argument about interpretation instead. However, too much factual evidence starts to sound dry, and if you have many separate data points it becomes harder to make a single argument that accounts for all of them (and leaves no room for other interpretations).
- Anecdotal evidence is a story or stories that support your claim. It doesn’t have the authority of a statistically sound study or proven science, but it can make a more personal appeal. Saying “Over 15,000 children were injured by guns in 2010” is factual evidence, while saying “When I was a child I lost two fingers in a gun accident” is anecdotal. Anecdotal evidence is not as reliable as factual, but can make a more powerful personal appeal to an audience. It’s much easier to relate to than numbers and statistics.
- Expert opinions are neither factual nor anecdotal. Instead, you bring in the words of someone else, with the implication that they have studied the topic in greater depth. Quoting Thomas Jefferson in an argument for a particular bill being passed is a way of suggesting both that Jefferson would have supported the bill and that he was a qualified expert because of his role in early American government. Evidence of this nature doesn’t always stand up to any deep factual analysis, but it helps present your opinion as something shared by qualified experts, rather than merely a product of your personal beliefs.
If possible, you want a mixture of all three types of evidence in your speech.
If you don’t have any factual evidence, you may have a tough row to hoe — even when something is as subjective as who was the “best” slugger, you should still be able to talk intelligently about batting averages and season lengths, or you’re going to come across as someone who hasn’t done their homework.
On the other hand, if all you have is numbers, people are going to perceive you as a dry know-it-all. The human touch of a personal anecdote or an appeal to an expert/famous authority helps make your data — and your argument — accessible.
The idea of studying words themselves, and the methods of making them more persuasive, is an ancient one. Examples of instructions in persuasive speech date back to the 22nd century B.C.E., and have been found everywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia to China.
So what is rhetoric? It’s the methods by which you form and word your speech to become more persuasive.
If you’ve ever re-worded a sentence to make it easier to understand, that was rhetoric! Applying this methodology to your formal speeches (and to your everyday speech) can make the difference between a compelling oration and one that falls flat despite its strong, logical argument.
How to Structure Your Sentences
It’s hard to express complex ideas in short sentences.
Unfortunately, that’s also the most effective way to do it, at least when you’re not speaking to academic experts.
Persuading a general audience — the “man in the street” situation — works best when you use a structure similar to this section’s: lots of short sentences with white space between them.
(When you speak, of course, people can’t see the white space. But they can hear it if you’re pausing at each of your line or paragraph breaks.)
In addition to being short and pithy, sentences in a good speech will have a simple structure. Avoid dependent clauses — you want every idea to stand firmly on its own.
If you’re ever in doubt, look for commas you can remove. Commas aren’t universally bad — it would be awfully hard to write without them — but they are good signs that you’re weakening your sentence structure. For example: “An independent survey showed that Mac users were happier overall than PC users” sounds stronger than “Mac users are happier than PC users, according to an independent survey.”
Don’t be shy about reworking your draft multiple times. Change sentences to be as straightforward as possible. There’s a time and place for the occasional verbal flourish (we’ll talk more about it in our section of rhythm and emphasis), but the bulk of your text should be sentences that work as clear and coherent statements even if you lift them out of context.
The Art of Pacing
Pacing, in a speech, means the pauses between the words and sentences. If you’re new to public speaking, it’s a safe bet that you’re not pausing enough.
Most novice speakers tend to rush. It gets the speech over with more quickly, but it’s hard on the listener, who has less time to digest each thought or assimilate each piece of evidence.
The overall pacing of a good speech should be slightly slower than your conversational speech. A popular Western example is to speak as if you were reciting the “Our Father” or a similar ritual prayer — steady and measured.
You can use your written materials to control your pacing to some degree. If you’re reading verbatim from a prepared text, use line breaks at regular intervals as a cue to pause, even in places where you wouldn’t need a paragraph break for a written submission. If you’re working from slides or notecards, move each independent idea to a different card so that there’s a natural pause as you make the change.
