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How to Upgrade Your Speech with Humor, Stories, Power


(This speech isn’t good. No one will pay attention. Why do I even try?)

– everyone writing a speech ever

We’ve all been here except the egomaniacs and the insane. You’re neither (probably) so it could be worse. Rather than fooling yourself, you’re taking stock of your progress. You’re living in reality. Now it’s time to upgrade your speech. The techniques that follow are the best I’ve found for taking an average speech and injecting power, inspiration, and interaction. Master those elements and you’ll read your speech and wonder…

(Whoah. I didn’t know I could do that. I sound good.)

– writers who work hard, fail, improve, repeat

These are the type of techniques required to take your speech from the left side of the image below that “Most People” can deliver to the middle or the right-side like a “Pro Speaker”.

an ingograph showing 3 different types of speakers, "Most People", "The Upgraded", "Pro Speakers" with notes showing that pros practice and rewrite speeches more than most people
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Develop engaging introductions

How will your audience identify with you?

How can you make them laugh?

Why should they care?

Answer these three questions correctly and you can write an engaging introduction.

How will your audience identify with you?

If you’re asking your audience to do something or remember something, it will be easier if they think like you. When you begin speaking, they do not think like you. How can you get them to quickly start thinking like you?

You are not your audience. But how are you like your audience? Identify and emphasize a few traits that overlap with your audience and are pertinent to your speech topic to connect quickly and help them think like you. For example, you might speak to a group of coworkers. You all work for the same company. Why? Why do people work for company x? Share why you work for company x and you draw people in. You want people thinking “This human is like me. I’ll listen a little longer before tuning out like I normally do.” You have to continuously earn people not tuning out. The first minute of your speech is a major decision point. If you don’t get me engaged early, you’re done.

How can you make your audience laugh?

This is not a comedy-writing article. I’m no comedian. But I get people to laugh in the first thirty seconds of a speech, preferably two or three times in the first minute. Why? Smiles and laughs are the same as someone saying “yes”. Once someone says “yes” they’re starting to think like you. They want to listen. Laughing feels good. Everyone wants to feel good. You just need to find a lever to make it happen. How?

  • Steal jokes about your topic. Maybe tweak them, maybe not. Use the internets.
  • Tell a funny story about your topic. Do you have an example of a big failure? Exaggerate it. Make yourself look bad. You’re now relatable and funny.
  • Find a new technique. Read articles like this or this on ways to be funny, watch stand-up comedy, hang around funny people. If you’re already funny, you might laugh at this. If you’re not, find one new technique, practice, and apply it.

Below is the introduction from a speech I delivered last year. Not my best effort but people were laughing hard at that last line – stolen and tweaked. The rest was all timing. It’s not funny to read, only when delivered right.

“I am an accident.”
My mom was 41 when I was born.
I was the third and last kid. 
I heard —  the rumors…
I didn’t create much space for that.

The classic example of not creating space is the word ‘but’. 
“I love you but”
“Your speech was great but”
“You all are the greatest audience I’ve ever met — — but…

It’s hard, right?

However — last year I found
When I create the space to listen, 
…(even when its hard) it makes the best moments in life possible.

The real title of this story is — 
Love is blind but my wife can see 

Matt Dever Create the Space

Why should they care?

Talk about a topic that’s easy to care about: kid problems with parents, work problems with a middle-aged audience, training problems with a group of athletes. Who doesn’t like someone offering solutions to their problems?

Maybe your topic isn’t as relatable. I spoke about depression in one of my speeches. No one wants to talk about depression. It’s becoming a bit more common but still rare. No one wants that label. So you can’t ask your audience about when they were depressed and expect them to respond. That’s a social leap of faith you won’t establish in a few minutes easily. You don’t have that level of trust in a public forum.

So what’s the alternative? Talk about knowing someone who’s depressed. The rates of lifetime risk for a mental health issue are between 10% and 50% depending on which study you read. Everyone knows someone who’s struggled with a mental health issue at some point. Probably a family member or a close friend. That’s a safe and effective way to engage an audience. If I can learn something about how I could help someone I care about, I’m engaged. Job done.

Now what if you’re talking about preserving habitats for ants. You don’t want to lose the ants. Ants are your mojo, your strange obsession, your rock n roll symphony. First, recognize this is going to be hard. Getting me to care about ants takes hard work. Not many people care much about ants. There’s a reason for that. There’s no pop phenomenon to save the ants. No one has figured out how to make ants marketable yet. That doesn’t mean you can’t. But you’ll need to get creative.

Why should anyone care about ants? How do ants benefit humans? How do ants benefit something else I care about: my food, shelter, family, pets, hobbies? Do your research. How do I connect ants to something bigger that people care about? Harvard Forest describes how ants aerate soil. That’s a start. We need ants for improving our food supply with more nutrients, better taste, and sustainability. That’s one example, still a pretty hard sell. Keep digging, writing, thinking until you have the ammo to help me care. When you pick a topic this hard, it takes creativity and work to engage me. Most people don’t do it. The payoff if you do is changing people’s minds in a way that they never expected.

