Not All Ideas Are Created Equal

Not All Ideas Are Created Equal

Build your speech around one lucid and lively idea. 

By Chris Witt

Peggy Noonan, one of President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters, advocates in her book On Speaking Well that every speech should be built around a policy. “Trying to write a great speech without having a great policy to work with, to assert and argue for, would be like trying to write a great play about nothing,” she notes.

For those of us who are crafting speeches that aren’t primarily political in nature, I suggest substituting the word “idea” for “policy.” A great speech is great because it advances a great idea.

A speech or a presentation should be built around one – and only one – idea. If you have more than one idea, good for you. Save the second or third or fourth idea for other speeches. Choose one idea, instead, and focus on making it as clear and compelling as possible.

The challenge, of course, is to be sure it’s a good idea – one that provides clarity and meaning, one that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. You can express just such an idea. Here are some questions to get you started: 

Is It Clear?
Clarity isn’t everything, of course. (For those who have nothing to say, clarity is a liability.) You can be clear and offend people, bore them, maybe even galvanize their opposition. But if you’re not clear, if people don’t understand what you’re talking about, there’s no point for you to go on. It’s better to risk having your idea rejected outright than to have it met with a collective “huh?”

Dale Carnegie once wrote, “An all too common reason people fail to be intelligible is this: The thing they wish to express is not clear even to themselves.” So the first thing to do is be clear to yourself. Start by stating your idea in a short sentence using simple, everyday words.

In his early military career U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower wrote speeches for General Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower believed the central idea of a speech should be so clear that it could be written on the inside of a matchbook cover. Since matchbook covers are a rare commodity these days, you might try instead to write your idea on the flipside of a business card. This is good practice in keeping your ­message brief and to the point.

When asked the secret of his mesmerizing speeches, the Roman orator Cato said, “Find the message first and the words will follow.” Start with the message – your idea – and build on it.

Fighting clutter, which is the natural enemy of clarity, is like emptying your e-mail inbox: You’re never finished. You have to be ­vigilant and aggressive, deleting all the fluff and filler words, jargon and corporate catchphrases. Synergistic, out of the box, at the end of the day, best of breed, ­customer-centric, ROI – add your favorite (actually, least favorite) junk word or phrase here – are a speaker’s version of spam.

What Mark Twain wrote more than 150 years ago applies equally well today: “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and ­verbosity creep in.”

First, be clear in your own mind. Then eliminate the clutter. Work not to sound impressive, but to make your idea understood. 

Is It Coherent?
A study conducted by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of Southern California, San Diego, concluded, “In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an ­average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day.”

It’s paradoxical that we need more information – what exactly is a zettabyte and how big is it compared to a gigabyte? – to understand a report that basically confirms what we already know: We’re drowning in information.

For the most part, audiences don’t need more information. Okay, they may need a little more information. But what they really want is a way of understanding the information they already have access to. What does it all mean? What can they do with it? What should they do with it?

That’s what an idea is for. An idea organizes, ties together and explains the significance of information that people already know or that you’re presenting. And that’s why an idea has to be coherent, meaning “sticking together; forming a united or orderly whole.”

Project 2, “Organize Your Speech,” from the Competent Communication manual states, “Good speech organization is essential if your audience is to follow and understand your presentation. You must take the time to put your ideas together in an orderly fashion.” In other words, you have to be coherent.

An incoherent idea isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s just disordered and disorderly, more like a mob of information than a working alliance. 

Is It Supported By The Evidence?
In its stripped-down, “write-it–on-a-business-card” format, an idea is in essence an assertion, which the dictionary defines as “a claim about the truth that is unsupported by evidence.”

Go on the Internet or tune into a radio or TV talk show and you’ll find all sorts of assertions. The difficult part, of course, is to back up your assertion, giving it credibility, providing some proof.

Project 7 in the Competent Communication manual says it this way: “Your speech will be more effective if you can support your main points with statistics, testimony, stories, anecdotes, examples, visual aids and facts.”

The amount and type of evidence you should set forth depends on your idea and on the audience you’re addressing. If you’re staking out a controversial position, for example, you’ll need to provide ample evidence and cite sources that are crsedible to your audience. Technical audiences expect “Just the facts, ma’am,” and they want lots of them. People attending a motivational seminar will be happier with far fewer facts, but they’ll want ­stories and anecdotes.

The Internet is a great resource when you’re looking for facts, ­stories and authorities to support your ideas. But beware. Just because something is stated on a Web page somewhere, even if it’s repeated on innumerable Web pages, doesn’t mean it’s true. If the audience doubts the evidence you cite, they’ll discount your idea. 

Is It Interesting?
A boring idea is a bad idea or, at least, a badly articulated idea. The best way to make an idea interesting is to be interested in it yourself. Does the idea fascinate you? Does it rouse your curiosity? Does it rile you up and make you want to share it with people? If the answer is no, if the idea bores you, give it no more thought. And don’t – please don’t – give a speech about it.

The next best way to ensure an idea’s interest is to make it new. An idea that simply confirms what people already know may be comforting, but it’s rarely stimulating. You don’t have to make some groundbreaking discovery, but you do have to come up with something fresh. Is your idea new to the audience? Can you give it a new twist or a new application? Can you articulate or illustrate it in a new way?

Roger Ailes, media consultant and author of You Are the Message, writes, “No audience (no matter how small or large) will forgive you if you’re boring.” So be interested your­self, and give your idea a fresh spin.

Chris Witt, a former Toastmaster from San Diego, California, is an executive speech coach and the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint. You can reach him at or read his blog at