What makes a good speech great?


On the 80th anniversary of Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech to Parliament, I was asked this morning on the radio to define what makes a good speech great.

There are, of course, any number of reasons. Great soundbites. Brilliant delivery. A perfect structure. All these matter. But ‘great’ means being the right speech for the audience at the time.

When sitting down to prepare a speech, it is all too easy to list all the things one wants to say. To tick-off important messages and demonstrate all ones knowledge. But these don’t make it great.

The key is to work out before you start, exactly what you are trying to achieve and to work backwards from that point. Churchill’s was, at its core, a motivational speech. His aim was to put fire in the belly of a nation. He found the words to do just that and back them up with clear, powerful delivery.

Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ speech or Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ took their audiences to a place in the future and gave them a reason to hope. As did Barak Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’.

Queen Elizabeth I sought to establish her credibility as a female monarch when she famously said “I may have the body of a week and feeble woman, but I have the heart and soul of a King and a King of England too.”

The vast majority of us will never address a nation. But the same principles apply whether we are speaking at work, at a wedding or at a small family gathering. Think first about the audience, their expectations and what you want them to do or remember as a result. Work back from there and the makings of a great speech are already in place.

And if you have a few minutes to spare, here’s the full interview:

What makes a good speech great? Lawrence interviewed on BBC Radio 4th June 2020