History’s Great Speeches: How to Make Work Presentations and Speeches Like the Greats

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Martin Luther King Jr. giving the 'I have a dream' speech

Giving a speech or presentation can be scary. You have a few moments to convince a room of strangers to buy your product or get them to trust what you are pitching. But there is hope! History has shown us many ways to give a truly great speech – a speech that goes “bang” in people’s hearts and minds.

In this article I want to look at a few of those great speeches and talk about how you can give a work presentation that hits the point and makes an impression.

1. Martin Luther King Junior: I Have a Dream

Connect with the audience’s emotions and repeat the message

In 1963 Martin Luther King Junior gave what is probably the most recognized and famous speech of all time. It is a speech that changed the nation forever and burned its way into the memory of millions of Americans. How did he do this? He connected with the emotions of the audience. Take a look:

Martin Luther King uses the phrase “I have a dream” to rip his way into the hearts of his listeners. The dream he speaks of is, in fact, the same dream of everyone listening – this is why the speech is so emotionally powerful. I challenge anyone to watch this clip and not shed a tear. He is speaking directly to the innermost sanctum of the human heart. He is speaking about human experience, love, parenthood, freedom – these things evoke emotion.

If you want to make a great speech you need to connect to the emotions of those listening.

The second thing King Jr. did was repeat a key phrase. “I have a dream” was said at important points throughout the speech and it was this key phrase that made the speech so memorable. By repeating “I have a dream” at important junctions he was able to associate certain emotions with that phrase. Now, whenever anyone hears “I have a dream” they think of equality, freedom, brotherhood and so on.

Make sure you have some repetition in your speech. If you say something once people will forget. Say it twice, people will remember.

2. John F. Kennedy: Inaugural Address (Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You)

Increase volume at the right time, evoke people’s imagination and ask questions

Volume is a very important part of a great speech. If you use volume correctly you can draw your audience’s attention in or you can emphasize a point. A whisper can be just as powerful as a shout. Kennedy increases his volume at the key points of this speech and as such forces people to pay attention.

The next thing Kennedy does in this speech is evoke people’s imagination. Instead of simply stating a bunch of facts he asks questions that challenge people’s ethics and sense of history. He challenges them to be great like the heros of the past.

Finally (at around 4 minutes into the video) he says in a loud voice, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”. This is a magnificent way to engage people’s imaginations and loyalties. A stark difference to Bush’s “You’re either with us or your with the terrorists” speech. Take a look:

3. Ali G: Harvard University Speech

Use humor… carefully

One of the most inappropriate comedians of all time addresses one of the great Universities. It might not be one of history’s finest speeches but it was absolutely hilarious! Take a look at Ali G giving a speech to the graduating Harvard University students:

It is important to use humor when giving a speech or presentation as it gets the audience on your side and it helps them to relax. Humor also makes people warmer and opens them up to new ideas. However, when used badly, humor can work against you. There it nothing more awkward than seeing a very unfunny person trying to be funny. If comedy is not your area then you should not try to be funny.

Ali G is famous for making people feel awkward – it is how he gets most of his laughs. However, it is important to NOT make people feel awkward in a speech. This means not making jokes about the company or the person you are talking to, not making crude innuendos and not making religious/political/sex based jokes. Keep it clean.

4. Abraham Lincoln: The Gettysburg Address

Keep it short

Creative Commons License photo credit: debaird

The most famous speech in American history was only 269 words long. It started with the iconic phrase “Four score and seven years ago…” and ended within two and a bit minutes. Prior to that speech another great man called Edward Everett gave a speech that lasted two hours. No body has ever heard of it.

Find your most important points, hack away the unessentials and then refine it some more. Make your speech short and to the point and resist the temptation to add padding that you don’t need.

5. Muhammad Ali: Press Conference 1974

Entertain the audience

In 1974 Ali gave a press conference with Don King that produced some of the most famous sayings in sport. It was in the lead up to the big George Foreman fight and Ali wanted to make sure that everyone was paying attention. He uses poetry, meter, humor and volume to engage the audience and take a boring press conference to new heights. Take a look:

The audience is more likely to pay attention to what you are saying if you are entertained. If you are trying to sell them and idea or a product you need to make sure they are smiling and receptive, not switched off and bored. Some of the best lectures I had in University where when the professor based the class around a story, controversy or humorous anecdote that kept the students entertained. It is important to do this at any speech.

Final tips about making speeches and presentations

The real lessons come from watching the greats give speeches but there are a few final points I would like to share.

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Know all your facts and figures, names, places, goals, etc.
  • Relax
  • Open with your strongest points and close with a bang
  • If you make a mistake keep going, no one cares
  • Don’t talk too fast or too slow
  • Build tension wherever possible by using pauses, volume changes and gestures
  • Use visual aids or create vivid mental imagery
  • Relate your points to the audience (how are you helping them?)
  • Smile

Does anyone else have anything else to add?

10 thoughts on “History’s Great Speeches: How to Make Work Presentations and Speeches Like the Greats

  1. Fantastic post TDM! This comes at a really important time for me as I have to give a powerpoint presentation on our departments quarterly numbers. Not quite speaking at the Lincoln Memorial but still freaking me out a little.

    Good tips.


  2. I love this post! Seeing King Jr. is something that always gives me tingles and makes me cry. Such a shame he had to leave so soon.

  3. Brendan – thanks. I’m glad you liked it. And good luck with the presentation!

    Speaking… – Yes it really is a wonderful speech. Very emotional.


  4. I really enjoyed this post. Got ya on Digg and seeing MLKJ pointing his finger in the picture made me smile. Good stuff!

  5. hello,

    first of,i’de like to say that we owe a huge thank-you to the writer of this helpfull piece of information.second,as a public speaking coach,i highly recammand join Toastmasters so as to master this skill and get red of that feeling of fear of being the focus of the crowd.

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