And maybe saving your ants.

Otherwise, pick an easier topic.

Ask questions to engage

How will you reengage your audience throughout your speech?

By asking questions.  

Humors and stories are gold, but asking questions may be the easiest way to engage your audience.  You’re going to tell your audiences things during your speech.  Will they remember what you told them?  Maybe.  They’ll be more likely to remember if you give them a reason why they should remember.  Often that’s as simple as identifying for them that they don’t know something and giving them a moment to absorb their lack of knowledge.  Just telling someone something they don’t know doesn’t have the same effect.  The easiest way for me to think about this is the image below showing an audience receiving a question in step 1.  The question and realization that you’re lacking knowlege creates an empty box or bucket in the your mind.  In step 2 the speaker fills in the bucket with the answer.  In software development using languages like C you need to allocate memory before you can store data.  Humans are complex C programs.  Create a box.  Fill the box.  Data stored.  Success.

Public Speaking 101 - Engage audience with questions.  1. Ask a question which creates an empty bucket in a person's mind.  2. Answer the question which fills the bucket.

Create memorable speeches

If you want to upgrade your ability to develop messages that last, read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  The Made to Stick model image below is one of the best summaries of effective communication I’ve used.

Made to Stick Success Model - simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, stories
source – Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath

You may not want to read the whole book so use the image as a recap. 

Then read your speech and ask:

  • How could I simplify this?
    • The core message?
    • The intro? The conclusion?
    • A paragraph? A sentence?
    • Simplifying is about prioritizing what’s most important.  I won’t remember everything you want.  I’m more likely to remember something you said if your prioritize and simplify your messages. 
    • Prioritizing to me means cutting which I describe in how to edit your speech.  Cut the second-most important message to make the most-important message stand out more.
  • How could I add something unexpected?
    • Ask a question to create a knowledge gap, then fill it.
    • Violate a schema like a good sober Irishman.
  • How could I make any parts more concrete, more real?
  • How can I add credibility to my statments?
    • Do I have credibility on this subject?  Do I describe it?
    • How can I use a strong third-party reference?
    • How can I handle opposing viewpoints?  SteelmanningRapoport’s Rules?
  • How can I make my speech more emotional?
    • What personal story can I share that’s naturally emotional?
    • What could I share that might make me vulnerable but hammers home a clear point?
    • How can I structure my speech so there’s a large payoff at the end that inspires action?  Hint – read the How to write a great story section.
  • How can I add more stories or one great story?
    • One great story – What story can I use to engage people from the beginning to the end while and inspire action?
    • Many stories – Which stories can I sprinkle throughout to keep people engaged and remember key points?

Tell great stories

To learn storytelling at a high-level, watch this video from Kurt Vonnegut. To go deeper pick up a copy of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. You’ll learn all about storytelling using “The Hero’s Journey” format in the image below. You may recognize this pattern in every single good movie you’ve ever seen, especially 80s movies. If it’s good enough for the 80s, it’s good enough for your speech. Storytelling is classic. It doesn’t change…much. Learn the craft.

The twelve steps of the Hero's Journey
source – The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler

Again, you may not want to read the whole book so use the image for reference.  Twelve steps is too many for most speeches.  Below are questions you can use without reading the book, condensed and prioritized for a ten-minute speech.

Hero’s Journey Questions

  • Who’s the hero?
  • What’s the call to adventure?  (Normally this is the bad thing that happens.)
  • Who’s the hero’s mentor? (People are more willing to listen to your lessons if they come from a mentor, not you.  Particularly is you’re already the hero.  Give someone else some credit.)
  • What’s the ordeal?  (This is the key moment when the hero tries something new in a critical situation — like the crane kick from Danielson at the end of The Karate Kid.)
  • How is the hero transformed?  (What’s the lesson learned or call to action you want to share?)

If you’re using the simpler Vonngeut model, you need to identify which type of story you’re telling.  The most common, possibly the easiest is the Man in the Hole story (Vonnegut video at 75 seconds).  You have a normal person, something bad happens, and he/she rises above the bad thing.  The end.  Vonnegut graphs this story arc below.

Whiteboard showing BE axis and GI axis with graph line starting above average, dropping below average, then back above average
Vonnegut’s story graph with the vertical GI axis (good fortune to ill fortune) and BE axis (beginning to end, i.e. time). This is the classic “Man in the Hole” story graph. source – “Kurt Vonnegut on the Shape of Stories”, YouTube

You’ve probably told this story before.  If you want to use it for a story in your speech, you can ask just a few questions.

Vonnegut “Man in the Hole” Story Questions

  • Who’s the main character?
  • What’s their ordinary world at the beginning?  Describe it.
  • What’s the bad thing that happens?
  • How do they overcome or learn to deal with the bad thing?  This is the end. 
  • What’s the lesson learned or call to action you want to share right after the end of the story?

Inject humor

Do you need more humor?

