What Makes a Good Speech ‘Good?’

I had a student once who got up to speak and instead of delivering a speech, he rambled for about fifteen minutes on a variety of topics that seemed to revolve around his bitterness toward his job, his recent divorce, and his aching knee. I pulled him aside after class and told him that his speech needed a lot of work. He looked at me with shock and amazement. It dawned on me that he felt he did a wonderful job because he spoke for such a long time.

That brings up an excellent question: how do we know when a speech is a good speech?

That’s a really good question. I’ve heard students murmur to each other on particularly good speeches. It usually doesn’t involve much more than a “That was really good” whisper to someone sitting nearby, and I’m sure if I pressed the issue, it would be a struggle to determine exactly why the speech was so good. There just aren’t a lot of measures.

So, what can you use to measure a speech? That’s where the problems begin. Time seems to be an easy route to take. Being that we have a “more is better” attitude, the longer the speech is, the better the speech is. Right?

Looking at the evidence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a dismal speech. And, by this definition, my student’s fifteen minute diatribe was sheer brilliance. So, we can already see that this isn’t a good measure.

What else can be measured? How about the number of “ums?” Maybe, but that seems awfully judgmental. Instead, let’s ask some simple questions about the speech itself. Then, we can add some bonus points to the delivery.

Content

Whether you are developing a speech or taking in a presentation, here are a few questions to ask to determine how good a speech is:

Was the message (or intent) clear?

Did the speaker establish in the introduction the intent of the speech and outline the major points to be covered? If you don’t know what the point of the speech is within the first few minutes of the speech, then the speech is in serious trouble.

Was the message concise?

I’m all for speeches that take into consideration the necessity to set the stage or to develop particular ideas in-depth, but is there a point to what is being said? If you here segments of a speech that seem like filler or that seems irrelevant to the point or topic, then the quality of the speech has diminished. You can begin to suspect that the speaker thinks that time spent is the mark of a good speech (which, of course, you now know better!).

Was the message helpful?

For an informative speech, did you actually learn something useful? For a persuasive speech, did it make you want to believe the speaker or do as the speaker urged? If not, then what was missing? Do you need more information? Better arguments for or against?

Delivery

Looking at the content tells us a lot about the preparation involved in the speech, but the second part of a speech is the delivery. And, yes, it’s tempting to say a speech was terrible based on the “ums” and “you knows” and the stutters and the hand-wringing. But, is that entirely fair? Even if you are judging your own speech, don’t you think you ought to give the speaker some credit for even getting up there?

Instead of counting the “ums” or how many times the speaker cleared his throat, let’s focus on some more general impressions:

Did the speaker care about the message?

This is a judgment call. It may be a catch in the speaker’s voice. It may be in the furrow of a brow. It may be the language of the speech or the intensity of the moment. It’s difficult to determine, and it’s often personal to each listener. But, if you feel like the speaker really cares, then there’s something going right. And, that will make the speech a better one.

Did the speaker make me care about the message?

Maybe the speaker was too nervous to show a lot of emotion other than an ambient level of fear, but did the speech make you care a little more about the topic? Did you feel excited or at least mildly interested in the topic? If so, what was it that made it interesting? Again, this could be anything from the way the speaker spoke, the words chosen, the arguments presented, the gleam in the speaker’s eye, or the context in which you heard the speech. Whatever it was, it worked.

Apply What You Demand

Since you now realize that there are several key elements to a good speech, ask yourself how you can place them into your own speech. There’s really no secret to it. It’s a formula that you use to judge other speeches. Use it to develop your own. Craft a clear message, cut down the words used to convey the message, make the message worth listening to (make it useful and do your research), and deliver it with some feeling. Put it all together and you will have a pretty good speech.