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Want a Better Speech? Start With Better Parts.


by David Brooks

1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

A few years ago there was a television commercial in which a customer asked a fast-food counter clerk what their chicken nuggets consisted of. The clerk replied, “Parts.”

“What kind of parts?” the customer asked.

Puzzled and perplexed, the clerk answered, “Parts is parts.”

That may be true in the fast food world, but it does not apply to speeches. Because if you want a better speech, you must start with better parts.

You might think this is common sense, but it is not common practice. How many times have you listened to a speech, yet when it was over you couldn’t recall a single point, example, or memorable image?

You see this happen all the time and at all levels of the speaking spectrum, from club level to championship competition. In such cases, the speech was forgettable because the speaker didn’t understand the necessity of concentrating on the separate components that comprise the whole.

Think of examining the parts of a speech in the same way that a mechanic examines an engine: bad parts produce bad performance. But good parts--working together with precision--produce power.

I discovered the value of examining the separate parts of a speech as I was listening to Italo Magni, a contestant in the 1994 World Championship of Public Speaking. The first few minutes of his speech were adequate and only marginally memorable. Then, just under three minutes into his speech, he launched into one of the most dazzling 25-second exhibitions of body language I had ever seen. As the crowd roared its approval, I remarked “That was a magic moment.” And that was the moment I understood the value of polishing individual parts.

The lesson was clear: take a speech--any speech--and take it apart. When you listen to a speaker, make a concerted effort to listen and watch for nothing but the good stuff: the “magic moments” in which he or she dazzles the audience with unparalleled excellence. These moments can be as short as a few seconds or as long as several minutes. They may be well hidden, but almost without exception, magic moments are there waiting to be discovered in practically every speech.

So what should you look for?  The list is endless, but any examples of superlative writing or delivery that impress or inspire you are moments worthy of study. Having heard or read thousands of speeches, my list of magic moments is enormous, as yours will be when you start concentrating on the moments of excellence--just the good parts--of any speech.

To illustrate, following are five examples from the World Championships of Public Speaking, and the purpose that these moments served.

1) Magic moments that illuminate.
Make note of the moments in which a speaker illuminates by using masterful metaphors--figures of speech in which ordinary objects are likened to more memorable images. Hans Lillejord (1994 Finalist) demonstrated a simple, yet colorful metaphor as he explained how “our choice of words can help or hurt others.” That phrase is clear but plain; it is functional yet unexciting. So Hans turned the ordinary into the extraordinary with this metaphor: “Some words are diamonds; some words are stones.” With that one bit of imaginative wordplay, he created a magic moment that is just as powerful today as it was more than a decade ago. His speech is memorable because this one isolated part illuminated his message.

2) Magic moments that encourage introspection.
Dave Sanfacon (2003 Finalist) illustrated how to appeal to both the head and the heart at the same time when he challenged the audience with the question: “Who’s writing your script?” By likening our lives to a play or a novel (this is also a metaphor), he appealed to both the head and the heart when he spoke: “Imagine the shock one feels when flipping though the back chapters of his life and realizing...I didn’t write this. Imagine the shock one feels when he realizes that for most of his life he has been nothing more than the ink--the ink inside of a pen being guided by a bunch of unknown, unnamed, unauthorized biographers. Ladies and gentlemen, have you ever surrendered your pen to satisfy the expectations of others? Who’s writing the script?” This moment was a mere 75 words but packed a powerful punch both intellectually and emotionally. Dave’s introspective rhetorical questions made the listener think and feel at the same time, and that is magic.

3) Magic moments that personify.
Personification is bringing an inanimate object to life. Perhaps no one has illustrated this skill more powerfully and poignantly than J.A. Gamache (2001 Finalist). He used a simple prop--a wooden chair--four different ways in a span of just over one minute. Each use was effective, but none more so than when he used the chair to represent his grandfather’s death. He set the stage by gesturing to the chair as he said, “I can still see him, sitting off to one side of the room.” As he said these words, J.A. sat in the chair. He continued, “A tin of tobacco between his knees, rolling another cigarette...unreachable in his silence, as if his shyness chained him to his chair.” In less than half a minute, he (a) introduced a character, (b) painted a vivid picture, and (c) established that the chair would serve as a surrogate for his grandfather in future references. That’s a lot of ground to cover in less than 30 seconds.

