what makes a great public speaker?

While talent, hard work and perseverance are all traits of industry leaders, many of them have an extra spark, something that inspires others to support these leaders’ visions and plans. What makes a great public speaker is not some innate talent but rather practicing tried-and-true principles that date back at least 3,000 years. As luminaries such as Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Elon Musk have shown, public speaking is a skill that can inspire others.

How to Be a Great Public Speaker

Though many orators make it seem like a natural talent, public speaking is a skill that anyone can develop. As with any skill, what makes a great public speaker is practice. In order to be great at public speaking, you must first be willing to be bad at it. “Practice,” in this sense, is not just performing the same speech over and over. Instead, it is a methodical process whereby you analyze each performance and adjust the next to suit the situation and audience.

Rhetorical Situation

Simply put, the rhetorical situation of a speech is the context in which it occurs. Before you can string together any words for your speech, you should first analyze the speech’s rhetorical situation. Lloyd Bitzer, working in the 1960s, established some facets of the rhetorical situation: people, places and motives. Who are you, as the speaker, to the audience? What relationships do you have with them? Where will this speech occur? What are the motivations for this speech? In short, why are you speaking to these people at this given time? What makes a great public speaker, in this sense, is careful analysis of all aspects of the speech itself.

Applying Your Analysis

Once you determine some answers to these questions, you can put them into practice in your speech. Relationships between the speaker and audience determine such factors as tone of voice, word choice, and relevant information. Knowing how to be a great public speaker means knowing your audience. You would not address your mother at her home the same way as a room full of business executives. Understanding the relationships between speaker and audience is key to crafting a moving speech.

Location and motives matter as well. A speech at a graduation commencement is very different from a eulogy at a funeral. While both speeches seek to inspire, one is about the future, while another is about the past. Graduates want inspiration and advice to carry into the future. Mourners, on the other hand, wish to celebrate the past accomplishments and experiences of the deceased.

Learn From the Masters

The study of effective public speaking dates back to the classical period when Greek (and later Roman) orators practiced their craft. Great public speakers understand that these masters laid the foundation for public speaking. For an introduction to this complex and varied discipline, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Isocrates’ Antidosis or Cicero’s de Oratore provide good starting points. Beginning with these orators also helps speakers understand the lineage of Western rhetorical culture, while offering advice on speaking that is still relevant today.

Learn about the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi online MBA programs.


Rhetoric by Aristotle

Cicero de Orator

Tufts: Isocrates