In 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven delivered a commencement speech to the University of Texas that won’t soon be forgotten. His speech was so impactful that it immediately went viral, filling millions of people with a sense of drive, empowerment, and inspiration.
If you’re hoping to similarly inspire and empower audiences with your own presentations, then there’s no better place to start than by learning what, exactly, made this former Navy SEAL’s commencement speech so powerful. Apply the following principles from Admiral McRaven’s talk to your next presentation and you can bet that it’ll be your best one yet.
During the beginning of his address, Admiral McRaven let the audience know that he’ll be sharing ten different stories, each with their own leadership lesson. He let the audience know what they’re in for. This eliminating the restlessness that arises when an audience doesn’t know when the speech will be over. With the structure of his address made clear up front, he’s making it as easy as possible for his audience to remain engaged.
Admiral McRaven’s crisp, decorated military uniform is misleading. You would anticipate that a stiff and formal commencement speech will follow. Instead, he immediately opens with a quip about the intense hangover he had when he was forced to sit through his own commencement as a student. His willingness to be himself and share a bit of vulnerability instantly transformed him from an almost-mythical Navy SEAL to someone we can all relate to and understand.
According to Alf Rehn, professor of management at Abo Akademi University, the average length of time a speaker can realistically hold an audience’s attention is 20 minutes. Admiral McRaven’s speech is perfectly timed at 19 minutes. As a general rule of thumb, the shorter your presentation can be while still making your point, the better.
Admiral McRaven took the abstract and overwhelming concept of “changing the world” and broke it down with a simple argument: Everyone can make a global impact by improving the lives of ten people. Give your audience measurable steps they can take today to put that inspiration into action. Your presentation will resonate a whole lot more.
Very few people can or will endure the notoriously difficult training that it takes to become a Navy SEAL. Admiral McRaven’s commencement speech is effective because he made all of the lessons from his experience in the military universally applicable. We can all relate to his takeaway that even when you work your ass off, you’ll still wind up in the dirt. The key is to keep getting back up.
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