Blake Snow

writer-for-hire, content guy, bestselling author

As seen on CNN, NBC, ABC, Fox, Wired, Yahoo!, BusinessWeek, Wall Street Journal
It looks like you're new. Click here to learn more.

Secrets of the world’s most inspiring speakers: How to captivate an audience

flickr/creative commons

flickr/creative commons

What do great speakers such as Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, and top TED presenters have in common? Why do we remember phrases such as, “I have a dream,” “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing to happen to me,” and “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”? What’s the most effective way to persuade a listening audience, either to laughter, action, awareness, or inspiration?

After researching dozens of the Internet’s top search results from a broad range of expert or otherwise popular speakers, we have answers to those questions and more. Of course, there’s no foolproof way to becoming a charming or memorable presenter. But there are several virtues all great speakers uphold. Chief among them: Good orators change the emotions of their audience, rather than just informing them. They inspire them, encourage them to act.

Whether you’re motivating a distrustful audience, leading a team of individuals, selling the next big idea or product to market, or even entertaining a hard to please crowd, here are 10 qualities all good presenters posses: 

1. Their passion stems from self-confidence. You can’t fake passion. But it’s required if you hope to engage and influence a listening audience. Trouble is, you can’t be passionate about your speech, your work, your life — anything — without being authentic to yourself and unapologetic about who you really are. So if you try to channel your inner Steve Jobs, Kennedy, or favorite speaker without letting the real you come through, you’ll fail to connect with others.

The reason: Audiences want originality. They want to feed on your energy, enthusiasm, and specialty. You can’t be or have any of those things if you don’t know, accept, and display yourself as you truly are. For many, that’s a difficult thing to do. It demands bravery. You’ll undoubtedly embarrass yourself in the process. But it’s the only way to find the requisite confidence needed to unleash and share your passion with the world.

If you’re uncomfortable on the stage; say so with surety. Be that person. Great speakers aren’t always bold extraverts or smooth talking dark suits. But all of them know their place in life and are unafraid of sharing at least a part of themselves in public.

To be clear: Everyone has a story, even if you think it’s a boring one. To charm audiences, you must tell your story with passion as it pertains to the subject at hand. Accomplishing this is half of the battle.

2. They appreciate their audience. Good speakers are more concerned with inspiring their audience than looking good or being the center of attention. To achieve this, good speakers maintain eye contact with people all over of the audience. They don’t brag or use excessive personal pronouns. They are magnanimous. They are not condescending. They are grateful and thank other people, including the host, introducer, and audience.

Good speakers don’t waste their audience’s time with filler, fluff, or aggrandizing content. They ruthlessly edit their speech, keeping only the worthwhile parts. They might not mind hearing themselves talk, but they never do it in a detached, inconsiderate way to the listener.

Although good speakers can’t always empathize with specific audiences — i.e. the nuances between living Southern California, New England, The Deep South, or middle America — good speakers always attempt to sympathize with regional life. They are familiar with colloquial language and recognize local customs. And they always identify with the human condition, which makes them universally likeable.

When coupled with passion, likeability is primarily what keeps an audience engaged. So be humble, self-deprecating. Admit your faults. Even if you’re a poor presenter, doing so demonstrates your honesty and authenticity, which further boosts your likeability and enhances your rapport with audiences.

3. They know their subject. Remember when I said passionate self-confidence is half of the battle to public speaking? Knowing your subject encompasses much of the latter half.

Obviously, having passion for something will naturally boost your understanding of it, your fixation and focus upon it. But passion alone does not yield peer respect. You must continually test your ideas, compare them with trending thoughts, and consider all of your subject’s arguments, both for and against. In most cases, by the time you speak you will have exhausted and consumed all known information on your subject. You will have become an expert on it.

What’s more, knowing your subject also means anticipating your audience’s reaction, doubt, and skepticism to your presentation. It means preparing answers to those questions and others in advance. You can achieve this by asking and believably answering the hardest and meanest questions that a brutal and merciless critic might rightfully ask while hearing and after listening to your presentation.

If you understand your subject to this extent, you will be accepted by the audience and feel a surge of confidence. After all, your audience expects you to be smarter and know more than they do. It’s why they stopped to listen to you. Thorough knowledge bestows authority and commands respect.

4. They are clear to the point. Good speakers are not long-winded, technical, or deep. They are clear and concise—the opposite of complex. To accomplish this, most skilled orators focus on one idea only. They answer just one question, often a big one by breaking it up into no more than three parts.

In doing so, good speakers don’t share their entire notebook with their audience or try to impress them with all that they researched. They share only the bolded parts of their findings (if not fewer). They understand that audiences don’t want nitty gritty details. They know that audiences want the take-away, the short summary, the “for dummies” version of their findings, benefits, or humor.

To accomplish this, the best presenters always speak from the heart, never from a script. They don’t feel the need to belabor their point because they know they can (or have already) explained it in the simplest way possible. They’re not intimidated by short sentences and natural pauses to let their ideas soak in. They know their message is capable of impacting a senior citizen as much as a fourth grader.

Don’t know where to start? Imagine that a journalist will summarize your entire presentation into a short paragraph of no more than two to three sentences. What would they highlight? What would you want that paragraph to say? Predict that summary first, then build your speech from there. If your newsworthy paragraph fails to impress, so will your entire speech.

