How to Give an Effective Speech

I have given a lot of talks in the last couple of years. I’ve used the same set of public speaking skills to give presentations ranging from autism to how to learn handstands and how not to stretch. I am currently attending a course on public speaking and group facilitation at the Option Institute in Sheffield, MA and decided to put down some of these tools in writing.

For starters, here is a 3-minute talk on my recent mastery of the Gymnastics Giant.

What’s Your Purpose

Most of the time when I give a short speech I have two goals:

  • The Content
  • The Ask

The Content

For many introductory talks I am the content. Even when giving a talk on advanced topics what makes the content stick is my personal stories. The content is only relevant to the extent an audience can connect with the speaker. Throughout my life I get many of the same questions. Probably most people do. “What do you do for work?” And for me: “What did you do in the circus?!” A short presentation designed to share a story from my life is a chance to share the answers to a lot of those basic questions so that I can rapidly move relationships on to some more advanced topics and areas of play. I’m happy to talk about my dance company or a workshop I am putting on. And if I can get the basics out of the way in a group it saves us time for more juicy topics later.

The Ask

The ask is a bit more complicated and depends on the audience and the context of my talk. Almost always when I’m giving a talk, though, I have a clear purpose behind the situation, something that I’d like to get, teach or contribute. When I have a clear ask I usually save it for the end to give my audience something clear to remember when they think of my talk.

Recall is heavily weighted towards the combination of the beginning and end. Thus, I like to start out my talks with something pretty hard-hitting about myself (when that’s the topic of the talk) and end with a clear ask (when I have one). What comes in between established authority or context for my talk, tells the story.

Who Is Your Audience

I love the question “Who is the target audience?”. Every subculture is different and the more accurately I can address my subject to my specific audience the more likely it is to be received. I answer the question in two steps:

  • Best Guess
  • Subject to Change

Best Guess

For every speech I give I take my best guess as to whom I will be speaking and how I can reach them best. This is influenced by location, who I think will be listening, who I’d like to impact, etc. I can’t know ahead of time how best to impact that group of people but I’ve discovered a simple trick, which is to write my talks as if they are aimed at only one or two specific people. If I know someone within the subculture I’m speaking to, perfect. If I don’t, I use someone in my own life as similar as possible to my expected audience.

Be Prepared To Change

Live presentations are, in fact, live and are therefore subject to change. In giving speeches I find that I change my rehearsed script during the live event based on what I see in my audience. Even though I often rehearse like crazy, I usually edit that script based upon my experience of the audience.

This talk is from Start-Up Weekend Edu., which was held in San Francisco in November 2013. I gave this pitch in front of 100+ strangers and gave the whole speech off the cuff.

Mind you, I had a meticulously prepared a speech memorized word for word. Unfortunately, I had prepared that speech for the wrong target audience. I spend much of my professional life giving presentations to parents of special needs parents. Start-Up Edu. was full of people in their 20s-30s working at the intersection of Start-Up tech. and education in the Bay Area. With a completely different audience I recognized the need to deliver a very different speech.

That night at Start-Up Weekend I was 24th out of 54 people giving presentations. As I’ve said, the human brain is wired to remember the beginning and ending of events much better than the middle. Thus, I had to come up with something unexpected to make my 24th speech memorable to my audience. (I succeeded. My project was one of 14 chosen for the weekend.)

I’m not always as lucky on my feet in the face of change and I’m sure that there are times when it really doesn’t pay to change a script on short notice. Never the less, I have often found it useful to be able to do so.


I think the biggest contributing factor to being able to change is the presenter’s comfort with the content. In the case of the Start-Up Edu. presentation, I know autism content very well. Had I been less familiar, switching would have been harder to do.

A less intuitive part of content is a presenter’s passion for the subject.  Most of us have participated in lectures by droll professors and a half-asleep audience. If even the presenter isn’t passionate about his/her topic how can we expect the audience to be? If you aren’t passionate about what you’re presenting, find a different topic or a new angle on the material. In short, be passionate.


Another essential but often time overlooked aspect of public speaking is authenticity. Here’s the very first talk I ever gave. Looking back there are many things I’d do different but what I most love about this presentation is how honest and authentic I am.

It can be challenging to share in a speech an issue that is too personal or currently hard. I have seen many people spiral out of control while giving a speech that is immediately personal. Simultaneously, sharing authentically is essential to make an honest connect with the audience, and in the end making that connect is what giving a speech is all about.

In the above talk I was uncertain about where I was in my life and shared that uncertainty. But because I was willing to say clearly and comfortably that this is where I was, the message came through and was stronger for my willingness to be vulnerable on stage.

Make It Memorable

Finally, make a speech memorable. Here’s three opening lines:

  • I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life.
  • I work with autism
  • I broke my neck in the circus. Now I use what I’ve learned to help autistic children.

Clearly, the last one is the most interesting. Why? Because it is specific, unusual and leads to a story. “I work with autism” is potential interesting because it is a bit unusual but the third has shock-value (broken neck? circus!) and a line of inquiry (What did you learn? How do you work with kids?). Even if you aren’t the middle presenter in a line-up of 54 exhaustive pitches like my night at Start-Up Weekend it helps to be remembered. Take the time to be specific and exciting so that your audience will want to know more.

A Parting Question

Most people are afraid of public speaking. In the United States, it is the number two fear after fear of death. If you are afraid of speaking in public, how come? If not, what do you like about public speaking? Let me know in the comments.

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