How to Construct a Memorable Speech

How to Construct a Memorable Speech

Recently, I coached the head of a large Swiss NGO for a series of speeches she is giving at a popular summer forum.

We worked on a structure and delivery that holds the attention of a global audience from different backgrounds – academic, non-governmental, diplomatic and corporate.

What the coaching reminded me of is that the theories on memory recall developed by a German Professor during the last century are still valid today. Namely, the ability of the brain to retain information decreases over time.

Professor Hermann Ebbinghaus developed the “forgetting curve” which shows that the sharpest decline is during the first 20 minutes and then it levels off after 1 day. The speed of the decline depends on a number of factors such as how easy, visual or relevant the information is to retain. However, on average as the graph below shows people only retain 40% after the first day.

He also developed the concepts of primacy and recency – that we remember the first things and last things we are told with a good chance of forgetting much that is in the middle.

Theory into practice

Armed with this knowledge, she constructed a speech that put the overarching key message in the introduction and then developed 3 related key messages in the body before recapping them at the end.

So did the audience remember the key messages?

I asked people at the forum a couple of hours later and they clearly remembered the introduction – about the rise of xenophobia and restrictive immigration policies in Europe and the US and the call for fundamental rights to be respected.

However they only remembered the messages in the body of the speech when prompted. This may have been because the introduction focussed on a problem that was familiar to the audience and the body on innovative solutions to that problem.

Whatever the reason, it showed that when writing a speech the author has to frontload their key messages to be sure that they are remembered.

The next day, I asked several people what they remembered and true to Ebbinghaus’s theory they recalled the introduction but even less than the day before. The explanations ranged from battling jet lag, the time of day (late afternoon), listening to a foreign language to the temperature in the room (28 degrees outside).

When I tested their recall of the other opening speeches, the results were dismal. They remembered very little a couple of hours after and nothing on the second day.

It has to be said that I remembered very little either, as the speeches were not audience centric and certainly not structured according to the Ebbinghaus principles.

So, however engaged and educated your audience may be, it is worth remembering that it is your responsibility as the speaker to hold their attention by delivering a clear structure with memorable key messages.


Motivational Speeches: Take a Lesson from Football

Motivational Speeches: Take a Lesson from Football

Photo credit: AFP
The coach of the German football team, Joachim Löw, must have given an exceptional motivational speech to his players at half-time on Saturday evening when they were trailing Sweden by a goal in the World Cup in Russia.

As defending champions, Germany faced the prospect of going out in the opening rounds. However, the team rallied to score two goals – the last one in extra time.

This made me think of one of the best motivational speeches ever written and delivered. In the 1999 film, “Any Given Sunday”, Al Pacino plays the coach of a great American football team that is struggling to make the playoffs. Before the big game, he gives this speech to his players with the aim of motivating them to put aside their differences and play as a team.

Have a look at his speech.

Apart from the locker room language, it has all the ingredients of a speech that inspires and motivates.

For me, these are the key learning points:

• He matches his words with his voice and body language to take us on an emotional rollercoaster.
• He clearly identifies the purpose to motivate the team for the “biggest battle of our professional lives.”
• He builds rapport with the audience by connecting emotionally and talking about his mistakes.
• He has a strong key message where he makes an analogy between life and football saying that it comes down to a matter of inches.
• He reinforces this message through repetition – repeating the word inch 13 times.
• He uses contrast, playing with ideas of lightness and darkness, living and dying, and working as a team or as an individual.
• He groups ideas in threes – “every break of the game, every minute, every second.”
• He has a strong call for action at the end – “That’s football, guys. That’s all it is. Now, what are you going to do?”

Vocal delivery:

Take a leaf out of Al Pacino’s book when you deliver a speech: identify the main points, pause before the key messages and emphasise key words.

For example,

“The inches we need are everywhere around us.

On this team, we fight for that inch.

I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch.

That’s a team, gentlemen.”

So what exactly did the German coach say to his team during half time?

“I told them to keep their calm, to not start panicking and try things out. To not just start to try long and high balls. To keep going with rapid passing shots, to go wider with Timo Werner. We have 45 minutes to turn this around. Don’t lose hope. We can turn the tide and win this match. That’s what I told them.”

It would have been great to have been a fly on the wall during his pep talk, but whatever Joachim Löw said and how he said it, it worked.


How to Sound Natural when Reading a Speech

How to Sound Natural when Reading a Speech

Photo caption: H.E. Mr. Didier Burkhalter, Federal Councilor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks during the High-Level-Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council. UN Photo / Elma Okic

I am watching closely as the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council starts in Geneva. I am hoping that some of the diplomats I trained recently in public speaking for the UN Institute for Training and Research ( are going to read their statements with impact.

As a former BBC Geneva correspondent I used to cover the Council and despair of finding a clip that I could use of a diplomat who was sounding natural and looking confident. Most of them would read their statements looking down at their text and in a monotonous tone.

I accept that sometimes diplomats don’t want to draw attention to their statements or at least not find themselves on the BBC news. However, often, on an issue as important as human rights, they do want to stand out and make their voices heard.

So, what are the techniques for making sure that when you read a prepared text such as a speech or a statement, people sit up and listen? By the way, these tips apply whether you are a diplomat or not!

One of the best ways to project confidence when speaking in public is to follow a technique mastered by some of the great public speakers – Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill.

They all managed to read a speech, sounding conversational and unscripted, using a technique known as “See-Stop-Say“.

First of all print your text in large font with double spacing. Make sure that the sentences are short – ideally not more than 10 words so that your eye can absorb them easily. You may want to put key words in bold, as this will help you with emphasis and rhythm.

Practice speaking in the following way:

  • See – see each phrase and “record” a picture of it with your eyes. Instead of reading the whole section, let your eye “record” only the phrase or part of the phrase that you can commit to memory.
  • Stop – look up from the page and pause.
  • Say – say the phrase out loud from visual memory. Pause again before looking down to memorise the next phrase.

Pausing is the key to this skill. Pauses

  • Help you remember the phrase
  • Allow the audience time to digest your ideas
  • Punctuate your sentences
  • Build anticipation.

The great American jazz musician, Miles Davis, once said, “in music, silence is more important than sound”.

This applies to public speaking too. Pausing is your best way of sounding authoritative. It automatically gives you “gravitas”. And, if you have a key phrase or message, pause before and after it for increased impact.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

When I am preparing managers, executives, and CEOs to deliver keynote speeches, they are always amazed when I tell them that professional speakers, journalists, and moderators, always practice their first 20 seconds. It is the moment when you are most nervous so it calms the nerves if you know what you are going to say.

If you watch TV journalists before they go live, you will see that they are walking to and fro (movement aids recall) preparing their first answer.

It is always important to practice reading out loud your statement or speech so you become familiar with it. If you can remember the first 20 seconds that will also help as you can keep eye contact with the audience before you follow the “see-stop-say” model.

If you are delivering your remarks on stage, choose five spots in the room, which form the shape of a W – practice making your points to each spot. This will ensure that you include everyone in the room – even those on the sides who are easily ignored.

If you are reading your statement seated, like the diplomatic delegations at the UN, then you need to look up and straight ahead. The UNTV cameras will focus on you and the journalists, who receive the video footage, will be delighted as they will have a wealth of clips to choose from as you deliver your statement with impact.