5. They teach with stories. The best presenters, speakers, and orators teach with stories — usually their own — and lots of them. They do this because it’s the most reliable way humans remember things. Audiences may not remember what you say, but they will remember your stories.

For instance, Steve Jobs’ moving 15-minute commencement speech was comprised of just three lessons learned from three short stories. That’s it. Nevertheless, his personal speech is widely regarded as one of the best of the century so far. Why? He told great, firsthand, and landmark stories that most adults can relate to.

If you don’t have such stories of your own, find them. Take note the next time you experience a moment of clarity or hard-knock lesson. Read a lot of off-topic books. The more you read, the more stories you’ll have at your disposal to teach and inspire.

Lastly, remember that effective teaching is current teaching. You must update your stories and experiences, otherwise your ideas, message, and speech will become stale.

6. They start strong. Want to seize your audience’s attention and nail your opener? Do one of two things: Start with a provocative question or statistic (good), or with a story (even better). It’s not rocket science. Both techniques pull people in.

Of course, there are other ways to start a talk. But beginning with a story or a question are the most reliable and repeatable ways of pulling your audience in; of making them care. This strategy shows up time and time again and audiences never tire of it.

That said, don’t tease your findings or bury your conclusion at the end of your speech. Lead with them. Start with the end in mind, then work through the important details, much like a skilled reporter does with the inverted pyramid.

7. They have stage presence. For the non thespians in the room, stage presence is commanding the attention of an audience “by the impressiveness of one’s manner or appearance.” That includes your body language — the way you move about the stage and interact with the audience. It includes your word choice: Do you speak in cliches (don’t) or do you consult a thesaurus when preparing your presentation (you should)? Furthermore, do you speak in a straightforward manner, humorous one, serious, or creative?

Stage presence also includes the variance of your voice — the pitch, rate, volume, and cadence. If you don’t like the sound of your voice upon hearing a recording of it, neither will your audience. The good news is you can improve your delivery, its timbre, depth, natural pauses, and appeal. For example, experts recommend staying in the deeper range of your voice as this conveys authority and is easier on the ears. If you have a really high voice, don’t hide it. But do control it. Practice your command of it.

Lastly, how do you appear on stage? Are you the confident girl, shy guy, something in between? Are you appropriately or uniquely dressed in something that won’t look embarrassing on YouTube in a few years while still standing out? Will you wear a costume, don something that will embarrass on Youtube, act unpredictably, or use audio/visual props?

Whatever you decide, you’ll do well to be different; to embrace your personal tastes and idiosyncrasies on stage. You’ll do even better by being funny without telling jokes, as genuine humor lowers defenses and makes the audience more inclined to like and listen to you.

8. They use visual aids sparingly (if at all). PowerPoint buffs aren’t going to like this, but the greatest political, commercial, motivational, and TED speeches use little to no visual aids. The reason: Audiences are impressed by stirring content and emotional humans, not auxiliary visual aids, which are entirely optional. What’s more, poor presenters often hide behind visuals aids, a behavior that actually magnifies the orators insecurity and communication flaws. So don’t use visual aids unless they legitimately enhance your speech or are in no way a distraction to it.

For those who choose to ignore this advice, or when a slide deck makes sense, never lose sight of the content when designing slides. That means create an effective message and delivery first, then develop visual aids. Let your language deliver the message, not your visual aide. No more reprinting your entire speech onto the projector. No moving graphics or animated transitions. No more than 10-20 slides or 20 minutes of straight talk. No paragraphs, small text, or bullet points. Let your words be the bullet points.

Furthermore, when it comes to presenting visual information, show, don’t tell. That means favoring simple graphs and emotional imagery over printed text, which is bland to look upon. It also means using effective color psychology to convey moods. And adopting clever catchphrases and headlines that you want your speech to be remembered by, if not ones to help you start a movement with.

9. They finish with a parting shot. All great speeches have a succinct beginning, a meaty middle, and a brief ending. Doing much of the above takes care of the first two acts. This is where you finish the play, end with a kicker, and motivate your audience to act, either by agreeing with you, challenging you, buying from you, or sharing your work with others.

For instance, what do you want your audience to do at the conclusion of your speech? What do you want them to remember? What can you do to package your ideas for effective dissemination hereafter?

Don’t think of your close as a place to rehash or overstate your message. It’s where you drive it home and leave it in the minds of your audience to do with it what they will. Confident communicators do just that. If not naturally, they sometimes end their speeches abruptly, which is better than rambling.

10. They master their speech in advance. Now for the attribute most of us drag our feet on: relentless practice. Depending on your natural ability and the length of the speech, rehearsal might require one hour for every one minute of your speech, or one hour for every 10 minutes. It might be more — months, if not years, of practice. You’ll know when you’re ready.

And don’t worry about being perfect. Your audience doesn’t expect perfection. They will forgive a few missteps. But little more than that, because an ill-prepared speech smacks of amateurism. So you’ll need to rehearse, repeat, and practice your speech often to realize all of the above — the proven secrets of the world’s greatest presenters. ■

About the author: For more than a decade, Blake Snow has contributed to half of top 20 U.S. media, dozens of other nationally recognized publications, and multiple Fortune 500 companies as a popular storyteller, content strategist, brand journalist, and bodacious writer-for-hire. He lives in Provo with his family. This story first appeared on