As a longtime speaker, I still frequently struggle to develop a great talk – one that is both memorable and provides some lasting change for those in the audience. When someone offers a book, class, tool or template that can help, I sit up and take notice. Thus, I was happy to be included in JD Schramm’s Stanford workshop last week for the students selected to deliver LOWKeynote talks this year. There he shared his ideas of what it takes to prepare and deliver a great presentation (which can include funding pitches.) (LOWKeynotes is the Stanford Graduate School of Business speaker series where students share how they hope to change Lives, Organizations, and the World with a compelling idea). These student presentations, many of which are online, are similar to TED talks, but shorter — only 9 minutes in length.

JD started the class with a useful metaphor – explaining that the speech we give on stage is like an iceberg. People only see and hear what is above the surface – our final presentation. What they often overlook are the hours of research, practice and the ideas we’ve left on the cutting room floor. Yet all of that is critical to the success of that final performance.

So, how should you get started in preparing a new talk? JD offered a simple formula for preparing and presenting a top notch talk:


No matter what the subject, there is a specific group of people you are targeting. Start with who will be in your audience – younger or older, well-educated or not, angry or contented, thought leaders who are already well versed in your topic or members of the general public who are completely unfamiliar. Think of this as your psychographic research. The more you can discern about the present opinions of the audience, the better you will be able to reach them — especially if you want to change their mind.

From the start, know that you are not necessarily targeting each and every one of those in the audience. Depending on your goal, you may be focused on reaching the decision makers, the influencers, the uninformed or those ready and willing to take action.

Next, ask yourself, “Who Do I Stand for and Who Do I Stand With?”. This will help you tailor your examples, your call to action and the images in your slides (if you use them) to assure you are speaking on their behalf and moving their agenda forward.

Finally, why should those in your audience care about those you stand with and for? If they don’t care, how can you make them care – an unexpected fact, a compelling story, a powerful image? These are all questions worth exploring as you begin your preparation.


What are the activities you will need to engage in to prepare for your presentation? These might include interviews of thought leaders in your domain, research (ex: online surveys or crowdsourcing ideas) or delving into books previously written on your topic. What will it take to get the information together to assure you create a memorable and engaging talk? What if you could get the leading guru in your field to provide a quote that is right on target with your message? How about a client, customer or beneficiary testimonial? Each of these provide a valuable credibility boost for your speech.

Value Proposition

Who are you to give this talk and to tell these stories? Here is where you want to think through what brought you to that stage. What experiences, education (not just the book kind), passion and commitment aligned to prepare and even galvanize you to stand on that stage? This is all tied into your value proposition. Don’t be shy about sharing your expertise or unique background. A little bragging is just fine — as long as it’s all true.


How will you better connect with your audience? This doesn’t mean compiling more data and facts. It often means an open heart and a commitment to make a difference for those in the audience. If you suffer stage fright, it’s hard to remember anything on stage, but what I’ve learned is that if I can make the mind-shift from “I’m so scared” to “I am doing this for my tribe,” then a lot of that fear dissipates. You are not presenting to look good but to make a difference. If you’re just starting out, a few weeks or months at Toastmasters can pay off beautifully. For the more experienced, a weekend improv class or hiring a personal coach to videotape and critique your talk can result in big dividends.


Here is where a little imagination and risk taking can bring big benefits. What props might you bring to the stage to help you create a lasting impression with attendees? When Bill Gates spoke on the TED stage about malaria, he released into the audience a large jar of mosquitos. After they felt a few moments of panic, he assured attendees that the mosquitos were harmless. He was urging the TED participants to connect with the fear that millions live with every day.

Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor brought an actual brain on stage to illustrate her experience as a stroke sufferer. One of our Springboard presenters, Lisa Henderson, walked on stage spinning a basketball as she pitched her idea for a better way to match student athletes with college scholarships. What might help you tell your story? Sometimes it’s a surprising fact or an unexpected action. TED speaker Cameron Russell changed her clothes on stage to illustrate her point that super models come in surprising packages.


Think about what channels you will use to share your story. Will this be a presentation on a stage, a webinar, a podcast, a video on your website? The best talks can be repurposed in many formats and each requires a bit of a different tone and technique. On a stage, broad gestures and movement are fine, props are welcomed and for many events slides are expected. Depending on the audience, interaction is also appreciated. On a webinar, unless you are using video, you must rely on your voice, your slides and some interactive elements (polls, chat) to create engagement. Each format is unique and requires you to think through how your message will translate.

Message Structure

Nancy Duarte is one of the experts on how to structure a great talk. Her TED Talk and book, Resonate, are classics. She has deconstructed some of the most well-known and best-remembered speeches and outlined a great model to follow. Sam Horn is another authority on how to engage an audience and her TED Talk on how to intrigue by using a series of three questions as your opener is very powerful. Whatever model you use, thinking through the ‘hook’ – an opening that captures your audience’s attention, and a strong and memorable close are key elements to assure your success.

Results of Your Talk

Finally, what is the outcome you desire? Ask yourself, how do I want my audience to think differently, what do I want them to feel or do differently as a result of hearing what I have to say? Think about your call to action – and how you’ll reinforce it from the beginning to the end of your talk.

Combining all of these elements is where the magic lies, but relying on this set of questions will help you set the stage for that magic to occur.

Many thanks to JD Schramm and his LowKeyNotes team for providing such a useful framework to get us started.