What makes a great public speaker?

My first job was to market a project management software. My very first demo was to a 20 strong audience. I sat in front of a machine with Windows 3.1, a handful of floppy disks and I did not have the faintest clue of what I needed to do. After a few phone calls to my boss I managed to install the software and had to do the speaking bit.

I was 22yrs old then and did not have the faintest clue of computers, sales & marketing and the product I was selling.I have never found myself in a more nerve wracking situation than that. I relived that fear every time I had to speak in public for the next few years.


Less than 5% do it
Not all of us are gifted with the ability to hold an audience’s attention, leave alone enthrall it. Just a handful of people manage to do any kind of public speaking before they enter their careers. These turn out to be budding politicians, ones who participated in college debates, organized college festivals and so on and that is less than 5% of the population that typically gets churned out of colleges.

Butterflies for parched throats
It is common knowledge that public speaking is one of the most feared situations an individual wants to find himself in. What makes it such a terrifying experience? After all we speak every day to people- family, friends, colleagues and so on. And some we don’t even know-the vegetable vendor, the cab driver and so on. And yet put someone in front of an audience, the actual numbers don’t typically matter, and the familiar butterflies in the belly, parched throats etc accompany the individual like faithful angels.

Factors that hinder
I have found the following playing a significant role when I didn’t quite get the hang of public speaking. Note that the factors that hinder you may be quite different.

  • Audience anonymity – The faceless crowd evokes fear of the unknown in us. Even familiar subject matter abandons us in a hurry. What questions would they ask? Would they like what I present? Would they connect with the subject matter? And so on. Where there is lack of information the mind fills in with its rabid fantasies.
  • Lack of subject matter expertise – Not all of us will be experts before we get hauled in to do speeches. But the audience typically has expectations of you. That somehow magically you would be able to intuit the meaning of their intent, know the specifics of their problems and by virtue of your role at that moment you would answer every query.
  • Lack of preparation – Extempore speeches are good for the speaker and not for the audience. Any speech worth speaking is worth preparing for. To know what message you want to communicate, how to set the context, to strive to carry along every participant is such a hard problem that it can always be improved by actually sitting and preparing for it.
  • Fear of being in the limelight – To be on a stage, in front of a podium, as the center of attention for a crowd strangely seems to rob us of our posture, we feel naked, every primitive fear comes rushing onto us. This is an emotion that cannot be reasoned with.
  • Confidence – Even with all above factors addressed, if one lacks confidence to stand and deliver you would find that it makes no sense even if you are an expert in your domain.


Characteristics of good speakers/speeches
A variety of factors goes into making a good speaker. With the Internet and Google its not hard to find basic information that one is looking for. Content is there and it can be reached.
That said I have found the following characteristics in good speakers I have heard:

Perspective: Assuming the content is there and its of sufficient depth, a different perspective, even many perspectives, highlighting hidden connections and dichotomies, laying bare cultural assumptions, prejudices etc. An example http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/tedtalksplayer.cfm?key=ken_robinson

Delivery: A talk that is not the verbal equivalent of bullet point driven content. A style that goes to the content via a straight or a sinuous path, in either case illumines the content in ways that is not just logical. Goto Ken Robinson again….

Charisma: One could deliver a mundane content with a pinch of flair and yet have the crowd adore you. That is when you know a factor called charisma is at play. This is an intangible, this is what makes an aging rock musician get the nubile young thing. Any Steve Jobs speech

Expertise: Content again. But such mastery over content that they can single handedly have bulbs light up in every individuals head. Any Richard Feynman speech

I would discuss how I overcame the hindering factors in another post but let us be clear about what makes a good speech. After all if we do not know what is good how would we emulate it, create it from within ourselves.

I am interested to know what factors hindered you and how you overcame them. And send along links to samples of good speeches too.

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