Seconds later, standing beside the chair wile lovingly stroking the chair back as if caressing his grandfather’s shoulders, he said, “When Avanar passed on, he was 93 years old. I will never forget that day.” And as he haltingly spoke those somber words, he reverently tipped the chair backward to the floor.

I never would have believed that the act of tipping a chair backward could produce such a stunning effect, but it did and the moment was magic. This was a turning point in his speech because from that moment on, the audience knew they were a part of something very special. And from that moment on, J.A. could get the audience to do whatever he wanted.

4) Magic moments that evoke emotion
To evoke powerful emotions such as anger or disgust is always a challenge, but to accomplish both in 30 seconds is extraordinarily difficult. Yet this is precisely what Ed Tate (2000 Champion) did as he described, through dialogue, a moment in which he witnessed this exchange at an airport ticket counter. Ed explains that he was standing behind an angry passenger who said:

“You had better figure out a way to get us on that plane.” The customer service agent said “Sir, the next flight where I can get both of you on is at 6 o’clock.” He said “Do the math, lady, the wedding is at five!” Then he committed the unpardonable sin. (2-second pause) He called her the ‘B-word.’ (3-second pause) And the silence was deafening. (7-second pause). Then he stormed off...and I was next!

This moment is a mere half-minute long, yet in it Ed accomplished two tasks: First, he illustrated the classic speakers’ adage: “Don’t tell us, take us.” That is, he took us into the scene and let us experience the moment as if we were there. It was his use of dialogue that established an immediacy on the moment that far exceeded what mere narration could have done. But Ed’s second, and more noteworthy, achievement, was his exceptional use of silence through a series of three successive pauses, each longer than the last. He used a device, the pause, to illustrate his message: the silence was deafening. Then, exercising extraordinary restraint, he let us feel the tension that developed as he allowed us to experience a thunderous seven-second silence.

To accomplish either feat is commendable; to accomplish both is remarkable; to accomplish both in half a minute is phenomenal.

5) Magic moments that provide relief.
Good speakers know how to bring an audience down; great speakers know how and when to bring them back up. In the example above, Ed Tate illustrated how to create anger and tension. But he knew that the audience did not want to remain in that uncomfortable emotional state. So that was the reason for his next line, “Then he stormed off...and I was next!” The final four words of that line serve one critically important purpose: to provide an emotional relief through laughter.

This is a technique also illustrated by Jeremiah Bacon (1997 Finalist). He set the stage by telling a sad story of being placed in an orphanage by his mother, who was no longer able to take care of him. He took the audience on a journey from anger to sadness. Then, when the mood in the audience was at its most somber, he told of a tender moment in which his mother came to visit him and he showed her his first report card in the orphanage. “It was the worst report card I ever had,” he said. “But she looked at the report card...and she looked at me...and said, “I’m proud of you son. I can tell by your grades that you don’t cheat!” The audience roared its approval. It was a funny line, but the laughter was exponentially louder because it gave us an emotional release at the moment we needed it most.

In each of these five examples, what made the speakers memorable were the moments in which they mesmerized the audience. None of the moments cited were lengthy--most were well under a minute--yet all were extraordinarily powerful. That is because these speakers knew that great speeches are built not of concepts but of “moments"--moments that are so carefully conceived, so perfectly polished, and so exceptionally executed that they command the listeners’ attention.

Each speaker created at least one moment that provided a foundation upon which an effective message was built. Yet, their speeches endure not so much because of their overall message. These speeches were most effective because they demonstrated the power of component parts. As these examples showed, the best parts come from the best moments. And the best moments...are simply magic.


Reprint rights may be granted provided you 1) submit a written request, 2) include author’s credit as written below, and 3) provide a copy of the publication in which the article appears.

Author’s credit:
David Brooks, DTM, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at http://www.DavidBrooksTexas.com

Author’s note:
If you want to learn more about building better speeches, visit David’s website. Under the Resources tab you will find many free resources for writers and speakers. And, when you are there, sign up for David’s free blog-azine so that you can receive nuggets of knowledge from him on a regular basis.

This article originally appeared in Toastmaster magazine, June 2006.

Want to see the video clips cited in this article?
You can find them and dozens more in Magic Moments 1 & 2, two educational sessions that were recorded live at the 2001 and 2004 Toastmasters International conventions. Each program features the video clips plus commentary by David Brooks, 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking.