6 Master Public Speakers and How They Can Help You Give a Killer Presentation

Alexandria Sayers

Written by:
Alexandria Sayers


Public speaking can be overwhelming, but with the right approach anything is possible. From storytelling and comedy to being able to deviate from a planned speech or follow it word for word, different strategies work for different people.

In order to stand out, you will need to see which approach works best for you and tailor it to your message. The following six speakers have succeeded with simple strategies that they have adjusted to be the most effective for their individual purposes. Which one works for you?


Michelle: The First Lady of Public Speaking

Michelle Obama became a public speaking icon when she gave her first national speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

She entered the stage at a time when an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 38 percent of respondents viewed her favorably. Overnight, the poll climbed 18 percent and she continues to enjoy high approval ratings today. One reason the American people are so favorable towards the first lady is because of how she connects with them through her speeches.

When Michelle gives a speech, she weaves it using one of the most powerful assets available to public speakers: storytelling. Her speeches use a foundation of her past personal struggles to connect with challenges currently facing the nation.

Most recently, at the 2016 DNC, she told the story of her family’s time at the White House through her daughter’s perspective. This insight into her family’s life is intimate and emotional, creating a perfect atmosphere for starting a conversation with the American people.

As a storyteller, a speaker is able to use emotions to connect with an audience and appear relatable. Tracy Kidder, an American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, once said, “All stories are local, all good stories are universal.” Through a story, unity can be achieved.

A Harvard study showed that warmth is necessary to connect with an audience, not just competence, and storytelling is an easy way to accomplish both. Many successful public speakers utilize storytelling, and Michelle Obama is the perfect figurehead for this form of public speaking.


Bill Clinton: The Improviser Extraordinaire

A president’s first State of the Union, delivered to a joint session of the United States Congress and broadcasted nationally, often involves countless hours of planning. Speeches are written once, then again and again until the final copy is placed on the teleprompters. Most would stick to this carefully written script when under the pressure of addressing an entire nation at once.  

Former president Bill Clinton is not like most public speakers, however. He improvised 20 percent of his first State of the Union, explaining his healthcare plan in detail from memory. He is said to “[treat] his prepared text the way jazz greats soar from the sheet music” by using planned speeches as mere guidelines. Improvising isn’t his only secret to success, however.

Clinton feeds off the energy of his audience and reacts to it. He talks about what the audience wants to hear and adjusts it to what elicits a reaction, talking more or less depending on his audience’s interest. He “treats listeners as if they’re smart,” focusing on what they are passionate about and using specific evidence to back up his take on the matter.

“Most great speeches really start with a message and choose strategically which evidence to cite,” says Greta Stahl, a speechwriter at Duarte, a firm that assists TED talkers, CEOs, and other public speakers. “It’s sort of the opposite of how you form an opinion.”

Reading your audience can allow you more flexibility in delivering a speech that feels like it has been tailored specifically for those sitting in front of you, just like Bill Clinton does. Also, through being familiar with your content, it’s easier to go off script for little bits of time before returning to the main agenda.

Just maybe keep away from making up too much on the fly. While Clinton can be pretty successful at it, like when he expanded a 3,136 word speech to 5,895 words without a sweat, it isn’t recommended. Instead, follow in his footsteps by feeding off of your audience and reading their response as well as deviating just a little bit here and there when you feel it’s appropriate.


Stephen Colbert: The Comedic Communicator

For nine years, Stephen Colbert served political satire on a silver platter on the Colbert Report, playing an ultraconservative character by the same name.

Through jokes, rants and simple graphics, he succeeds in connecting with his audience and informing them about a subject which is generally viewed as dull and boring. One running gag in particular about super PACs that resulted in Colbert creating one and operating it actually ended up educating the public about campaign finance, a feat no other news agency was willing to tackle.

Now, as host of The Late Show on CBS, Colbert is catering to a wider crowd, but maintaining his success. A major part of his success as a TV host as well as a public speaker is his ability to simplify complex matters while remaining informative. Then he takes it a step further by adding humor.

Some of the tools that help him pull this off are known as SHARPs (Stories, Humor, Analogies, References and Quotes, Pictures and Visuals). These tools make is easy to convey complex subjects in a way that is simple and enjoyable for your audience to understand.

If you think that applying comedy to your own presentation is appropriate, make sure you start with a laugh. A quick laugh at the start will help your audience be comfortable. Also, don’t be afraid to be a little self-deprecating, especially if you intend to make fun of someone else.

Just be careful you don’t overload your presentation with too many jokes. You still want to make sure that your serious information gets the spotlight, not your humor. Also, be sure to use some SHARPs. Tell a funny personal story that is relevant to your presentation or use a comical picture that gets your point across as well as lightens the mood a bit.


MLK Jr.: The Repetitive Reverend

One can hardly think of Martin Luther King Jr. without hearing the echoes of “I Have a Dream” in your head, but there’s a reason his words have stayed with us this long, and it’s not just because of the message they carry.

MLK is one of the best public speakers in people’s memory and perhaps of all time. He inspired millions during his lifetime and continues to into the modern day. This is all thanks to his excellence as a public speaker.

MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech is so memorable because its delivery is well balanced. One remarkable attribute of MLK’s speech is the cadence with which he spoke. Many know its passionate, fast-paced ending, but when watched from the beginning, you can appreciate the slow and familiar tone that MLK starts with. He only picks up his pacing and volume after he has entered a conversation with his audience. His timing came from practice.

The iconic speech was improvised after the beginning, but it was not necessarily new to MLK. He had delivered versions of the speech months and even years previous to the March on Washington in 1963. Each experience helped him identify which parts worked and which did not, leading to his successful performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Adding to its effectiveness was his use of repetition and word choice. While his speech began with high energy and unpleasant words to make his audience emotional about his message, he ended with positive and empowering verses that inspired hope. By repeating phrases over and over, his message was memorable and easy to pass on.

MLK’s balance of cadence, practice, repetition and word choice helped him lead a powerful and peaceful movement through his public speaking skills. These skills can help you empower your own presentations.


Churchill: The Prepared English Bulldog

He was the stout, stone-faced leader of Great Britain during World War II, an awardee of the Nobel Prize in Literature and a man who spoke with a lisp.

Many would doubt that a person with a speech impediment could become a great public speaker, but in Churchill’s case, his lisp became a feature of his speeches, making his radio broadcasts, like his speech “The Finest Hour,” unique and familiar.

In 1897, Churchill visited Sir Felix Semon, a specialist in speech problems, who told him “practice and perseverance are alone necessary” to overcome his lisp. He is also alleged to have commented, “I have just seen the most extraordinary young man I have ever met.”

And extraordinary he was. While he never fully overcame his lisp and eventually made an effort to keep it, Churchill became an accomplished leader. He inspired people in a time of hardship and he did so through his speeches.

Churchill wrote all of his speeches himself, often spending six to eight hours crafting a speech that would only be 40 minutes long. His content was crafted to have a sense of spontaneity despite being thoroughly planned.

He went as far as to write in stage directions, fitting in pauses where he would hesitate to search for the right word or purposefully stumble and correct himself. He made public speaking a performance and his skills were so seamless no one knew it was all planned. He was confident in his abilities and decisions, once saying “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Through intensive planning and practice, even the most difficult situations in public speaking can be overcome. By carefully selecting words that will have an impact on your audience and writing in pauses for yourself and even certain gestures into your speech, you can give it a unique edge. By being prepared, you will already be one step ahead of your audience and in the right mindset to lead with your message.


Barack Obama: A Master Taught by Masters

Recently, President Barack Obama delivered a historic speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Nominated candidates tend to avoid current presidents as they tend to leave office on a low note but with his approval ratings at 51 percent, 90 percent among democrats, Obama’s speech captivated the national audience.

He spoke of a patriotic and optimistic America, using themes often applied by the Republican Party and their revered former president Ronald Reagan to rally his audience. His speech was wildly successful, earning respect from members of both parties and catching the attention of voters who feel divided about which candidate to choose.

Obama became known as one of the Democratic Party’s great contemporary orators after his 2004 DNC speech. His words were lyrical in a sense and well-prepared by studying previous masters of public speaking.

Obama speaks with the cadence of Martin Luther King Jr. and his body language reflects the complete control formerly obtained by John F. Kennedy. Also, the limited pitch range of his voice succeeds in “conveying passion without exhibiting it,” making him always appear cool in the most stressful of situations.

Most importantly, however, is his ability to connect with an audience. He talks about their concerns, often starting his speech with thoughts that the audience is already having. By forming this bond through shared concerns, he is then able to build off of it all while bringing the audience along for the ride.

He takes this a step further by anticipating his audience’s thoughts. Goethe once said “Every word that is uttered evokes the idea of its opposite.” In his speeches, Obama addresses both sides of an argument, leaving no room for questioning and thus maintaining a common thought between him and his audience.

Another key to his success is his use of pronouns. In his 2008 victory speech, he used the pronoun I 33 times, but used You/You’re/Your 56 times and We/Us/Our, 110.

This strategy creates an affinity between a speaker and their audience, making it appear as if the speaker is talking personally to each individual member rather than the whole. This creates a sense of unity and calls people forward to act, much like Obama did in his 2016 DNC speech. By making his speech about his audience, he was able to unify them through shared concerns and common values.

With these six different strategies of storytelling--storytelling, reading your audience, comedy, repetitiveness, preparation and forging an emotional connection--you have everything you need to start becoming a standout speaker yourself.


Your Turn

The best presenters don’t only use words to weave a captivating story, but engaging visuals as well.

One way to stand out with your presentation and create something that fits your personal style is to try something new and different that’s not PowerPoint. There are free online tools such as Visme that give users more flexibility to create what they envision by providing them with a vast selection of icons, images, color combinations and fonts. You can try it for free here.

And if you want to learn all our secrets on how to deliver an unforgettable presentation (as well as how to create visual slides with impact), grab our free e-book below.


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    About the Author

    Alexandria Sayers is a content writer for Visme and is currently pursuing a M.A. in Art History from George Washington University in Washington D.C. She is passionate about research, writing, and the arts. She has years of experience in theater, both in front of an audience and behind the scenes.

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