Whether you’re giving a toast at a wedding or a big keynote address at a trade show, you know you need to get your act together. What you may not know is how. After all, there’s separate advice out there for giving impromptu speeches like toasts and for delivering more formal talks before large audiences. But no matter how those experiences differ, they all need to accomplish three key things. Here’s what they are and how to pull it off.
This is the base of the pyramid. The starting point. Table stakes. Want to know how entertained your audience will be by the time you get up to talk? In short, very. For starters, we all touch our phones 2,500 times a day (not a misprint), according to researchers at Dscout. We’re scrolling Instagram, watching SNL clips, reading fantasy football trash-talk, and listening to podcasts. This is now your competition. So how do you beat it?
Well, you have one major advantage over the latest Wait But Why article, and it is that you’re here. You’re live. You’re in the flesh. No one’s doing stand-up in the other corner. It’s all you. You get a deeper personal connection from the beginning. Nobody needs a Wi-Fi signal or has to tap a link to watch you. You get 30 seconds of free attention. (Think of it this way: Since almost 20% of YouTube views last less than four seconds, according to the major streaming platforms, you should actually be thankful.)
So what do you need to do with that momentary leg up you have on your listeners’ attention? Reward it immediately. Show the audience the bonus they get by paying attention to you. Raise interest as you get onstage, create a laugh, but most importantly, be the most into your speech of anyone there. The audience can only rise to your level of excitement—nobody else’s—so no apologizing, no self-deprecating, and no remarking, “Well, now how am I gonna follow that?!”
A good test is this: If your speech entertains one other person you’re close to (especially a friend or significant other) during a dry run, it will entertain a whole room. Start with the toughest critic first.
Humans are learning animals. We’re always growing our minds, abilities, and knowledge. That’s just practical: Education makes us better at our jobs, better with our money, and better at navigating our relationships, so we tend to seek it out. But even when we aren’t actively learning, our brains are absorbing new information—including from the content that entertains us. Podcasts teach us a thing or two from the experts; even those SNL clips give us perspectives on the news. In fact, why are you on this site right now? Chances are you came here to learn something.
So what is your speech teaching? Make sure you can write out the answer to that question in fewer than 140 characters. If the essence of your message is too complicated to tweet, it’s too complicated period: “I’m teaching our hundred closest friends which formative moments shaped my daughter’s beautiful personality” (wedding toast); “I’m teaching my employees why they should feel proud about last year’s results and excited about next year’s goals” (all-hands meeting); or, “I’m giving people new techniques to apply at work to improve their personal well-being” (TEDx–style talk).
This one is the biggest trick of a good speech, the hardest to pull off, and admittedly the most ambiguous-sounding as a result. But “empowering” your listeners really all comes down to making them feel like these were all their thoughts. Not yours. Yes, you’re the one on stage. But they have to feel like they own the message if they’re going to take it with them—and, ultimately, change their minds or behavior. Sure, people solicit others’ opinions, gather insights and data from what they encounter online, and read books to brush up on things that interest them. We all do that. But we only really do what we want to do.
Remember: It can’t be your message, shared. It has to be their message, heard. Your role is to lead listeners through a series of iterative thoughts (“iterative” because they build on one another as you progress), where they nod and think to themselves, “Yes, yes, yes.” And fortunately, there are at least three reliable tools you can use to generate this kind of empowerment in your talk:
- Pause and interact. Can you use a flip chart where you create the content together with the audience? Can you leave pauses for the audience to jump in with their own answers? Can you do a short interactive exercise or experiment using the content you just shared? Michael Bungay Stanier, a popular speaker on corporate coaching, sometimes has his listeners trade questions with the person sitting next to them.
- Find a lesson that’s doable, not just interesting. We don’t want to hear how you climbed Everest if we think we never will. Personally, I like to share five major positive-psychology studies that point toward ways you can actually improve your own mind-set in 20 minutes. Then I say, “You just have to do one, not all five!” I’m trying to make the laundry list feel achievable. If you’re giving the ‘father of the bride’ toast, this may seem harder to do. But you know you’re seeing someone nail it at a wedding when you hear a story and think, “I want to start doing that.”
- Keep it conversational. It has to feel like a coffee-shop chat with your best friend, not like a charmer onstage tossing takeaways into the audience like candy to onlookers in a parade. People want trust. That means sharing your background, your story, your warts and all. (Not sure? Look at trends like pop stars doing makeup-less photo shoots and album covers, farm-to-table restaurants, and the era of the black T-shirt–clad keynote.)
You listen to your friends, right? That will work better than a guru on a stage who may entertain and educate, but still falls short of empowering you to make changes in your life. How do you know if you did that? Easy. Count how many unsolicited pieces of feedback you get more than 30 days later. That’s real behavioral change. You’re not asking what they “got” from your talk, you’re seeing what they remember.
So yes, giving a great speech that entertains, educates, and empowers is a tall task. Are you up for it? You’re all the way down here, at the bottom of this article, so I’m guessing yes. Congrats on making the commitment. Now get out there and inspire others to commit to something, too.
Neil Pasricha is the author of The Happiness Equation and The Book of Awesome. He spent a decade in leadership development at Walmart and now works as director of The Institute for Global Happiness. Neil also shares monthly book recommendations through his Reading Club newsletter.