Try to position your longest pauses so that they fall after complex ideas or important points. Those are the parts of the speech that you want your audience to spend the most time thinking about. Just a second or two of silence gives people’s brains time to process. You don’t have to make a deliberate show of giving things time to sink in — just a pause for a slow breath is fine.
Pacing can work both ways, of course — it’s quite common for speakers to “crescendo” their emotional appeals, increasing both the speed of their speech and the volume. This is done when the text of the speech doesn’t benefit from close analytical analysis. Data requires slow speech and pauses for thought; an emotional appeal is more effective when the person on the receiving end doesn’t stop to examine the content and instead relies on feelings.
Persuasive speeches tend to arc in their pacing: they begin slowly, as the groundwork and evidence is presented, then speed up as the speaker makes his appeal, and slow down again with the restatement of the thesis to give the audience time to digest everything they’ve heard.
Rhythm and Emphasis
One of the most technical aspects of linguistic study is measuring the rhythm of speech.
Rhythm comes from the arrangement of syllables and stresses in speech. It’s of obvious importance for poets, but has also long been a consideration in spoken prose.
Most casual speech is arrhythmic — it has no set pattern.
Prepared speeches will also be mostly arrhythmic. Shorter sentences will feel more rhythmic than long ones, especially when most of the words are only one or two syllables, but even then there generally isn’t a discernible pattern.
A good speaker can use that to his advantage by adding rhythm to important ideas or statements.
One common way to do this is to use repeated construction to offer several phrases in the same way. Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech gives a good example of this:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
By introducing multiple ideas with “we shall fight,” Churchill built a rhythm that listeners felt as a growing pressure. When he “relieved” the pressure by departing from the structure, it emphasized the importance of that concept: “we shall never surrender.”
Another common device is to introduce important passages with a section of iambic prose. “Iambs” refer to an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one; when you combine several in a row (as in Shakespeare’s famous iambic pentameter, which used iambs in sets of five), the result is similar to the sound of the human heartbeat. The Declaration of Independence used iambic structure to introduce what has come to be regarded as its most important sentence:
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The opening clause is iambic: “We HOLD these TRUTHS to BE self-EV-i-DENT.”
Any steady rhythm will lend “cadence” to a speech, and create a natural lead-up to a point the speaker wishes to identify. Iambic structure is the most common, and a good starting place for a novice who wishes to experiment with deliberate use of rhythm. Be cautioned, however, that a little goes a long way — too much rhythm begins to sound sing-song.
Use rhythm to underscore one or two of the most important points in a speech and leave it at that. The audience will feel the effect without noticing it.
Want to learn more about the specifics of rhetoric, including its classical origins and theory? Read our 10-part series on the topic.
The final fundamental of public speaking is presentation: the physical appearance of your speech.
Presentation is weighted more and more heavily these days, and for good reason — with cameras on everyone’s phones, any public moment is potentially a recorded moment. Even a series of short, off-the-cuff remarks can endlessly be re-watched and evaluated.
It’s cliché to claim that what you say doesn’t matter as much as how you say it, but clichés are such for a reason. There’s truth in them.
If good presentation couldn’t sometimes prop up a bad argument, used car salesmen everywhere would be out of a job. Not everyone’s going to be swayed by excellent delivery — but some people are, and more importantly, many people will be put off by bad delivery even if your argument is excellent.
Using Visual Aids
Everything you do when you speak is a visual aid. That includes your clothing, your gestures, and even your expressions, as well as any physical objects you use (such as a projected slide show or a flip chart).
Your visual aids should all reinforce your central thesis. If they don’t, trim them just like you would trim useless words.
Most sentences in a speech do not need accompanying gestures. Keep your palms relaxed and flat on the lectern, if you have one, or comfortably draped at your side if you don’t. Only raise your hands when you need to emphasize something, and make sure they’re “saying” the same thing you are. Bill Clinton, for example, was an expert at spreading his hands palm-out when he spoke of uniting or bringing together, but would press them palms-in to his chest when he spoke of mourning or sympathy. The gestures didn’t just emphasize the accompanying sentences, they embodied them.
