The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Speakers


In every presentation skills workshop I run I ask my participants about their preparation methodology. How do they shape their story? What are the key questions they ask themselves before they start writing? How do they set themselves up for success? Some have a specific process, others a vague checklist. Many admit that the first thing they do is open their computer and start working on their slides. Which is a shame, because that is the fastest way to set yourself up for failure. Of course, there is no one size fits all approach to putting together a great presentation or speech. There’s no magic formula for success. But after fifteen years of working with leaders from industries as diverse as retail, private equity and logistics, as well as studying techniques used by experts from Steve Jobs to Sheryl Sandberg, I can say that the most successful speakers all share certain habits. Here are the seven habits of successful speakers:


1. They plan on paper, not on PowerPoint

Whether it’s post it notes, a flipchart or even a whiteboard (not strictly paper, I know) you need to map out a rough storyline before you open your laptop. Thinking about your audience, objective and key message is the first step. Then you need to write down or storyboard the “headlines” that will drive the narrative. Keep it as simple as possible. Just consider the main points you want to get across, without any supporting detail, and how they link together.


2. They use a classic three-act structure

It might be Why-How-What (Steve Jobs’ iPod launch), Topic 1-Topic 2-Topic 3 (Sheryl Sandberg’s UC Berkeley ‘Personalisation, Pervasiveness and Permanence’ keynote) or Situation-Complication-Roadmap (Brené Brown’s TED talk). Whichever way you think of it, the three-act structure, as conceived by the ancient Greeks, works equally well for investor presentations, product launches and vision statements as it does for political speeches and TED talks.


3. They convey meaning, not information

A presentation is not an information dump. Your job as a presenter is to deliver meaning to your audience. For every point you make ask yourself the “so what?” question. Why does this matter? What does it mean for my audience? For example, if you say: “Our company has 7500 employees in 55 locations who speak 45 languages” that’s information. It conveys the facts, but so what? However, if you say: “With 7500 employees in 55 locations globally we have the manpower to ensure comprehensive due diligence on every deal we make” you convey meaning rather than information.


4. They banish the bullet point

The ideal presentation deck will replace text with images and graphics, wherever possible. This will make it more visually appealing and, crucially, make the messages more memorable. The groundbreaking research of educational psychologist John Sweller in 1998 proved that people understand better and remember more when a speaker’s words are backed up with images or graphics than when they’re backed up with text. Of course, if your deck is also a pre-read or a take away pack, it will – by necessity – have more text on the slides. In that case you’ll have to work harder to hold the audience’s attention when you’re presenting it.


5. They use variety to hold attention

Your audience’s attention is finite and fickle. If you want to captivate your listeners from the opening line through to the call to action, you’ll need plenty of variety. That might be variety of delivery (pace, volume, tone and melody); variety of visuals; variety of gesture or variety of position in the room (when presenting standing up).

See our blog on Using Your Voice To Bring A Presentation To Life for more information on this. 


6. They connect on an emotional level

Clients often ask me, how can I connect on an emotional level when I’m talking about the rollout of an IT platform (or similar)? Simple. Think of the desires, concerns, values, aspirations or fears of your audience and connect with them. Are they risk averse? Do they want peace of mind? Do they like to be seen as ahead of the curve? Do they aspire to be better people? There’s an underlying emotional trigger to most decisions – connect with that and you’ll have a better chance of motivating action.


7. Successful speakers rehearse – a lot (and out loud)

Most people practice to get the words right, rather than to polish their delivery. But successful speakers understand that delivery is what makes the difference between a good presentation and a great one. You don’t have to have the oratory skills of Obama or the showmanship of Steve Jobs to deliver a presentation well, you simply need to use movement, gesture, eye contact and vocal delivery to underline and enhance the story you are telling. This will not be achieved by practising your lines in your head.

Ask yourself, do you tick all the boxes? If not, it’s time to get into the habit – or even the seven habits – of preparing for success.


We can help you to become a more successful speaker. If you’d like to know about our High Impact Presenting workshops or any of our other communication skills programs, drop us a line: