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Chapter 16: How to Deliver a Talk to Inspire


I had a coaching session with a divisional president of a Fortune 500 company. The first thing I did was ask her how she would like to be perceived by an audience. I told her to select ten characteristics that would be an appropriate ending to the sentence, "I'd like an audience to see me as ..."

Here's what she wrote:











That was the order. Then I asked her to pick her top four. Here's how she listed them:





I asked, "Why those four?" She said, "I want people to see me as being transparently open with them - no secrets. That's honest. And I want them to believe me and believe in me, to see me as a knowledgeable expert, and to respect me. And I'd like to be seen as sincere and inspiring."

"Very good," I said. "Now the tough decision. Which of these would you select if you could only choose one?"

"Oh, to be inspiring," she said. "If you are able to do that, the audience loves you. That's the ultimate dream of any speaker! But very few ever accomplish it." I asked her when she might see herself giving an inspirational talk. "Often when I give a state-of-the-business update to my department, I feel the need to be inspirational," she said. "To show them that their world will get better if we just reach a little more, and try a little harder. That's an example. Another is whenever I address the sales force. The sales people always need a lift. The sales manager beats on them all the time. He doesn't inspire; he manages, he persuades, he bribes them with incentives. When I come in, I'm management. What I try to do is create a bigger picture for them, a loftier vision. I want to lift their sights, to inspire them. That's what they need."

Learning by Example: Great Inspirational Talks

It is true that giving a talk to inspire is challenging. But it is a skill that can be learned. The word "inspire" comes from the Latin inspirae, which means "to breathe life into." It enables you, the speaker, to breathe life into your talk and into your audience. That is why the talk to inspire is so riveting. It is why you, the speaker, come away looking so strong.

Let's examine a few great inspirational talks from history, recognizing that the world's stage belonged to those great people at those moments. You and I don't have that stage, but we do have our own settings, whatever they may be. We can learn from the masters, draw some principles from them, and show how those same principles, with some adaptation, can work for us.

Patrick Henry

Consider the American Patrick Henry in March of 1775. The tensions between the colonists and the British had escalated. War, even revolution, was openly discussed. Much preparation was underway, but Virginia, the largest colony, had not committed itself. A meeting of its delegates was held in Richmond. Patrick Henry proffered a number of resolutions. His purpose was to inspire these delegates to take the big step. They should no longer see themselves as independent farmers, husbands, tradesmen, private citizens, but as fellow countrymen, seeking freedom. Patrick Henry proposed to put the colony of Virginia "into a posture of defense ... embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose." It was a commitment to revolution.

Here are the last two paragraphs of his historic speech:

The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable - and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, "Peace! Peace!" - but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle! What is it that gentlemen wish? What should they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

He spoke without a script and his speech was effective. At its conclusion a vote was taken, and the resolutions passed by a narrow margin. Virginia had thereby joined in the American Revolution.

Note how Patrick Henry lifted his audience beyond where they could go by themselves. The appeal was to a higher goal for his listeners - freedom versus slavery. He showed he was committed to the cause he was espousing. He rallied them; he inspired them.

Winston Churchill

Here is a Winston Churchill speech from May 13, 1940. Sir Winston had just been appointed British Prime Minister the Friday before. In that short time, he had formed a war cabinet made up of five members that he described as "representing, with the Labour, opposition, and Liberals, the unity of the nation." England was the prime target of Hitler's war machine, and the very survival of the country was in doubt. The speech was relatively short. At its end, Sir Winston said, "I take up my task in buoyancy and hope ... Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

But just before that, he said these immortal words:

I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terrors - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Note that Churchill took his listeners on a mental and emotional journey created by his words and feelings: "ordeal of the most grievous kind," "months of struggle and suffering," "war against a monstrous tyranny," "victory in spite of all terrors." There was no way his audience could remain unmoved. With his inspirational speech he galvanized their thoughts and their emotions, so that they went "forward together with [their] united strength."

President John F. Kennedy

On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy delivered his inaugural address. He was the youngest U.S. president ever and had won the presidency by the narrowest margin ever at that time - 110,000 popular votes. The day was cold, twenty-two degrees. He wore no overcoat and no hat.

Carl Sandburg, the poet, later said of that address "... around nearly every sentence ... could be written a thesis, so packed it is with implications."

