Why Are Some People Extraordinary Speakers?

Z Curve

We all know how it feels to walk away from a speech—whether it’s a TED Talk, a conference keynote, or a presentation at work—and know that we just heard something extraordinary. We hear people speak all the time, in formal situations and everyday get-togethers. Some folks are good public speakers; others, not so much. But it’s a rare treat to see somebody who’s truly extraordinary. These are people like Brené Brown, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Sheryl Sandberg, and many others who know how to hook their audience, reel them in, and leave them fired up.

So, what are these extraordinary speakers doing that others aren’t?

First of all, they have the technical skills down. These are the table stakes: they know how to speak clearly and confidently, they’ve crafted a solid message, and they’ve got their nonverbal communication down. They’ve minimized filler words, they’ve mastered their content, and they’ve practiced enough that they’re comfortable and commanding on stage.

But that’s just what makes a good speaker. What makes someone extraordinary?

Not to get overly statistical, but what do the people on the far right blue population of the normal curve do?

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Well, we’ve been studying how the best speakers talk since 2012, and here’s what we’ve found:

3 Characteristics of Extraordinary Speakers

Extraordinary speakers know how to go the extra mile to not only get their message across, but get their audiences involved, influencing them to buy in and take action or change their beliefs or behaviors. Here are a few of the ways they achieve this:

Extraordinary Speakers Capture Audiences’ Emotions

Think about the speeches, books, movies—even the TV commercials—that have impacted you the most. What do they have in common? It’s a good bet the recurring theme is that they tugged on your heartstrings in some way. Their power comes from a phenomenon called emotional contagion, by which we subconsciously “share” our moods with one another. Extraordinary speakers know how to leverage that, playing to emotions in order to build stronger connections and get audiences emotionally invested in what they have to say.

This tactic is common among renowned leaders, as we discovered in an analysis of Fortune’s Greatest Leaders ranking, discovering that top leaders used nearly three times more emotional than logical appeals.

So, how do you play to the audience’s emotions? There are three key strategies we suggest speakers use. First, storytelling. Storytelling, with all its excitement and suspense, is a great way to get audiences emotionally invested in your message. When you can frame your key points as vivid stories, you give your audiences something to root for, and they begin to feel personally involved. (Learn more about the power of storytelling.)

Second, emotional language. Emotional language can evoke vivid images or add drama to a message, stimulating the audience to see, hear, feel, and even smell ideas. Is something less than ideal, or is it infuriating? Is it satisfactory or fantastic? Is it unappealing or hideous? To appeal to audiences’ emotions, consider how to incorporate more evocative language into your next presentation.

And finally, vocal variety. As speakers in professional situations, we often think we’re supposed to keep our voices measured and calm. But, while we do want to maintain control, we’re actually better off letting our feelings seep into our voices. If you’re delivering an exciting message but you’re using a monotone voice, how can you expect the audience to feel—or “catch”—your excitement?

Extraordinary Speakers Provide Clear Value to Audiences

When we talk about effective public speaking, we often discuss the idea of building credibility, making sure audiences know who you are and why they should listen to you. Traditionally, this means showing listeners you know your stuff by sharing your bona fides—your experiences, achievements, etc. And building credibility in that way is important, especially if you’re audience doesn’t yet know or trust you. But there’s another tactic extraordinary speakers use to convince audiences they’re worth listening to: they make clear the value they can provide audiences.

As a speaker, the ins and outs of your message are so important to you, but what audiences care about is “how can this help me?” When you show audiences what listening to you can do for them, that’s when they feel like they’ve got skin in the game, and they start to pay closer attention.

In fact, in a recent analysis of the communication skills that drive influence, we found that the top 10 percent of influential leaders use 62 percent more personalized language and 35 percent more second-person pronouns (such as you and your) than the average speaker.

So, next time you’re giving a talk, focus on your audience before yourself. As you craft your speech, consider who you’re talking to. What are their lives like? What do they value? What are their biggest pain points? What are they passionate about? When you put your audience first, you become someone they want to listen to, remember, and support.

Extraordinary Speakers Bring Their Full Selves to the Stage

We’ve all known people who behave differently in different scenarios. They may seem like one person when it’s just the two of you in the elevator and another person entirely when they get into a group setting. And, more than likely, it’s easy for everyone in the room to tell when these people are putting on a show.

Extraordinary speakers don’t have that problem. They are the same person in a packed auditorium as they are in a quiet coffee shop. A little louder, maybe so everyone can hear them, but not different. This is important because audiences can tell quickly when a speaker isn’t truly connecting with his message—when his words don’t match his beliefs or actions. And when they get wind of inauthenticity, audiences start looking for ulterior motives—or simply tuning out. Either way, they stop focusing on the message.

How does a speaker demonstrate authenticity? In a recent analysis of Fortune 100 CEOs, we found that the 20 most authentic CEOs stood out two key ways: they were 50 percent more passionate, and their visual delivery (body language, gestures, eye contact) was 34 percent more effective than the less authentic leaders’.

The passion and visual delivery come from an authentic speaker’s willingness to let her beliefs influence her presence. We’ve already suggested speakers should allow their emotions into their voices to engage audiences’ emotions. Doing so—and allowing them to guide gestures, facial expressions, and body language as well—also demonstrates true passion for the topic at hand and indicates that you’re speaking naturally, rather than putting on airs.

A lot of a speaker’s ability to communicate authentically comes with practice. You may truly and deeply feel every word you say, but if you’re inexperienced on stage, you may still come off as overly rehearsed or insincere. But the more comfortable you get—through rehearsals and through sheer experience—the easier it will be to bring your authentic self to the microphone.

Think back to the extraordinary speakers you’ve seen recently. Did they tug at your heartstrings? Did they put their audience first? Did they show up as themselves, rather than as a contrived character? To take your own communication style to the next level, try implementing these practices yourself.