We hear many messages every day. Some of those are good, others are not. Some of them we forget almost immediately, and others stick with us for a lifetime. So what is it exactly that elevates some messages above others? What makes a great public speaker?

Professional speaker, coach, and author Cam Barber has come up with what he believes are the three things that make a great public speaker. They are: “The ability to deliver a vivid message that can be recalled and hopefully repeated; the ability to connect with an audience and be believable; and the ability to bring an idea to life.”

Honestly, I think Barber’s on to something. Let’s explore why these three things are so important for public speaking success.

1. Deliver a Vivid Message Aimed at Audience Recall

Great speakers make sure to tell compelling stories using engaging and descriptive language. But beyond that, they work hard to give the audience a takeaway. It’s usually a short phrase or lesson like a mantra or a maxim. For a takeaway to work properly, it needs to be something simple enough that the audience can repeat and remember it. And it needs to be something that will help impact their future. Think of a takeaway as a tool for the road. It will help them after they leave this place. For example, one of our favorite speakers, Steve Jobs, illustrated this when he ended his famous 2005 Stanford Commencement speech with these words, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” That simple takeaway is repeated 3 times at the end of his speech. And it’s both impactful and memorable.

2. Be Believable and Connect with the Audience

Erving Goffman is one of the founders of the dramaturgical movement. He says that everyday social life mirrors the theater. In particular, we have situations in which we give a “front stage” presentation of ourselves and others where we give a “backstage” performance. Front stage performances happen when there are more structured social roles we have to play and people are watching us with expectations related to our roles. For example, a waiter may act one way when in the dining room with customers and another way in the kitchen with coworkers.

For most of our public speaking history, we’ve believed that presentations should fall under the category of front stage performances. However, experts like Barber believe that “the old mechanical performance mentality needs to change so people can connect with listeners.” The audience can usually tell when we are putting on a show, rather than communicating from a place of authenticity. So in order to connect with your audience, just aim to be an elevated, practiced, authentic version of the person you are in everyday conversation, not a completely different character.

3. Bring Your Ideas to Life

A great public speaker is an artist. The same way a painter or musician or poet creates moving art, so does a speaker. This means you should seek to infuse your message with your own sense of style. In our postmodern, multimedia world, there are so many ways to communicate a message these days. One failproof way to bring your ideas to life is to use stories. Writer for the Harvard Buisness Review, Carolyn O’Hara says, “stories create ‘sticky’ memories by attaching emotions to things that happen. That means leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others.” Her advice for telling a great story is:

  • Start with a message.
  • Mine your own experiences.
  • Don’t make yourself the hero.
  • Highlight a struggle.
  • Keep it simple.

When it’s time for you to give your next presentation, don’t be overwhelmed. Simply take Barber’s advice. Set three goals for yourself: make your message easy to recall, build an authentic connection with the audience, and communicate your ideas in a creative way.

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