Here are excerpts from that talk:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change ...

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of these human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge - and more ...

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

At the conclusion of that talk our nation came together behind John F. Kennedy. He had created a vision of the future that we all aspired to. His vision, but now ours, too. He asked for our participation to make that vision a reality. He lifted us out of ourselves and took us with him, through his talk, to a better world. That is what a great talk to inspire can do.

Each of these examples is among the finest inspirational talks of all time. Let's identify the common elements and then see how we might use them.

  1. The grandeur of the vision. (Example: "freedom of citizens versus slavery," Patrick Henry)

  2. The total commitment of the speaker. (Example: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat," Winston Churchill)

  3. How the speaker reaches for our participation. (Example: "Ask not what your country can do for you ... ," John F. Kennedy)

  4. An appeal to nobler motives. (Example: "Victory, however long and hard the road may be, because without victory there is no survival," Winston Churchill)

  5. How the audience is uplifted. (Example: " ... ask what together we can do for the freedom of man," John F. Kennedy)

Creating Your Own Inspiring Message

But let's step back. How do we, you and I, put together a talk to inspire? We are not the leaders of nations or the fomenters of revolution. We usually don't have a cataclysmic world event as a backdrop. Instead, we have a variety of business situations where we might want to inspire, such as a sales meeting, motivating a team on a new project, a departmental meeting, a midyear update, an annual meeting, a meeting requesting an additional budget allocation, and so on. There are many opportunities, and the ability to inspire a group is never out of style.

Where do we find the material for such a talk? We reach into our own life experience and find stories that were "moving" to us as we lived through them, and tell them in a way that moves our audience. There has to be a message or lesson that flows from the story, and it has to be pertinent to that audience at that time. That's what we will explore now.

We'll establish principles, analyze two examples, and see how it all fits together.

Principles for an Inspirational Talk

  1. Begin with a moving story.

  2. Re-create and relive the story.

  3. Show and share your feelings.

  4. End with a lesson learned.

1. Begin with a moving story. This can be an incident out of your life that had a profound emotional impact on you, or a profound incident from someone else's life that you know so well and feel so deeply that you can tell it as though you were there.

2. Create and relive the story. We've talked about the impact of a story in other chapters. Here, the story is more important because the stakes are so much higher. Re-create, relive the story with words, gestures and energy so that the audience sees what you saw, hears what you heard, feels what you felt, lives through the experience the way you did.

3. Show your feelings. Share your feelings. Give totally of yourself. Don't hold back. Patrick Henry, Winston Churchill, and John Kennedy each showed their most heartfelt emotions and convictions in the speeches they gave.

4. End with the message or the lesson learned. If your goal is to inspire people to greater efforts, be sure your final words are uplifting. Ensure that the audience will be moved to action.

Example One: A Tale of Two Little Girls

Many years ago I heard a talk that lifted me out of myself and stayed with me for a lifetime. The speaker was a woman named Marie DeMarco (not her real name). She was speaking to a Dale Carnegie class of about forty people. She told a simple story about her two little girls. Her purpose, which all the audience understood, was to deliver an inspirational talk. She told the story with profound feeling, and, indeed, she inspired us all.

The Story

Begin at a point in time. It is important to orient the audience. The two main elements of that orientation are time and place:

Last Saturday night, December third, my husband and I had a party at our house. We invited six couples for six o'clock cocktails to be followed by dinner at seven.

Next, set the stage. Introduce the people who are at the core of the story. Tell us enough of what is coming up so that our anticipation builds. When you do this, remember that detail is important, but not extraneous detail. It should be kept tight. Notice how the detail in this story makes the scene and the people more real:

We have two daughters: Kristen is seven years old, and Kelly is four. I dressed them up for the party: White taffeta dresses, blue ribbons in their hair, white socks, and patent leather shoes. I even took them to the beauty parlor to have their hair done. It was the first time either of them had been to a beauty parlor. They loved it and felt so special. I told my girls that the whole family had a responsibility to make sure the party went well. I would serve the food. Daddy would fix the cocktails. And they had a job, too. They would join Mommy in answering the door when the bell rang. Mommy would introduce them to the guests, and then they would take the guests' coats upstairs and put them on the bed in the second bedroom.

My goodness, they were excited! They were all dressed up. They were beautiful. And they were playing an important role at the party.

Now, describe what happened.

The guests arrived. I introduced my two daughters to each of them. The adults were gracious and kind and said how lucky we parents were to have such good kids who would help with the coats.

Each of the guests (all twelve or so it seemed) made a particular fuss over Kelly, the younger one, admiring her dress, her hair, her pert little nose, her smile. They said she was a remarkable girl to be carrying coats upstairs at her age.

I thought to myself that we adults tend to make a big "to do" over the younger one because she's the one who seems more vulnerable. We do it with the best of intentions.

But we seldom think of how it might affect the other child. I was a little worried that Kristen would feel she was being outshined. I looked at her from time to time, and she wasn't smiling as Kelly was. But the party went on, and I put it out of my mind.

An hour went by. I was about to serve dinner, but I was vaguely disturbed that Kristen, my seven-year-old, wasn't puttering around the kitchen with her sister. I realized she had been missing for about twenty minutes. I went upstairs to see where she was. I checked her room. I checked the room with the coats. Then I opened the closed door of the master bedroom and there she was, standing in front of the full-length mirror, pirouetting, looking at herself. She had tear tracks on her face. She had been crying.

I said, "What are you doing, my dear?"

She turned to me with that empty, sad expression and said, "Mommy, why don't people like me the way they like my sister? Is it because I'm not pretty? Is that why they don't say nice things about me as much?"

Then she ran to me, put her arms around my legs, and burst into tears. She was crushed, and I was soon hurting as much as she was. I couldn't stand seeing my seven-year-old daughter so devastated. I tried to explain. We talked for fifteen minutes, and I held her. I kissed her. I hugged her. Then I had to go back downstairs to my guests. But I vowed to myself that I would never make the same mistake when dealing with other people's children.

The Message

The message comes at the end of the talk. It should be short and crisp. A good inspirational message should flow naturally out of the story. It has no real value in itself. Its value comes from the story that precedes it; we don't preach. We don't have to turn it into an action step, though we can if the situation demands it. The message is the lesson we learned.

The objective of your talk should be to lift the audience to a new level of understanding, to inspire them with the story so that their lives will be enlarged and changed by your experience.

Now, whenever I visit a friend's home I make it a point to speak to the older child first, ask what she is doing in school, praise her, or dote on her. When I leave the house, I want that older child to feel how truly special he or she is.

I do this because I know the younger ones will get their share of attention. And I know, just as surely, the older ones won't. And we should make a point to give it to them, not by neglecting the little ones but by deliberately giving the older ones more than their full share.

Notice how you the reader are moved by the story. The people seem real. You can identify with them. It is a simple story, which appeals to your nobler motives and changes your perspective from that moment on.

Example Two: Breaking the Sound Barrier

I was asked to speak at a dinner honoring 120 salespeople for having achieved Gold Circle status as top sales producers for the company. The purpose of my talk was to demonstrate that management was aware of the extraordinary effort it took to produce those results. I was also told that my talk should lift the spirit of the sales force and inspire them to go forward and do it again.

Here is the ending of that talk, the inspirational part:

When Mike introduced me, he mentioned that I was a former Navy pilot. I'd like to share a story that you can relate to, because it's all about overcoming obstacles. And you wouldn't be sitting here if you had let obstacles overcome you.

The Story

Begin at a point in time and place. The audience must be able to orient themselves or we lose them in the narrative.

When I was twenty-one years old, I enlisted in the Navy (people did that in my day because it was better than being drafted). Shortly after that I went to naval flight school and, a year-and-ahalf later, received my wings and became a naval aviator.

Next step was to be assigned to a squadron in Oceana, Virginia.

In a matter of days I was flying the hottest Navy jet there was at the time - the F7U-3 Cutlass. I was elated. The Cutlass was one of the first Navy planes to be able to break the sound barrier.

Now we set the stage. Notice in the next paragraphs, how the detail fuels anticipation for what might happen later. It draws the audience into the story by educating them a little bit and preparing them to better understand the outcome or lesson.

But that wasn't as easy as it sounds. In those days, planes didn't have the power or the airframe to break the sound barrier flying straight and level. Instead, the pilot had to get as much altitude as he could, then dive straight down, breaking through the sound barrier while diving toward the earth.

