How to give a speech people will remember.
Don't tell us what you're going to tell us. Just tell us.
Keep your eye on the clock at the back of the auditorium, they say, as an easy hack around the flight reflex of stage fright. You need something to steady your focus, something to channel your fright into the speech of your life (or of the hour at hand, at least). The clock ticks; the audience waits; you could hear a pin drop. All eyes are on you—and you haven’t the slightest idea where to begin.
So you waffle. “Hi, so glad you’re here, today we’re going to talk about…” and with that, you lost the audience. The moment to start strong, passed.
“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them,” goes the famous advice that guides schoolchildren through book reports and class presentations (advice that comes from the British pulpit rather than Aristotle, it turns out).
It might work. You might end up with something good along the way, might improvise your way into saying something quotable while trying to fill the silence.
But you might do even better just saying the single thing you want to say.
Let the words fall out.
It’s not always easy.
"This is a day I've been looking forward to for two and a half years," started Steve Jobs in his now-famous keynote unveiling the iPhone, seemingly working up the energy to move forward. Then he picked up speed, made the classic call to history: “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” And the next hour was a blur.
The speeches that echo through history often start with that reflective look. “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty,” intoned Abraham Lincoln over the Gettysburg cemetery during America’s civil war, a phrasing Martin Luther King Jr. would echo decades later in I Have a Dream. Churchill, too, reached for history when marshaling the British will to fight. As did Kennedy when he chose to go to the moon, invoking 50,000 years of human progress as the impetus to carry on.
“Introductions should tease,” advises the official TED talk guide. Which is how Steve Jobs could get us to listen to One More Thing after he’d already told us things for an hour. History's one way in, but not the only one. Shared experiences, universal stories we all recognize, they're equally powerful hooks.
And so Bill Gates reminds us of childhood fears of nuclear war, to prime us to listen to the dangers of the next pandemic a half-decade before we'd understand what he was trying to tell us. David Blaine tells us that he tries to do things doctors say are not possible. Elon Musk, after being asked why he's boring, tells us he's building a tunnel under LA. "I've been blown away by the whole thing," said Ken Robinson to start his talk. "In fact, I'm leaving."
You can’t help but want to listen after that.
And as a speaker, you can’t help but continue on, the energy of that opening propelling you into the key point you showed up to tell. You’re not here for pleasantries, for repetition and outlines and thank you’s. You’re here to tell a story—the sooner, the better.
To do that, you have to jump right in.
Cut to the chase
“Start strong,” says the TED team. “You’ll want to open people’s minds right from the very start.” Tell them something they'll relate to, something surprising, something that confirms their suspicions or challenges their assumptions, something that gives you an opening to speak on.
And then you’ll have to stop yourself.
The earliest TED talks weren’t 18 minutes long. They were hours-long presentations, filled with your normal extraneous ramblings, until TED founder Richard Saul Wurman would stand up on the stage, signaling it might be time to wrap things up.
You might not have the luxury of knowing when people’s phones light up, their heads start to nod, and you’re talking to a crowd and no one at the same time. You might be talking to your screen, posting podcasts and videos into the void, relying on view stats to guess that people liked what you said. Dig deeper, though, and you might find people only listen to half of your video, skim the middle of your blog posts, start listening to your podcast then skip on to the next when the energy dies down.
You’ve got this tiny window to hold people’s attention after your opening sentences grabbed it. You can’t just drone on forever.
So say just enough, and stop.
You’ll have to cut stuff. “I believe some of innovation is about subtraction,” said Wurman. The same goes for telling your tale.
“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter,” Pascal is said to have written. Woodrow Willson applied the same to speeches: “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it … if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”
You might have all the time in the world to talk, want your fleeting moment of fame to linger. But your audience has a limited attention span, and it's not merely enough for them to hear you. You want them to remember. And for that, the two weeks of prep for a solid 10-minute talk are worth it.
Start strong, tell your thing, then you’re done. No need to keep going. People have other, better, things to do.
There’s a reason you’ve likely listened to more TED talks than full-length lectures: They’re short, sharable, “the length of a coffee break,” remarked TED curator Chris Anderson.
TED’s restrictions force speakers to hone their talk, to in Anderson's words make them “really think about what they want to say.”
It’s hard not to find time to listen, especially when you know the speaker put the work in ahead of time, made sure they’d not waste your time.
Put that effort into your speech, trim it down until it’s something people will have time to listen. You’ll end up with a single thing you wanted to say. You’ll be ready to jump right in and say what you’re going to say, without all the repetition.
When it’s done, you won’t have to remind people what you told them. They’ll remember. They’ll spread the word, tell others they’ve got to take a few minutes and listen.
Originally published on the now-defunct Racket blog on July 7, 2021.
Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter.