History has provided us with a very clear premise on which all great speakers have made their name. Discovering their strategies for success and modeling the elements of excellence that we have consistently witnessed over so many years is the surest way to develop your own speaking skills.

After all what better way can there be to become a great orator than by becoming a student of history’s greatest orators.

I like to think of these elements as pillars that form the foundation and platform for communicating with style, substance and impact.

Whether it’s Demosthenes, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Barrack Obama or the late Steve Jobs I believe there are 12 things you will find all of the great speakers have in common.

1.  They don’t say good morning

Can you imagine Martin Luther King in Washington in 1963 starting his speech with, ‘Good morning, I have a dream…’?

Or Winston Churchill saying, ‘Good afternoon, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat…’?

How about Abraham Lincoln starting with, ‘Good morning, four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…’?

It doesn’t work and that’s not the way to start any important presentation and it’s certainly not the way to open with impact and grab the attention of your audience.

The great speakers start with a powerful, relevant and memorable:






They make it their business to interrupt their audience’s thought patterns by stimulating interest and arousing curiosity.  That rarely starts with ‘good morning, I’m delighted to be here’.  If it’s not something they say then it’s something they do or show that sets them apart from other speakers that sparks their audiences scrutiny.

For an example of how to create interest and curiosity watch the opening of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, ‘How great leaders inspire action’.

2. They are just like you

The best way for any speaker to create a genuine connection with their audience is to show them that you’re just like them by building some common ground.

A prerequisite to establishing rapport is instilling a sense of trust and if you can help your audience to see that you are really no different to them in that you have shared experiences and aspirations then that connection begins.

Whatever differences exist between speakers and their audience the great orators know how to unite their listeners by focusing on the similarities between where they are now and where they want to be.

People trust people who understand and are similar to them.

3. They believe in themselves their message

Persuasive speakers believe in themselves and that isn’t something that just magically happens, it comes with extensive preparation and practice. Knowing that you’ve done all you can to understand as much as you can about your audience in advance, that your material is relevant and content rich, that it will make a difference to your audience is the backbone of belief. It’s knowing that you know your topic inside out, are prepared for the difficult questions and have practised your delivery to ensure it’s as engaging and impactful as possible.

The great speakers possess a single minded conviction in their message and have absolute faith in the difference it will make to the personal or professional lives of their audience.

4. They like things in 3’s

The 3 Wise Men
The 3 Musketeers
The 3 Stooges
The 3 Little Pigs
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Up, Up and Away,
On your Marks, Get Set, Go
Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil
Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll

Concepts or ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable. All the great speakers throughout history have known this principle and used it to extraordinary effect.

Julius Caesar
‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (I came, I saw, I conquered)
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears.’
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
‘We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground.’
Barack Obama, Inaugural Speech
‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’
‘We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.’

People like things in 3’s divide your next presentation into three parts. Share 3 important features or give your audience 3 reasons to act on your message. If it worked for Caesar and Obama it will work for you.

5. They have an orchestra

Great speakers carry within them a one piece orchestra, it’s their voice. They know how to make music with their voice by changing pitch, volume, rhythm and pace so that they are animated and interesting to listen to. They know how to manipulate their vocal chords to control and convey whatever emotional state they want.

Studies suggest that speakers with lower voices are often perceived as more dominant which is probably why it’s a favourite technique of political leaders, whereas those who speak with higher frequencies are often seen as meek. There is plenty you can do to conduct your orchestra:

• To accentuate a word, important statement or fact practice pausing just before
• To generate a sense of excitement increase the speed and pace of your delivery – when we get excited or we are conveying important information both volume and pitch tend to rise
• To ensure your message is heard and you sound authoritative try slowing your pace a little

Try these great vocal exercises recommended by Julian Treasure in his TED Talk, ‘How to speak so that people want to listen’.

6.  They can explain it an 8 year old

Great speakers keep it simple.

They don’t get carried away by grandiose vocabulary, acronyms and technical jargon they use every day language that even your average 8 year old can understand.  This means using short sentences and keeping the message focused, relevant and get to the point.

Your audience already knows that you are on the platform because you are an expert in your field so resist the natural urge most speaker have to prove this by drowning them with data and information.  Stay focused on your key message and what it is you really want them to remember.  When faced with complexity people’s brains tend to switch off so don’t make them work too hard to understand what it is you are trying to tell them.

When it comes to presenting, less is always more.

7.  They keep it real

Don’t try to emulate Barack Obama, Martin Luther King or the late Steve Jobs.  Your audience want to see you and no one else.  Avoid tricks and gimmicks and just keep it real.

Be open, honest and be prepared to be vulnerable and let them see the very best of you.

Keeping it real means not having delusions of grandeur just because you have the attention of an audience.  It means retaining your sense of humour and also telling your audience relevant stories about personal experiences which they will be able to relate to.  The great speakers don’t present ‘to’ an audience they have a conversation ‘with’ them.  It feels as real to them as though they were sitting in their very own living room.

8.  Know when to keep quiet

I’ve touched on the power of the pause in point 5 but it’s so important it’s worthy of its own place.  Here is why the great speakers pause in the way they do:

It gives the audience time to think for a moment

It gives the speaker time to reflect

It puts the speaker in control and adds gravitas to their style

Every audience loves a thoughtful speaker and they can see you thinking

I believe that the master of the pause is Barack Obama who also happens to be one of my personal favourite speakers. Watch the impact he makes on his audience in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last year.  As you watch the video notice in his short but powerful opening how he paused four times for 2 or 3 seconds each time.

9.  They give life to PowerPoint

I know what you’re thinking!  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King didn’t need PowerPoint or any visual aids for that matter so surely a great speaker doesn’t need them.  That’s true, a great speaker doesn’t need slides but a wise one may still consider using them.

PowerPoint and other software, when used, effectively can have a massive visual impact on your presentation helping your audience to not only better understand but remember your message.

The great speaker will use stunning, relevant and powerful pictures, colour, contrast and creativity to stimulate and engage their audience.  Each visual will be very carefully considered and crafted and there will be few words on.  They will never read their slides.

Don’t be put off by what you read about PowerPoint.  If you think it will add value to getting your message across then your job is to breathe life into it.

10.  They make a difference

That’s it.

The only reason any speaker should have the attention of an audience is if they have something of value to say that will make a tangible difference to the personal or professional lives of their audience.  Throughout history all great speakers have known this and that’s why they become known for it.

Not only do they know how to deliver a message through using some of the ideas presented in this article but their objective is to make a difference and when they do they are remembered for it.

11.  They are emotionally intelligent 

The great speakers are emotionally self-aware and also aware of their audience’s emotions.  For a speaker to make a genuine connection with their audience they have to be able to create the right atmosphere.  This means they have to know their own personal strengths and limitations to be able to manage and adapt them accordingly.  They also need to be able to determine the mood of their audience and respond as appropriate.

They have a level awareness that allows them to adopt and develop the behaviours they need to connect with their audience and eliminate those that distract from their objective.  The great speakers are empathetic which means they prepare and present their message from the perspective of their audience rather than where your typical presenter starts, ‘What do I want to say?’

12.  They don’t say thank you for listening

So you’ve opened your presentation with impact, totally connected and engaged with them for the last 30 minutes and then you close by saying, ‘Thank you for listening’.


You may as well just jump off a cliff without a parachute as you’ve killed the last 30 minutes.

Great presenters end their presentations as powerfully as they started.  They don’t put up a final slide that say, ‘Questions’ or even one that say ‘Thank you’ here is how they close:

With a strong call to action

A powerful quote, fact, story or statement

A thought provoking question

A return to their opening

A challenge or request

Make sure you close your presentation as mindfully and as powerfully as you started it.

Watch the last 2 minutes close of the TED talk by Benjamin Zander, ‘The transformative power of classical music’

You don’t have to try to be Ghandi, Churchill, Lincoln or Jobs but you can learn from the very best and find what works for you to help you be the finest speaker you can be.

Image: Courtesy of flickr.com