Great Presenting and Public Speaking: 12 Pillars for Success

Audience clapping


Is great presenting and public speaking a skill you aspire to develop in your profession?

History has provided us with a very clear premise on which all great speakers have made their name.

Modeling the elements of excellence that we have consistently witnessed is the surest way to great presenting and public speaking.

There are 12 things that 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’s not part of great presenting and public speaking:

Have you noticed that great presenting and public speaking always starts with a powerful, relevant and memorable:

–   Story

–  Fact

–  Statement

– Question

– Statistic

 Or something even more captivating

It interrupts your audience’s thought patterns by stimulating interest and arousing curiosity right at the outset.

That rarely starts with ‘good morning, I’m delighted to be here’

Start by saying, showing or doing something which sets you apart from other speakers.

Something that sparks your audience’s attention, interest and curiosity.

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 heart of great presenting is creating a genuine connection with your audience.

Showing them that you’re just like them by building some common ground.

A prerequisite to establishing rapport is instilling a sense of trust. If you can help your audience to see that you are really no different to them, the connection begins. Show them that you have shared experiences, challenges and aspirations.

Great presenting and public speaking begins the moment you unite your audience

Focus on sharing your understanding of 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 and their message

Persuasive speakers believe in themselves.

That isn’t something that just magically happens; it comes with extensive preparation and practice.

Start by ensuring that you’ve done all you can to understand as much as you can about your audience in advance.

Your material is relevant and content rich

You believe that what you have to share will make a difference to your audience.

That means knowing your topic well and being prepared for the difficult questions.

It means practicing your delivery to ensure it’s as impactful as possible.

Great speakers possess a single minded conviction in their message

They have absolute faith that what they have to say will help to make their audiences lives better, easier, happier or positiviley different.

4. They like things in 3’s

 3 Wise Men

The 3 Musketeers

 3 Stooges

The 3 Little Pigs

How about

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 used this principle to extraordinary effect

Julius Caesar – ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (I came, I saw, I conquered)

Abraham Lincoln’s, Gettysburg Address –  ‘We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground.’

Barack Obama’s, Inaugural Speech – ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’

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 in the form of their own voice.

They know how to make music with their voice by changing pitch, volume, rhythm and pace.

They are animated and interesting to listen to. Great speakers manipulate their vocal chords to control and convey whatever emotional state they want.

There is plenty you can do to conduct your orchestra:

– Accentuate a word, important statement or fact and practice pausing.

– Generate a sense of excitement by increasing the speed and pace of your delivery.

– 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 to an 8 year old

Another key to great presenting and public speaking is keeping it simple.

Powerful presenters don’t get carried away with grandiose vocabulary, acronyms and technical jargon.

They use every day language that even your average 8 year old can understand.

Use short sentences, keep the message focused and getting to the point quickly

Your audience already knows that you are an expert in your field.

Resist the natural urge most speakers 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’

Don’t make them work too hard to understand what it is you are trying to tell them.

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; just keep it real.

Be open, honest and be prepared to be vulnerable

Let your audience see the very best of you, not someone else.

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

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.  They 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.

Great speakers pause in the way they do to give:

– Their point impact

– The audience time to think for a moment

– Themselves time to breathe

– Control and add gravitas to their style

Every audience loves a thoughtful speaker

I believe that the master of the pause is Barack Obama.

Watch the impact he makes on his audience in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2014.

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.

Surely a great speaker doesn’t need them either?

It’s true of course, a great speaker doesn’t need slides.

A wise one may still consider using them.

PowerPoint and other software when used effectively, can have a significant visual impact on your presentation.

They can help your audience to better understand and remember your message

Use rich, relevant and powerful pictures.

Use colour, contrast and creativity to stimulate and engage your audience.

Each visual must be carefully crafted and carry very few words.

Great presenters and public speakers never read their slides out to their audience

Don’t be put off by what you read about PowerPoint.

If you think it will add value to getting your message across, use slides for your audience.

10. They make a difference 

To get and keep the attention of an audience, we must have something of value to say.

Something which will make a tangible difference to their personal or professional lives.

Throughout history all great speakers have known this

When they make a difference they are remembered for it.

11. They are emotionally intelligent

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 of awareness that allows them to adopt and develop the behaviours they need to connect with their audience and eliminate those that detract from their objective.

Great speakers are empathetic

They prepare and present their message from the perspective of their audience

They start with asking, ”What does my audience need to hear?’  rather than,‘What do I want to say?

12. They don’t say thank you for listening

You’ve opened your presentation with impact, totally connected and engaged with your audience.

Now you close by saying, ‘Thank you for listening’.


Great presenters end their presentations as powerfully as they started.

They don’t put up a final slide with the words:


‘Thank you’

Instead, they close with a:

– Strong call to action

– Powerful quote, fact, story or statement

– Thought provoking question

– Return to their opening

– Challenge or request

Or something even more memorable

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 to be a great presenter.

You can learn from the very best and find what works for you to help you be the finest speaker you can be.

If you would like to lot more about great presenting and public speaking:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

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