05/19/2015 12:14 pm ET Updated May 19, 2016

The Three Rules of Great Speakers

Three is my favorite number. Three little pigs, three Cs of relationships, three musketeers. According to Wikipedia, it's a writing rule, but I believe it also applies to public speaking. Inspiring speakers like Martin Luther King followed three simple rules when preparing for a speech: preparation, presentation, performance. The three rules of great speakers. Here is what I taught Stanford graduate students about them.

Rule #1. Preparation. Clear outline, simple visuals, smooth flow.

Preparation is everything a presenter needs to do before getting on stage to give a talk. When preparing for a speech, it's critical to articulate a strong structure, fetch memorable images to use as support and orchestrate seamless transitions:

  • Clear outline: To be convincing, speeches need to state supporting evidence in a compelling way. During the preparation leading up to a presentation, come up with three data points that contribute to the thesis and back each of them with relevant facts and figures.
  • Simple visuals: Many presenters drive attention away from them by using crowded slides that are difficult to grasp. This is distracting the audience and hence counterproductive. When creating presentations to support a speech, use memorable images and no more than three bullet points of text that captures the idea expressed in a single sentence.
  • Smooth flow: Giving a speech is telling a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Between each section, a logical, short transition allows the audience to follow the argument easily. Jot down opening, transitions and conclusion during the preparation phase.

Rule #2. Presentation. Open posture, welcoming presence, rhythmic pace.

All the preparation work accounts to little if the delivery of a talk is suboptimal. Presentation is everything a speaker has control over during a talk. A strong delivery requires maintaining a confident demeanor, establishing eye contact and using voice and movement skillfully:

  • Open posture: Inspiring speakers are familiar with the "ready position," which is the posture that's most desirable when giving a speech. Standing straight, feet slightly apart, arms down, which feels unnatural to most beginners. When giving a presentation, stick to this open body position because it makes presenters appear confident and relaxed.
  • Welcoming presence: Some cultures see looking down as a sign of respect but in the US and Western Europe, effective presenters are better off establishing strong eye contact with their audience. Randomly pick audience members, look them in the eyes for a few seconds, long enough to make a real connection without starring, and then move to the next person.
  • Rhythmic pace: While fidgeting is to be avoided, using voice, pace and gestures to give rhythm to a speech can make a huge difference when done well. During speeches, slow down when sharing an important fact (or even repeat it slower to drive it home,) and to move to a different part of the room or stage when transitioning from one point to another.

Rule #3. Performance. Supportive allies, known audience, mastered Q&A.

Even with the best preparation and a compelling presentation, a speaker can get derailed by its audience, which is the reason most people fear public speaking. Fortunately, there are ways to handle these unknowns effectively. A successful performance requires getting to know people in the audience ahead of time via introduction or polling, and anticipating questions:

  • Supportive allies: By arriving early, speakers have an opportunity to meet and greet a few people in the audience before getting on stage. They can do this effectively by introducing themselves to a few audience members and asking whether there's a specific topic they'd like to see covered. I recommend that approach because it creates a lot of goodwill and helps tailor presentations.
  • Known audience: Many skilled presenters begin their talk with a simple poll, which gives them a sense for the nature of their audience and helps them adapt their speech. It can make a big difference to understand the level of familiarity with the topic, or the urgency of the issue, or the degree of connection to a matter. Get to know an audience before addressing it.
  • Mastered Q&A: When handling Q&As, it's important to identify the intent of a question. Is the person asking for additional facts, or maybe trying to stand out as an expert him/herself and looking for recognition, or possibly trying to challenge the speaker and trigger a conflict or outline a difference of opinion? Often, the best answers combine facts with emotional acknowledgement.

Whether selling a service to a customer, pitching to a new startup to an investor, presenting a report to an organization, or speaking at a conference, using the three rules of public speaking can make a huge difference: Prepare thoroughly, present professionally and perform effectively. See you on stage!