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The who, what, why of giving your most effective speech in any setting

What’s the most important component to giving an effective speech? Asking the right questions.

Your talk, speech or sermon should be built upon three short questions:

  • Why?
    When I’m asked to give a speech or sermon outside of my home church, I want to know: Why me? Why are others being asked to listen to me? The underlying question is really about the purpose or mission of the talk.

  • Who?
    Once you’re clear about the aim of the group inviting you and the purpose of the speech to give, your next step is to know your audience. What will be on their hearts and minds as you speak? What do they need to hear from you?

  • What?
    Finally, in light of the why and the who, I begin looking for the what. I ask myself, “What do I want those listening to know? What do I want them to feel or experience? And what do I want them to do in response to this message?”

Using 3 main points

As a speaker you should know why you are speaking, you should understand the people to whom you are speaking, and you should be clear about what you want those people to know, feel and do as a response to your message.

Speakers and preachers often denigrate the “three‑point” message. But there is a reason this idea took hold. Nearly everyone can remember three key points. This is particularly true if the points relate to each other, build upon one another and are clearly connected.

Ideally, a three‑point message or speech provides a logical progression of ideas, something like,

A + B = C

When a message has three distinct and only nominally related points, you should be able to answer this question: “If my hearers remember only one thing from this talk, it should be….” Or “What is the one thing I hope will change about people after they’ve heard my message?”

Think of that one thing as something your audience will take with them when they leave your talk, the idea or conviction that will stick with them long after. Your sermon, message or talk will be more compelling if you concentrate on the one thing (or at most the two or three things).

Simple and straightforward are far more effective and memorable in public speaking than complex and convoluted. Read or recall public speeches that were powerful and memorable, and you’ll notice that nearly all of them are centered on one distinct idea or one compact theme.

“Less is more” when it comes to the points you are trying to make as a speaker. Your talks will be more effective and will have greater impact if you focus on one central idea and give your hearers a simple, straightforward takeaway.

More than words

When it comes to speaking well, eye contact is critical. I’ve known people, often authors, whose speeches had great content but their talks were horrible because they simply read their manuscript.

You’ve likely heard someone quote, or misquote, psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s research that body language (posture, hands and facial expressions) is responsible for 55% of the effectiveness of a speaker. Voice intonation was responsible for 38% of a speaker’s effectiveness, and the speaker’s words were responsible for only 7% of the speaker’s effectiveness. Mehrabian’s findings were a bit more nuanced than this.

The subjects in his study were asked about their feelings in response to seeing and hearing someone speak. This is not exactly the same as how much information they retained or how close the presentation came to accomplishing its goal. Nevertheless, this research gives insight on how to engage an audience in a way that results in positive feelings toward the speaker and the presentation.

Mehrabian’s work highlights what we know from our own daily interactions with other people: how we say something — our eyes, our facial expressions, our posture, our hands and our tone of voice — plays a significantly greater role than our words do in how we will be heard and received by others, including our audiences or congregations.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, Church of the Resurrection, Leawood Kansas. Author bio image.

— Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, named one of the fastest growing and most influential mainline churches in the U.S. Get more tips for effective public speaking in one of his best‑selling books, Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers.

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