How to Give a Great Speech | Ask the Expert

In honor of college commencement season, we ask communication guru Jay Heinrichs for help channeling our inner Cicero.

By Jenn Johnson

Apr 17 2017

Photo Credit : J.P. Schmelzer

Even in New England, the birthplace of scores of celebrated public speakers—Daniel Webster, Susan B. Anthony, JFK, and so on—it can feel as if the art of oratory is withering away these days, one tweet at a time. But college commencement season brings reason to take heart, as our region’s unmatched collection of universities invites everyone from scholars to actors to, yes, politicians to take the dais and speak their mind.


True, few of us have a backstory as inspiring as J.K. Rowling’s (Harvard, 2008) or a wit as pithy as Nora Ephron’s (Wellesley, 1996). However, we can all polish our oratorical skills just in case our alma mater—or, OK, our local church group—comes calling for a keynoter. For some insight, we turned to New Hampshire consultant Jay Heinrichs, author of Word Hero, a guide to becoming a better writer and speaker, and the New York Times best-seller Thank You for Arguing.

Tap into the Classics Heinrichs’s own interest in the power of words was sparked years ago, when in a cobwebbed corner of the Dartmouth library he stumbled upon a collection of lectures by John Quincy Adams from his tenure as a Harvard professor of oratory and rhetoric. Heinrichs was immediately hooked, and he set out to read all the classics that Adams mentioned. “What blew me away about that was although I loved literature, I always suspected that words ought to do more than sit around looking pretty,” he says. “I knew they had a certain power.”

Tell ’Em a Tale (but Not a Joke) In drafting a speech, remember that the surest way to connect with an audience is to tell a story. In his outline for persuasive speaking, ancient Rome’s Marcus Tullius Cicero (“who according to Cicero was the greatest orator in history,” Heinrichs quips) calls this the narratio, and every speech should have one.

But resist the temptation to lighten up your speech with humor, since one lame joke can turn off half your audience (or more). “Humor is impossibly hard,” says Heinrichs. “Don’t do it. Unless you’re sure you’re funny. Even then don’t.”

Ditch the Index Cards Rather than reading from notes, try committing your talk to memory. “That’s what the ancients did, pre-Teleprompter,” says Heinrichs, who recommends writing out the speech, breaking it up into PowerPoint slides, then reciting it while showing yourself the slides. Bonus: Memorizing a speech forces you to make it short enough to, you know, memorize.

Get to the Point When you step up to the microphone, suppress the urge to stray from your talk. “Don’t apologize, or ask if people can hear you, or say how nervous you are,” Heinrichs advises. “Begin your speech the way Ira Glass does on This American Life, by jumping right in.”

Wrap Up Quickly Don’t draw out your closing thought. “The ancients believed that the patterns of the brain work in concert with the rhythms of the body,” Heinrichs says. “A memorable thought therefore is best expressed in the length of a human breath—about 12 seconds.”

Know Your Audience “Every great orator speaks to the beliefs, feelings, and expectations of his audience,” says Heinrichs. For example, if you do happen to deliver a commencement speech, you arguably could do worse than reading from Goodnight Moon. “Not all students are feeling 100 percent positive about their future,” Heinrichs says. “They may just want to curl up with a book about a rabbit and some kittens.”

Embrace Those Butterflies For most of us, jitters are inevitable when getting up to speak in front of a crowd. But instead of trying to calm your nerves, Heinrichs says, focus on faking confidence. “The single best way to do this is talk louder—it actually gives you breath control.”

And take consolation, he adds, from the greats who have gone before: “In his first time up as a lawyer, Cicero actually threw up before he had to speak. Then he couldn’t even get through his speech without running away in terror. And that gives me hope, personally.”