How to Become a MASTERFUL Speaker

This answer, written by our company founder, originally appeared on Quora. RedShift Writers is an organization fully dedicated to helping businesses and individuals master language and position themselves. In that spirit, we work hard to spread the word on all kinds of topics surrounding language, including how to give an excellent speech. Given our role as a central organizer of Ignite Houston, we do our best to spread the good word regarding speech innovation. Hopefully, this piece will help professional speakers take the next step from mere proficiency to true greatness. Enjoy, and contact us if you have further questions at contact@redshiftwriters.com). You can see the original answer here.

Here’s how to become a speaker who can cut a very big podium with the best of them.

1. Learn to tell stories (and do it from professional storytellers, not just “professionals”). 

People talk about storytelling all the time, but the best speakers actually do it. What is interesting is that a large cross-section of the business community is not particularly good at storytelling. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good storytellers in the business community at all; creative marketers, sales people, PR people and some entrepreneurs are excellent at it. Heck, some accountants are good at it, but on the WHOLE, business people aren’t as good at storytelling as some of the other professions.

And you know why? Because in some professions the inability to tell a story washes you out of your career. Find people in these professions (authors, cartoonists, English professors, poets, filmmakers, etc.) and learn from them.

The instruction you will get from them as opposed to a fairly average business professional is night and day. Business professionals often say that the key to telling a good story is to “emote” and “tap into passion”. Both of those are true. But the really   good stuff is where you talk about story itself: plot, characters, action, agency, and setting. Then if you go a layer deeper (how literary devices, traits, tone, plots, etc. can affect a story) you can really deliver the most compelling possible tale.

2. Give unusual speeches (hint: speed helps).

Disclosure: I am the organizer for Ignite Houston (Ignite Houston -). (I take that role seriously enough to ensure all of our speakers are at the top of their game. For those who need help, I help them).

What first enamored me about Ignite is the format: 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide. If you can deliver one of those speeches in a compelling manner, you are basically giving a TED talk on speed. I’ve done it. It’s not easy to do it right.

Try giving an Ignite talk. See if there is an active Ignite organization in your city. Learn more about it. Watch Ignite talks online. Learn about the speakers. Then, maybe you will feel comfortable enough to do it yourself.

Pursue the same path with TedX.

I have given speeches in classes and to students and professionals that were 55 slides/7 minutes and 106 slides/30 minutes.

Find ways to get involved in the communities that are innovating speech(more on this later).

3. Don’t just go to a class or join Toastmasters without checking it out first.

Now don’t get me wrong: ANY opportunity to speak is probably going to help you improve if you treat it as a chance to learn something new. But speaking is an apprentice-style art form. The better the people you learn from, the better you will become.

Just as you wouldn’t choose any ol’ shmo to help you learn Kung Fu, you shouldn’t choose just anyone to help you learn to speak effectively. Watch them talk. Ask for samples if you can’t. I’m serious. Choose a speaker/coach (consultant, whatever) who knows what they are doing.

4. Look to history.

Watch all kinds of speeches:

Check out Ignite and Pecha Kucha speeches. Watch TED talks.

Check out standup comedians. George Carlin is my absolute favorite, but all great comedians are excellent storytellers (Louie CK, Patton Oswalt, Bill Hicks, and TON more). Funny stories are often the best kind.

Other Great speakers to watch include: Christopher Hitchens, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, Barbara Jordan, Ronald Reagan.

Politicians are awesome.

Read speeches by Fritz Perls. His approach is conceptually dazzling.

5. Give back to the art form and the speech community. 

Speaking is an art form just like any other. It has various styles and combinations. Yet for some reason, speech really hasn’t evolved as clearly and expansively as its neighboring art forms. While music, literature, film- even dance- have plentiful genres, styles, approaches and background investigation, speech is still fairly close to what it was 2500 years ago: a podium, speaker and big auditorium full of people.

If you want to achive true greatness in the world of professional speaking, you MUST INNOVATE THE ART FORM.
Ignite and Pecha Kucha have innovated by adding the creative constraint to the speech, but they are just the beginning. To truly achieve more, it is time to change oratory with as many new ideas as possible. Add items, subtract them… whatever it takes to take us to a new playing field. The days of simply “telling them what you’re going to say, saying it, then telling them what you said” are numbered.

Don’t just become proficient; raise the bar.