4 Public Speaking Lessons I've Learned

I've been extremely privileged to hear some of the best public speakers at various types of events and wanted to share the top four lessons I've learned from them. Hope you enjoy it!

1. They tell stories

In his book Lead with a Story, Paul Smith tells a true story of a man named Sterling Price who worked at a Pizza Hut in the early 1980s. One evening, a lady came in asking for a meatball sandwich. Sterling told her that Pizza Hut didn't make meatball sandwiches. But this woman kept insisting saying that her husband wanted a meatball sandwich. So Sterling got some bread, cheese, tomato sauce, and meatballs and then a crafted a sandwich for this woman. The next day, Sterling got a phone call from the woman who told him that her husband who had requested the sandwich had stage four cancer and that was the only thing he wanted to eat that night. It ended up being his last meal. He passed away that night and the woman was extremely grateful that her husband got to eat what he wanted for his final meal.

I still remember this story on why we should be kind to even strangers after reading it several years ago because it was a well-crafted story. Similar to Paul Smith, the best speakers I've seen all tell stories that illuminate their points because people don't remember data, but they do remember stories.

2. They make it personal

In 2008, the investment bank I was working at was interviewing undergraduates for internships. One of our colleagues asked a candidate, "What's something about you that most people don't know". His response? When he was a young child, his mother tragically passed away. When he was in his early teens, his father also passed away. He had lived with his stepmother since and worked full-time to support himself while still maintaining solid grades at a top tier university. Even 8 years later I still remember how powerful that response was and how much more I respected that interviewee.

Even interviewing is public speaking on a lighter degree and it's amazing how I've interviewed at least 100 people in my career and this is the interview that stands out the most because how personal his response was.

3. They're concise

When I was in college, a Professor asked the class a trivia question. When Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863, he spoke for two MINUTES. An extremely famous speaker of that era spoke before President Lincoln for two HOURS. Who was that speaker? Can't guess either? Exactly - no one remembers. It doesn't matter if you speak longer, it's about content. And the longer you speak, the more likely you'll lose your audience and the message you want to relay.

(In case you were wondering, the famous speaker was Edward Everett.)

4. They make it memorable in their own way

I once attended a political party's state convention where the President of the organization told us how he'd change the party in upcoming years. But rather than just TELLING us, he SHOWED us. He took a pen to the whiteboard and wrote his cell phone number and told the audience to text or call him if they had any feedback or suggestions. This was an extremely important person in the party giving us his personal cell phone number! After that, the audience knew that he was serious about his goals for the political party.

I personally love it when speakers ask the audience trivia-type questions related to their presentation. Everyone wants to be the one who answers it so it gets them engaged. My first week at my post-college job, the CEO of the firm spoke to our incoming class. The first thing he did was give us a spelling test. A spelling test! After it was graded, we found out we weren't as smart as we thought we were which illuminated his message of always being open to learning because we don't know as much as we think we do. He then asked us a trivia question - which four universities have had a Super Bowl winning quarterback and a U.S. President? I'm not sure what the point of that was but it was just fun as our class tried to guess it and got us really energized (especially in a room full of hyper-competitive people).

(In case you were wondering, the four universities are Stanford, Naval Academy, Miami University [Ohio], and Michigan.)


I disagree with the notion that public speaking is a natural gift - I think it's just a skill that can be developed through practice and feedback like anything else. I hope these lessons I've learned in my life help you develop that skill.