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7 Secrets to Public Speaking from History’s Greatest Speakers

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You Can Be a Powerful Public Speaker

For some people in the corporate world, public speaking is a breeze (or at least seems to be).  For others, it’s a bona fide nightmare.  They obsess over what they’re going to say, worry they’ll be laughed off the stage, and quake with fear for days leading up to the eleventh hour.

As William Arruda (the co-founder of Career Blast) describes it for Forbes, the fear of public speaking is common, at times disabling, and potentially career-altering: 

“Although ranked ahead of death in the list of most common fears… public speaking is a required skill for every ambitious professional. I have worked with many professionals who could use a boost when it comes to delivering presentations. Some are uncomfortable but manage to grin and bear it. Others are completely paralyzed. In some cases, the requirement of public speaking stops great employees from ever advancing in their career.”

The Fear of the Unknown

It’s a bit of a truism, but nevertheless true, that people tend to be most afraid of the things they don’t understand.  For example, if you don’t know what prospective employers look for in a job interview, you’re more likely to approach the interview with trepidation.  The same is true for public speaking.  Said differently, the more you know about what makes a great speech (and a great delivery), the less fearful you’re likely to be.

If You Want to Do Something Right, Find a Good Teacher

Public speaking is a skill, no different from any other skill, and as such, it’s something that can be learned.  If you want to sharpen your skill as a public speaker, the best thing you can do is learn how the best public speakers deliver great speeches.  So, here are 7 strategies that the best speakers in history had in common:

1.  It’s More Than the Words You Use

The words in your speech are important, of course, but according to public speaking authority, Richard Greene, they only carry about 7% of the weight in how well your speech goes over.  What this means for you is that spending all or most of your prep time fine-tuning the words you use means you’ll be ignoring more important aspects of your speech, like how you deliver it.

2.  Body Language Is Key

How you present yourself on stage tells your audience a lot about you and a lot about how much trust they should place in what you say.  For example, if you stand rigidly behind the podium, never moving an inch, the audience might conclude that you lack confidence.  If you keep your arms by your side, you won’t get as much traction as when you use effective gestures to amplify your meaning.  Show the audience you know what you’re talking about by appearing comfortable and relaxed on stage. In other words, and don’t be afraid to step out from behind the podium.

3.  Your Tone of Voice Says a Lot

Ever seen a speech delivered in a mind-numbing monotone?  How much of what the speaker said do you remember (if you managed to even stay awake during his or her speech)?  Odds are, not a lot.

Like your body language, how you use your voice can either engage your audience or send them to sleep.  Speakers who modulate their voice, moving up and down the scale and varying the decibel level, are more effective than those whose voices never change.

4.  Focus on One, Key Takeaway

Saying one right thing is more powerful than saying a lot of things right.  In other words, as you’re writing your speech, ask yourself, “what is the one, powerful message I want this audience to remember?”

Think of Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address.  The country had been hit by the worst economic crisis in our history.  Roosevelt could have presented a laundry list of all the things the federal government was going to do to shorten the Depression—but he wisely chose instead to focus on one message: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  People remembered that message, and it helped them face the challenges ahead with strength and courage.

Conversation with an audience
You have to make a connection with the audience, not just talk at them, but to them.

5.  It’s a Conversation, Not a Performance

Imagine if you were at a dinner party and one of the other guests approached you.  He wants to tell you about his latest business venture.  Suddenly, he stiffens his spine and delivers an obviously scripted set of remarks, one he seems to have been practicing for days.  Before long, you’d probably be looking for the closest exit.

The same applies to public speaking.  The best public speakers seem to be having a one-on-one conversation with every member of the audience.  They adopt a casual, conversational tone.  Above all, they never seem to be actors giving a practiced performance.

6.  You Need to Touch Both Hearts and Minds

The best speeches convey important, credible information, but deliver that information in such a way that audience members can easily connect and identify with it.  The best speakers know how to drive home their key message by framing it in words that people can easily understand, for example, by giving illustrative stories.

Think of the parables of Jesus—he didn’t simply say, “God will forgive you when you err;” he told the story of the prodigal son.  Think of the way Ronald Reagan connected with his audience by telling compelling stories about the people he’d met on the campaign trail.  Remember that your audience needs more than facts and figures—they need to know you understand and care about what it is you’re saying.

7.  If You Don’t Care About What You’re Saying, Neither Will Anyone Else

People aren’t stupid.  They can tell when a speaker genuinely cares about what he’s saying, and when he doesn’t.  People always knew, for example, that whether they agreed or disagreed with recently-departed Senator John McCain, he believed in what he was saying.

This is perhaps the most important aspect of delivering a great speech.  If you’re passionate about what you’re telling your audience, they’ll know it—they’ll even forgive the occasional slip of the tongue or misstatement.  If you’re not, well, they’ll know that too, and they’ll be far less likely to approve of either you or your speech.


If you’re afraid of public speaking, you’re not alone.  According to Greene, about 40% of all people are.  The good news is that you can allay your fears and improve your public speaking skills by learning best practice strategies which have worked for strong public speakers throughout history.

Effective public speaking is just one of the ways you can jump-start your career or help your business grow.  Another is effective team building.  To learn more about the ways our unique approach to corporate team building can help you drive profits and grow your business, contact us today.

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