Speech Content that Makes an Impact

A Speech Content Checklist & Summary of “Made to Stick”

As Toastmasters we practice every week with the goal to become better public speakers. Typically, we focus on developing a smooth and charismatic delivery. While this is clearly important, the act of “speaking” is not the most important aspect of public speaking. The actual goal is to communicate a message that makes a lasting impact. As George Bernard Shaw stated “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Then what exactly makes speech content impactful and memorable?

One person’s work that demonstrates this idea is the university professor, Chip Heath. Every year, he engages his students in an exercise. Students deliver 1 minute speeches taking a stance on a topic and rate each other on delivery and persuasiveness. As expected the most polished deliveries are rated the highest.

"Made to Stick" a book that can help to make your speech content memorable.

Afterwards, students take a break to watch 10 minutes of unrelated video. Following the break, students are asked to recall as many points as possible from each speech. These results do not correlate with the prior ratings. In fact, this exercise demonstrates that it is the type of content that makes a speech memorable.

Chip Heath and his brother Dan Heath decided to determine why some ideas die and others survive. Based on their research, they wrote the book “Made to Stick”, which describes 6 factors that contribute to the “stickiness” of a message. I highly recommend this book and I created this summary as a useful speech content checklist.

1. Simplicity

The first factor is Simplicity. A proverb like, “Treat others as you would have them treat you.” is the ideal to strive for. This one sentence packs enough meaning to live by and has lasted for thousands of years. Think of being a master of exclusion. Bill Clinton struggled in his first presidential race until James Carville, his Campaign Manager, broke the campaign messaging down to 3 main points. The message that really stuck was “It’s the economy, stupid.” By focusing his messaging on the major concern of the swing voters at the time, Bill Clinton was able to the win the election.

2. Unexpectedness

Now, how can we get people to pay attention to our message? The second factor is “Unexpectedness”. The approach that I just used is to ask a question. You can build curiosity by opening gaps in the audience’s knowledge and then filling the gaps. You can also violate people’s expectations by being counter intuitive. For example, earlier I stated that speaking is not the most important aspect of public speaking.

3. Concreteness

Once you have your audience’s attention, the third factor “Concreteness” helps people understand and remember your message. You can make your ideas clear by explaining in terms of human action, sensory information and concrete images. For example, public speaking is like riding a bike. Once you can do it, you never forget.

4. Credibility

If people understand and remember a message, how can we persuade people to agree with it and believe in it? The answer is “Credibility”. The source of information is always important. It helps to be an expert or to reference one. Just do not jump to bombarding people with statistics. Rather than using a lot of numbers, it is much more effective to illustrate the point. You can consider the “try before you buy” approach or a demonstration. Think about how people feel and relate to the idea. Are there actual events that prove your point? In his song “New York, New York” Sinatra sang, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” It sounds reasonable.

5. Emotions

Agreeing and believing in an idea hardly matters if it is irrelevant. The fifth factor is tapping into people’s “emotions” to make them care. Simply put, we feel for people, not abstractions. Research shows that people are more likely to donate to a charity with advertising focused on the issues of an individual rather than the statistics of an entire country or region. In addition, it helps people to link an emotion to people’s personal experience. People are also worried about how other people around them react.

6. Stories

Finally the sixth factor, “Stories”, is what inspires people to act on an idea. People enjoy stories and relate to them. In a way, they actually transfer one person’s experience to multiple people. Well, hearing a story IS mentally rehearsing a situation. This helps people become more prepared and comfortable with taking an action. Does everyone remember Jared who lost a ton of weight on a Subway diet? How about the movie Super Size Me? Do they affect your decision to choose between Subway and McDonalds? A success story can inspire a person to implement a new exercise routine, vote for a political candidate or make a purchasing decision.

When we are inspired by talented public speakers like Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, we often notice their charismatic delivery. What we often overlook is why the speech content resonates within us and makes a lasting impact:

  1. Simplicity: Find the essential core of the message and be concise
  2. Unexpectedness: violate people’s expectations to gain their attention
  3. Concreteness: Relate the idea to something tangible
  4. Credibility: Illustrate the point
  5. Emotions: People feel for people, not abstractions
  6. Stories: Get people to mentally visualize your idea succeeding in action

It may not always possible to fit all of these factors into your speech content, but being aware of them can help us effectively communicate and make a lasting impact. After all, as John Powell stated “Communication works for those who work at it.”

Once again, I highly recommend reading the book “Made to Stick” for more details on making your speech content “sticky”. The best part is that the authors of the book practice what they preach, making the book both engaging and memorable.

For an example of these concepts, check out the blog post “Powerful Words: The 2015 World Champion of Public Speaking.”

Jason Feddema
VP Public Relations
New Entrepreneurs Toastmasters Club
Edmonton, Alberta



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