What makes a great public speaker?

This is a question that has always kind of haunted me. We all know a great speaker when we see one, but it’s sometimes hard to identify the exact characteristics that distinguish someone as great.

Is it a great voice that makes a great speaker? While I’m sure it helps, we’ve all seen speakers with average voices hold an audience spellbound with their presence.

Is is stage presence? That’s a factor, but some powerful speeches have been given by unlikely presenters that aren’t commanding on stage.

A great story? Well, that helps, but a great speaker can make the boring seem exciting.

What is it?

After giving this subject a ton of thought, I was hit with an insight last week that I thought was worthy of sharing.

A great speaker is for me, someone who has made a lot of mistakes but has the courage to speak about them on stage.

Oh, I know this is simplistic, but humor me and consider it for a moment. Isn’t it much easier to relate to someone’s failures than their successes?

I will never climb Everest, but I know what it’s like to be cold and hungry and want to give up.

I will never win an Olympic gold, but I’ve felt the agony of defeat.

When someone shares their failing with me as a way of teaching me a lesson, I see myself in their talk. A connection is made and an impact is deepened. A lot of people will tell you how great they are, but few have the actual courage to tell you how they failed but learned from it.

All of this is just a way of saying that great public speakers are real and authentic. Some are polished and some are raw. Some voices boom and others whisper, but they are naturally themselves onstage, comfortable with who they are and they story they have to tell, even if it’s one of failure, agony, and mistake.

Whenever we craft what we hope is an inspiring message, it’s tempting to mine our life stories for our successes, but keep in mind that our failures have value too. If we’ve lived mistakes and learned the lessons, we owe it to our audience to share those lessons to help them avoid the knots we’ve tied (or at the very least, tell them how we untied them).

What makes a great public speaker is open to interpretation and everyone has an opinion. For my money, though, it’s the speaker who is comfortable enough with themselves the be who they are in the front of the room and share their mistakes with an audience in the hopes that they can make a point. That’s a speaker that will make a connection and that’s where a great speech starts.


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