Menu

Philip Collins has worked as a journalist, a political adviser and an investment banker, and was Chief Speech Writer to former Prime Minister Tony Blair - making him perfectly placed to analyse the science behind making a persuasive pitch. Here are his tips for making your speeches shine, based on his analysis of the videos below:

"All fine speeches are a mix of memorable phrases and images, confident delivery, a strong core argument and a sense of personality. All five of these speeches have all four of these attributes and that is why they work. It is why there is a visible connection in each case with the audience and why these speeches are worth watching time and again.

A strong core argument

All the fine speeches are different and yet they are all also the same. They differ in detail, in tone, in individual voice, as they must. But the centrepiece of every fine speech is a core argument. There has to be a message to impart or an important question to answer. Without that, a speech will not endure.

Steve Jobs, Seth Godin, Emma Watson, Ken Robinson and JK Rowling all have a clear story to tell. A good test for a speech is: if you tried to summarise it in a sentence, could you do that? In each of the featured speeches you certainly could. Jobs argues you should follow your intuitions and join the dots later. Godin says the vital factor in success is not having the idea but spreading it. Watson demands that feminism be salvaged from the dislike of men. Robinson believes that creativity is now as important as literacy. Rowling teaches us that imagination is powerful and that you can find wisdom in failure. You may agree or you may disagree with each or any of these propositions. The point is that they are real arguments.

The reason I have stressed that so much is that, ever since the origins of rhetoric in antiquity, the main argument is where you have to start. When speeches fail to capture the imagination of the audience it is almost always because it is not crystal clear what the speaker is trying to say. Aristotle called it the Topic and every speaker has to ask him or herself: what am I trying to say? The fact that I was able to summarise all the featured speeches so pithily showed not justthatthey worked. They showedhowthey work.

Confident Delivery

There are, of course, differences too. There should be. A speech is an individual communion with a group. It needs to be a speech that could only have been delivered by that person. A good script, read out loud, is better than a bad script but it does not make a speech. That demands some individual magic. It is worth looking in turn at how each of these speakers brings themselves to the podium. It is, of all the skills, perhaps the hardest. The fear people have of public speaking derives from the fact that they are scared to expose themselves on stage. It feels as if they are naked in a conference chamber.

Steve Jobs achieves the effect by being very personal. He tells his own story, the tale of his adoption as a baby and the fact that dropping out of college, which he did to save his parents money, turned out to be a turning point. Jobs dropped into classes at random and, years later, the design skills he had picked up suddenly came in handy. He concludes by referring to his own diagnosis with cancer which we, the listeners now know, beat him not long after. He ends with a neat summary: "stay hungry, stay foolish".

Memorable phrases

Seth Godin has a different technique. He has vivid illustrations of his points. Pictures carry ideas more memorably than words, as a rule. You will remember Godin's points about sliced bread and the image of the purple cow, and be able to reconstruct what he meant, months after the speech.

Ken Robinson shows how to wrap a story into a joke. Being funny is harder than it looks and Robinson obeys a golden rule. His humour has a point. His stories are not just funny, they are telling the story he wants to tell. The effect is that the audience is hearing the main message without quite realising it. As a consequence, because the tone is cleverly light, he can slip into a historical section without it feeling like we have suddenly sat down to a lesson. Topped off with some good lines that summarise his position ("we do not grow into creativity, we grow out of it").

A sense of personality

Emma Watson also takes a personal approach. Her speech is punctuated with applause and received by an ovation because she is brave enough to say that her feminism is about being in charge of your own body. She also shows how to use a good rhetorical trick. The phrase "if not me, who? If not now, when?" is well known and often used. However, note the clever way she uses this half-way throw and then repeats it at the end is very moving.

J.K. Rowling also has a personal story to tell. She lived through years of heart-breaking poverty and emotional difficulty before she hit a rich seam with the Harry Potter series. Her own biography is relevant to the lesson she wants to teach which is that failure is more important for how you respond to it than it is for what it teaches you in itself. Rowling shows that it is better to show than to tell. She puts herself into the speech and produces a speech that is not only personal but also highly effective."

  • Steve Jobs' Commencement Speech

    Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love.

    Steve Jobs

    Watch
  • Seth Godin's How to Get Your Ideas to Spread

    The thing about the invention of sliced bread is this -- that for the first 15 years after sliced bread was available no one bought it; no one knew about it; it was a complete and total failure. And the reason is that until Wonder came along and figured out how to spread the idea of sliced bread, no one wanted it.

    Seth Godin

    Watch
  • Emma Watson's UN Speech

    I am reaching out to you because I need your help. We want to end gender inequality—and to do that we need everyone to be involved.

    Emma Watson

    Watch
  • JK Rowling's Commencement Speech

    I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

    JK Rowling

    Watch
  • Ken Robinson's How Schools Kill Creativity

    My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status

    Ken Robinson

    Watch