Less personal visual aids follow the same rule. A slide show can be handy, but anyone who’s sat through a PowerPoint presentation knows that they’re often just filler. If you don’t have specific visual information you need to convey — data on a chart, say, or photographs that demonstrate your point — you’re usually better off without slides.
When you introduce a visual aid, don’t speak over it. Tell the audience what you’re about to show them, then present the visual aid and pause for a moment. Give their brains time to switch over to processing visually, let them digest, and then go back to your speech. Use a short filler phrase like “Now that you’ve seen this…” to pull them back into listening mode before you present any additional ideas.
In general, keep visual aids to a minimum and think hard about what they “say.” If they’re adding strength to your argument, go ahead and use them, and give them proper emphasis. But don’t clutter up a speech with needless visuals — it just distracts from what you’re saying.
A good suit and a few well-planned gestures will almost always do more for you visually than a PowerPoint.
Read more on the power your personal presentation can have on your influence and persuasion.
How to Read a Space and a Crowd
Even a novice can generally tell whether he “has the room” or not. Energy levels and attentiveness are both rather evident in people’s body language.
If you watch the crowd and can read what they’re feeling, it tells you what your speech needs to provide: a rowdy crowd needs an outlet for their energy, a sleepy one needs a jolt to wake them up, and so on.
Learn to look at the way people are sitting or standing. If they’re leaning forward and their bodies are relatively still, you have their attention. Leaning backward, fidgeting, and in worst-case scenarios, looking away from you entirely, means you don’t have them.
Take the situation into account when you read a crowd. If you’re the third speaker at an outdoor event in the winter, people are going to be shifting around because they’re cold, whether you have their attention or not. (You’ll also earn a lot of points for brevity with that crowd.)
Diverted attention can be pulled back, but only if you know why the crowd is diverted.
Be ready to adapt your delivery on the fly as needed. Your instinct may be to add more volume and energy to your speech, but that isn’t always the right approach. It grabs attention, but it can also be off-putting to people who are feeling tired, leading them to tune you out in irritation.
Match your room’s energy level and, if you need to, raise it slowly, rather than shouting at a quiet audience. A wobbly crowd usually needs a clear, simple speech more than anything else.
If you’ve done your prep work well, all you need to do is find the level of intensity the crowd is looking for and deliver your remarks in that sweet spot.
Practice: You Need More Than You Think
The ultimate key to presentation isn’t body language or PowerPoint or anything else.
Practicing speeches feels intensely unnatural. It just feels awkward when you speak alone in your room or your office. Add to that an intense amount of self-consciousness — in a good practice you are, after all, scrutinizing yourself for mistakes — and you can see why most people find rehearsing speeches to be a deeply embarrassing experience.
Unfortunately, it’s the only really effective way to hone your presentation skills.
Live rehearsal gives you time to find out where your strong spots are and where your speech is weakest. Be thorough and be brutal — half a dozen times is a bare minimum for a good speech, and you should find reasons for revision in most of them.
The first few times it’s all right to stop and make notes if you hit a spot where you know you want to make changes, but you should gradually transition to rehearsing the whole thing all the way through. You don’t want to build a habit of stopping to correct yourself — it won’t be an option in the live performance.
How much practice is finally enough? That will depend on you, the speech, and your goals and standards. But broadly speaking, if you haven’t done it enough to know the key phrases and their accompanying gestures by heart, you’re not there yet. The most important moments should be thoroughly internalized before you take the stand.
To reiterate what we said at the beginning: the success of a speech rests on the work you do in advance.
Your argument, your word choice, and your delivery are all determined ahead of time. Even in an improvised speech the success will depend on how prepared you are to speak on that topic — how well you know the background material and how coherent of a viewpoint you have to present.
The three fundamentals of every speech are:
- Focus: the central argument and the evidence arrayed to support it
- Rhetoric: the structure of your words, sentences, and paragraphs
- Presentation: your delivery and the visual elements of your speech
The more thought and revision you put into your fundamentals, the better your speech will be.
Take the time you need — but only the time you need. At the end of the day, if you’re preparing for hours before you go to the bar just in case you need to defend Hank Aaron’s reputation as a slugger, you probably need a kind of advice that this guide doesn’t provide.