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Delivering a Speech That Matters – 6 Lessons from a TEDx Veteran

Imagine yourself backstage at a theatre.

The Production Assistant has just finished clipping on your microphone, and the Stage Manager has given you the one-minute warning. Beyond the curtain, you hear the muffled sounds of the audience taking their seats. Pacing back and forth, you review your opening line over and over in your head. But this rehearsal doesn’t last long. Before you know it, the house lights dim, the stage lights go bright, and you’re given the cue. You walk out, face the crowd, and begin your speech…

Now, does this sound like a dream or a nightmare?

For most, it’s the latter. Public speaking consistently ranks as the number one fear in adults. 

This wasn’t always the case. While the digital world has given us a toolbox full of mass communication tools (email, texts, tweets, blogs, slacks, etc.), there was a time not so long ago where communicating your ideas meant getting up in front of a group and delivering a speech.

In fact, for the vast majority of humans’ time on earth (think 99.9%), verbal speech was the only means of communication. Written language arrived very late in our development, and even after the invention of the printing press in 1440, most of society had no idea how to read, meaning they still relied on the power of speech and story to gather and share information.

Think back to your history class. Cavemen telling stories around the fire. Native American elders sharing folklore with the tribe. Town hall meetings. Soapbox speeches. Throughout time, the most important ideas have always been shared through public speech.

So, why are so many of us suddenly scared to wield this power?

In this modern age, we’ve quickly swapped the public forums for the convenience of digital communication. And while this certainly has had its benefits, it’s also had the unfortunate consequence of turning public speaking from a tool humans had to use, to one that’s used by a select few, and avoided at all costs by the majority of others.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As someone that speaks on stage for a living, and who has delivered multiple TEDx talks around the world, I know first-hand just how powerful a speech can be. In fact, with so few willing to stand up and share their ideas publicly, speeches have once again become one of the most powerful ways to share ideas.

Have an idea worth sharing yourself? Here are six of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout my years as a public speaker.

Speak from YOUR Heart

Have you ever wondered why some speakers leave you on the edge of your seat, while others have you reaching for your cell phone as a distraction from the boredom? It can be the same event, same stage, and even the same topic, yet some speakers just seem to have “it,” while others do not.

As an experienced speaker, I can tell you firsthand that “it” is nothing more than a person choosing to speak from the heart.

Watching a speech delivered from the heart is like watching magic. There’s passion. There’s warmth. There’s humor. Speaking from YOUR heart pulls the audience in and leaves them hanging on every word. It creates a sense of community and feels as if everyone in the room has gathered around a campfire to hear a story. Because in a sense, they have!

When you watch someone speak from THEIR heart, years of evolution come into effect. Your eyes widen, your pulse rises, and your senses elevate. Your body feels like it’s being told something important, that the information being shared on stage is important to you, and that you need to do everything in your power to retain it. It takes us all back to the caveman campfire stories that used to be of vital importance to our survival.

Sounds like the kind of speech you’d like to give, right?

So, how can you ensure your speech is delivered from the heart? 

First off, make sure you pick the right topic (more on that in #2 and #3). Once you’ve settled on an idea worth sharing, focus on engaging with the audience. Ask questions. Look them in the eye (and if you’re on a TED stage, forget about the cameras). Let them guess the results of that study before you share the next slide. Bring someone on stage. Get the audience involved.

The point of public speaking is not to tell people something; it’s to share something with them. And the best way to share is from the heart.

Focus on One Idea Worth Sharing, Not Many

One of the most critical things you can do to deliver an impactful speech is to focus on a single idea.

My time at TEDx has made this point especially clear. When someone is given the opportunity to talk about a passion of theirs on a prominent stage, the natural inclination is to cram in as much information as they possibly can during their speech. You never know when you’ll have this opportunity to share your knowledge again, so best to share as much as you can, right?


If you try to share 100 small bits of information, your audience will walk away tired, confused, and not very inspired. Instead, focus all your energy on sharing a single idea or story, and tell it really well.

Make Sure It’s the Right Idea

Once you learn it’s best to focus on a single idea for your speech, it becomes even more important that you choose the right idea. Thankfully, there are several practical things you can do to test your idea before delivering a big speech. In fact, Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, advises all his speakers to utilize a practice called Creating a Through line.

A through line is the DNA of your speech, the core upon which it grows. Great public speakers know that they should be able to create a through line for their speech that is 15 words or less. If it’s any longer, the idea is either not fleshed out enough, or they are trying to share too much (see #2 above).

Once you’ve distilled your through line down to 15 words, you can take your testing one step further by running it through TED’s through line checklist:

  • Is this a topic I’m passionate about?
  • Does it inspire curiosity?
  • Will it make a difference to the audience to have this knowledge?
  • Is the information fresh or is it already out there?
  • Can I complete it in the time allotted?
  • Do I know enough about the topic to make it worth the audience’s time?
  • Do I have the credibility to take the audience’s time?

If your 15-word through line checks all these boxes, then you know you have an idea that’s ready to be shared.

Embrace Your Butterflies

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death…This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Jerry Seinfeld

Though it’s ingrained in our DNA, fear tends to be the first emotion that comes to mind when people think about public speaking. The sweaty palms. The knocking knees. The thirst you just can’t quench. For most, the idea of walking out onto a stage to deliver a speech is utterly terrifying.