Read your speech.  Highlight the text when you expect people to laugh.  I highlight mine in green.  Then complete the steps below.

  1. Highlight funny lines
  2. Count the number of funny lines (a)
  3. Calculate how long your speech is in minutes (b)
    • Word count / 150 wpm (words per minute) is a rough guide
  4. Calculate “laughs per minute” or a / b
    • ex. 7 laughs / 7 mintues = 1 “laugh per minute”

Yes.  We’re using math for humor.  I’m not joking.  Different speeches have different purposes.  You might not want to make people laugh often at a eulogy.  Or maybe you do.  You choose.  If you want to keep people’s attention, target at least one “laugh per minute”.  Who doesn’t like to laugh every minute?  Make me laugh and I’m willing to give you my attention for another minute in the hope that you’ll make me laugh again.  Disappoint me and I will fire you (i.e. stop paying attention).

If you need to add more humor, go back to the “How can you make audiences laugh?”  Read and apply those tips.  In addition, this is when I exaggerate parts of stories, setup lines so they’re unexpected, and think about how timing might win a laugh.  Below is an example of all three.  The dashes (—) are long pauses.

My wife: “Matt, what’s your plan for Saturday?”  
Me: “Hmmm…reading, coaching, lifting, napping, writing  — maybe dinner at nine?”  
Me: “ Wait.  I know that face.  Disappointment — laced with —  rage. — — Okay…we’ll eat earlier.”

Matt and his wife on Saturday mornings

My wife didn’t make much of a face.  That’s the exaggeration.  The setup is me absentmindedly recounting my plans for the day and thinking dinner at nine o’clock is reasonable.  The timing is pausing after “Disappointment”, slowly rolling out “laced with”, pausing, then the payoff with “rage”.  That worked every time.  Watch it here.

Build powerful conclusions

A powerful conclusion starts with the introduction. Even before that it starts with planning the purpose and theme of your speech. If you haven’t done that upfront planning, go back to the beginning. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200 until you’ve decided what the point of your speech is.

Now assuming you know what you’re trying to achieve, a simple ending for an informational speech is to recap what you just said (ex. “I just told you about x, y, and z”). A simple ending for an inspirational speech is to ask the audience to do what you want (ex. “Please cure cancer.”). Often that’s enough. Simple and direct works.

If you want to add more power, my go-to technique is writing a great story as described earlier. Right after the story concludes, ask for what you want. Ask simply and directly including why this request will benefit the audience. After the high of your story conclusion, people want to listen. They’re maximally engaged. This is the moment – the one perfect moment to create change. If you connect your story, your request, and your audience’s self-interest in a few clear, short, simple sentences people will act. Maybe not everyone but we’re increasing the odds. With a weak conclusion, maybe your five biggest fans will act. With a powerful conclusion, maybe fifty will act. I like those odds.

Here’s what I wrote for my speech on mental health.

Today I see many people both young and old still living in my Dad’s era.  
I hear: Depression is weakness, failure, a choice.  
I wasn’t weak.
I’m not a failure.
Most importantly, it’s not a choice.

The lifetime risk for depression ranges between 1 in 5 and 1 in 2 people, depending on the study.
So you may be thinking: “What can I do to help my family and friends?”

Well – we ALL need to change the conversation.
We start today.
Talk to one person about depression.
Tell them what you think about depression as weakness, failure, a choice.

Change the conversation.
Start today.
One person.
One talk.
One step to change the environment for the people in your world. … … …

Now together we can turn our eyes on the situation

Matt Dever Eyes on the Situation speech

I could have asked people to seek help if they were depressed. That might have been one in ten people in the audience. Everyone else would be left with nothing to do. Seeking help is hard. Part of why seeking help is hard is that no one talks about mental health. So my ask was for everyone to talk to their friends and family about mental health. That’s a difficult to do but if you believe it may help a child, spouse, or friend you might be willing to do it. Particularly if you just heard a story about how much it helped me that my family openly discussed mental health. That’s tying together the story, the request, and why in one-hundred-thirty words.

Other techniques you’ll see above that help are triads (“one person, one talk, one step…”), short staccato sentences before longer sentences, and commanding action verbs (“change”, “start”, “talk”, “tell”).

Don’t be surprised if you rewrite your conclusion dozens of times to get it just right. I never feel satisfied with my conclusions. They always feel like they can be better. Hemingway wrote almost fifty endings to A Farewell to Arms. I’m no Hemingway but it’s nice to be in fine company when perpetually disappointed.

I ask these questions when rewriting conclusions:

  • Can I make this simpler?
  • Can I eliminate anything?
  • Can I find a shorter word with less syllables?
  • How can I quickly reference earlier parts of the speech?
  • How can I make this flow better, sound better, seem easier?

There are many other tips you can use to improve your conclusions or styles to conclude your speech. Experiment with different styles. Rewrite. Practice. Repeat. Enjoy the power you feel from crafting powerful conclusions. Use the force wisely, young Jedi-master. With great power comes great responsibility.

Read more posts in the How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life series.