The Anatomy Of A Persuasive Speech

What I do for a living terrifies most people: I speak in public. And I ask strangers for money.

That’s job security, folks.

The next time you get to/have to do either of these things? You’ll be prepared. And a lot less afraid because of it.

What Great Speeches Have In Common

Nancy Duarte found that many great speeches share a common structure. They begin with “what is”, move to “what could be”, and bounce back and forth between the two several times before ending with “what could be”.

I follow this structure as well, but with a little tweak. My speeches are much shorter than the greats and must end with a call to give. So my speeches have less of that back-and-forth and I add a couple of unique elements at the end.

The anatomy of a persuasive speech

First of all, I often ad lib a short transition – less than a minute – from whatever precedes me whenever starting with “what is” would be too jarring to the audience. Then…

  • 1. What Is: For example, the speech I gave today at the Catalyst conference in Dallas, was about my adopted son and a boy I met in Kenya several years ago. It began with some humor, then how grateful I am to be my son’s dad, and then a surprise: “But even on our best day together, I know I’m second best.” That’s what is.
  • 2. What Could Be: “I’ve seen best,” I said. Then I described the day I met a young man in a Kenyan slum. His picture appeared on the screens on the auditorium. The audience could see that he was eighteen, well-dressed, healthy, smiling.
  • 3. What Is: I told them this boy’s story, beginning with “When Eliud was five his mother passed away, leaving his father to raise him alone.” I described how little his father could earn, the problems that inevitably caused: Lack of food, education, health care. Many parents, I explained, in such a hopeless situation, will give their children up to give them the life they can’t afford.
  • 4. What Could Be: Then I said, “A knock came at the door.” This statement begins the longest portion of the speech: Eliud’s release from poverty. I illustrate how Eliud’s physical and spiritual needs were met by that pastor, his church, a generous sponsor and a relationship with God.
  • 5. Urgency: I end by connecting Eliud’s story back to my son’s story very quickly. When we care for the poorest of the poor we may very well be keeping a family together, I explain. “That’s best.” I want the audience to understand why this need is urgent for me: Caring for impoverished children is a personal passion of mine and not just a job.
  • 6. What You Can Do: Those who share this same sense of urgency will want to take action. I give clear specific instructions about how to do that.

How Will This Help Me?

Today, I was given half the time needed to deliver the best speech I could. Understanding this structure helped me stay away from major arteries as I cut. I kept everything that was essential – just less of it.

Understanding this structure also helps me diagnose the problem with a speech that isn’t working. I dissect and discover what part I’m spending too much or not enough time on, what part is missing entirely, and then rewrite with focus.

I hope this structure helps you speak with more confidence and less fear, to persuade others to live more generously.