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May 2024
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What to Look for in a Good Speech

Does it have a singular, unified point or challenge?

By Bill Brown, DTM

Illustration of a toolbox

Click the play button to hear where you can find well-written speeches from history.


From time to time, I am asked, “What do you look for in a speech?”

We hear speeches and presentations all the time, don’t we? It might be at Toastmasters, a business presentation, a sermon at church, or a political speech.

But it doesn’t stop there. My wife and I frequently watch made-for-TV movies. They are, in effect, presentations in a different genre. When one is over, my wife asks me what I thought. And she knows that she will get a critique. As I started writing this article, I realized that the three key criteria I use in evaluating a presentation are the same I use in evaluating a TV story.

First of all, I look for a clear message or theme. Is there a singular, unified point or challenge?

All too often, a speech is nothing more than a data dump. The speaker has done a lot of research and feels compelled to give us the benefit of all that they have discovered. Rather than a central point, the presentation is nothing more than a lot of partially connected details. When you get right down to it, a phone book is also a collection of details. And reading it is about as interesting as those data-dump presentations. We are left with the question, “Why are you telling me this?”

The second quality that I look for in a presentation is the ability to hold my attention. This is related to my previous point. If the speaker presents a central, well-supported idea, he or she will hold my attention. The aforementioned data dump will not achieve that. But a poorly organized central idea will also lose my interest–quickly. It isn’t enough to have a central theme. In order to hold the audience’s attention, you must effectively support and develop it.

Let’s come back to those made-for-TV movies. There are principles of storytelling that are important to follow. Michael Hauge and Craig Valentine have both cataloged them well. Some TV movies do a good job, and I enjoy watching them multiple times. Others are just a series of minor events, minor problems, with no overarching problem to solve. The scriptwriters may have written down a theme idea, but they didn’t develop it. Boring.

Ask yourself, “Do all of my key points support and develop my main point?”

This pattern is unfortunately also present in many standard presentations. That is why I am not a big fan of PowerPoint presentations. They tend to drive presentations away from that central theme and toward the details. Especially when the speaker reads every … single … bullet. Boring.

Ask yourself, “Do all of my key points support and develop my main point?” If not, your listeners might opt to check their email or just plain check out.

Another source of lost attention is when a speaker has too much time on their hands.

All too often, I hear a speaker with 20 minutes of material try to fill a 40-minute time slot. One disadvantage of having too much time for your material is that you do not feel the need to edit. Editing is not just removing words. It also involves tightening up your message so that it is more succinct, more on-point, and, hence, more powerful. If the speech wanders, so will the listener’s mind.

The third quality that I look for is good delivery. I have learned from my work with voice-over narration that good delivery enhances your message. Effective delivery not only includes emphasizing the right words and phrases, it also includes the effective use of rhetorical devices and cadence. I enjoy a speech where the words roll nicely off the tongue. I also enjoy reading well-written speeches. My favorites include Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Douglas MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country,” and Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” Try reading them out loud. As you do, imagine that you are standing in front of a large audience. How would you deliver them? This is great practice for your own speeches. Push yourself to fully express the thoughts and emotions of the speech.

What I specifically look for in a good speech may be different than what you prefer. I would submit, however, that these three criteria (a clear message, organized flow, and good delivery) need to be there in some form. These are foundations that you build upon and include in your speech writing and in your evaluations.

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