That is why it comes as no surprise that one of the most common questions I get asked about public speaking is “how can I make the nerves and butterflies go away?”

Ready for the secret?

You can’t!

Ask any professional public speaker and they’ll all say the same thing: stop trying to eliminate your nerves. It just can’t be done.

Instead, you need to embrace your butterflies. Accept the fear and put it to work for you. When used correctly, fear can be one of the most positive motivators and tools you have to deliver a compelling speech. Because when we experience fear, our body’s natural response is to produce adrenaline – that jolt of superhuman energy preparing us for fight or flight.

For many about to deliver a speech, signs of adrenaline are seen as signs that they are nervous. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, rewire how you think about adrenaline. Those sweaty palms? That doesn’t mean you’re nervous…it means you’re ready. That your body is gearing up to go out and deliver the speech of a lifetime.

Accept and reframe your fear, and you’ll be amazed at how motivating it can become.

Give Generously

One of the most surefire ways to deliver a compelling speech is to focus on a single goal:


The best speeches and speakers give generously to their audiences. They don’t take to the stage to pitch a project or to give an ask. They take to the stage to share an idea, to open up minds, to entertain and to inspire, to connect with the individuals in the room.

Unfortunately, many inexperienced speakers view their time on the mic as nothing more than a chance to pitch themselves, their projects, and their businesses. But this approach couldn’t be more wrong.

Even in scenarios where you’re expected to be delivering a pitch, it’s always best to ask yourself: “What can I give to this audience?”

Let me give you an example.

In 2010, while working as the Head of Innovation and Creativity for Disney Parks, I worked on a major project to reinvent Downtown Disney. And one of our first tasks was finding the right architecture firm.

We had called in four firms to give their pitch to win the business. These were major league firms with major league pitch budgets, and the first three came in with exactly what we had expected: large architectural renderings and models, fancy pitch decks, fancy suits, and enough people to fill the entire conference room.

The first three pitches were all very impressive, yet none had quite “wowed” our team. The ideas were sound, but for some reason their pitches just hadn’t resonated with us. Then, the fourth firm entered to give their pitch. However, instead of a team of fancy architects in fancy suits, it was a single representative for the firm, kind, seasoned pro with a warm smile and a relaxed demeanor.

Instead of starting his pitch by walking us through a fancy model, the gentleman proceeded to take our chairs and arrange them in a circle (remember those cavemen campfires?). After we took our seats, the man began to tell us a story about an ambitious animator named Walt, and the place where he first met the girl who would become his future wife, Lilian. He asked us to close our eyes and painted a picture of a place called Disney Springs.

Our entire team was completely captivated.

This fourth architect didn’t deliver a pitch; he gave to all of us in the room. He gave us a story. A vision. A history lesson that reminded all of us why we were so proud to work for Disney.

And after he gave all this, that gentleman gave us his vision for how he would make Walt proud. Needless to say, the entire Disney team was officially “wowed”.

Guess who won the business?

No matter the context, always frame your speech around how you can give to your audience.

Diversify Your Delivery

If there is one thing that can take a speech from good to great, it’s the ability to diversify your delivery. While we tend to think of speeches as an auditory experience, you must remember that you are the speaker up on stage, and that your audience is expecting a performance. Even the most well prepared and written speeches can fall flat if delivered by a stationary, monotone speaker.

Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to easily bring some diversity to your speech, and I recommend you craft a speech that incorporates all three types of learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Here are some of my favorites:

Use Your Voice (Auditory Learners)

Whether you know it or not, your voice is capable of creating a wide range of sounds. Use this powerful tool in your speech! Telling an emotional anecdote? Slow down pace and bring your tone down low. Sharing some exciting news? Pick things up and get loud. Just as the story you tell should have peaks and valleys, so should your tone of voice as you deliver.

Move (Kinesthetic Learners)

One of my favorite things to do as a speaker is move. While some environments are more restrictive than others, try and push the boundaries within whatever confines you have. Engage the audience by bringing someone up on stage or moving to either side of the stage. Move back towards the screen to point out an important fact or figure. Or – if possible – meet the audience where they live and leave the stage all together!

Use Compelling Visuals (Visual Learners)

Whether it’s a photo, short video, or series of graphs, visual cues can serve as a great way to enhance your points during a speech. But be VERY careful and selective here. One of the biggest mistakes an inexperienced public speaker can make is turning their speech into nothing more than a recitation of PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide. This will immediately cause the audience to lose interest. Instead, ensure each visual cue you use has a specific purpose, and is there to enhance, not serve in place of, your speech.

Getting Started

While you may never plan to grace the TED stage, developing the ability to deliver a powerful public speech is a skill that can pay dividends for years. Humans will always be programmed to love a well-told story. So, if you have an idea worth sharing, it’s best you learn how to share it well.

These six tips should help get you started. However, the best way to improve is to get out there and start speaking. Whether it’s volunteering to deliver a speech at work, offering to give a toast at an upcoming event, or joining a local ToastMasters or similar public speaking club, the sooner you get up on that stage, the sooner you’ll have the audience on the edge of their seats.

Curious to see how I put these tips into action? Then be sure to check out one of my most recent TEDx speeches.

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