Nonetheless, I couldn't wait. I had only been with the squad-ron a short time when I asked for the opportunity to go supersonic. First I had to go through a lengthy briefing, read manuals, and sign all sorts of forms.

The briefing was really interesting. We had only one pilot, our executive officer, Commander Jim Ferris, who had already broken the sound barrier, so he was the official briefer. During that briefing, he told me that just before going through Mach 1 (the speed of sound), at about Mach .97, the plane would start buffeting. Then as the speed inched closer to Mach 1, the buffeting would get so bad that I would be tempted to give up and abort the mission. (Each of you in this room has been in a similar position when the buyer puts up obstacles that seemed insurmountable.)

Then Jim put his hands on my shoulders and said, "Kevin, you've got to commit yourself to getting the thing done, or you'll back off at the last moment. You've got to close the exit doors in your mind or you'll fail - because it's scary, believe me."

Then he said, "On the other hand, if you've got the guts and you do it, you'll feel like a million bucks. You'll be one of the exclusive few." So I said to him, with all of the bravado of a twenty-two-year old, "Don't worry about me backing off, Jim, I'll stay with it."

Now describe the action. Detail is important but notice how it's not drawn out:

The next day, Saturday, was my day. I took off at 9:30 a.m., climbed to 47,500 feet, and headed for Dismal Swamp, a huge uninhabited tract of land in Virginia. In the center of the swamp is a lake, almost perfectly round, named Lake Drummond.

Then came the moment of truth. I was over the lake, full throttle, both afterburners on. I followed the procedure. I turned the plane on its back and pulled the nose gently through to the vertical. I was pointed directly at Lake Drummond. The Mach gage was rising. I saw .93, then .95, then .97. The buffeting began, not bad at first, then more and more.

Breaking Sound Barrier

Figure 16-1:  What breaking the sound barrier looks like.

It was so violent my eyes were slightly out of focus. I couldn't see clearly. My helmeted head bounced off the side of the canopy from one side to the other. Lake Drummond was coming up to meet me and coming fast.

I was at .99 and really scared. I wanted to abort. And I think I would have - except that Jim's words about being committed were ever present in my mind, and I knew I couldn't face him if I backed off.

So I gritted my teeth and held on.

Then, suddenly, it was perfectly smooth. I had broken through the sound barrier! The gage said 1.0, then a little more.

"I did it! I did it!" I screamed to myself.

Then, just as suddenly, I realized that I couldn't bask in that glory for long because that lake was getting bigger and bigger. I'd better change the direction my plane was headed in, or within a few seconds I'd be a wet, dead naval aviator, and none of this would matter very much.

So I pulled off the throttles and began pulling back the nose of the aircraft. It was over. I had made it. I had broken the sound barrier.

The Message

If you examine the story up to this point, you can almost feel that the audience needs a "wrap up" or an answer to the query, "So what does that mean?" or "How does that affect me?" That's what the speaker must do now. But remember that an inspirational message must flow out of the story. It's not an action step, as in a talk to persuade. It is simply a natural conclusion emanating from the story:

That was a great moment in my life, and I loved it, but I learned a lesson from that experience that I'd like to share with you. Let me restate it as Commander Ferris said it:

"You've got to commit yourself to getting the thing done."

"You've got to close the exit doors in your mind or you'll fail."

And when you think about it, those words apply just as much to you as they did to me. You broke the sound barrier. You pushed beyond quota. You overcame obstacles. You wouldn't be defeated. You closed the exit doors in your mind. You got the job done. That's why we are all here tonight for this special celebration.

So tonight I salute you, and your management salutes you. You have achieved Gold Circle status. You are among the special few. My congratulations!

In both of the examples, you can feel how the audience enters into the story and relates the events to their individual lives. The stories deal with essential human values (inspirational talks always do). They appeal to the nobler motives of the people in attendance. The audience is uplifted.

Delivery: Show Your Emotions

The talk to inspire is all about sharing. You are sharing an experience that profoundly affected you. The impact on the audience depends on you showing its impact on you. As a Roman poet once said:

If you would draw tears from another's eyes, yourself the signs of grief must show.

That means you must show your feelings to be effective. If there is anguish, you must show anguish. If there is anger, you must show anger. If joy, then joy. The audience needs to see how you feel so that they can experience the same emotion. There are no short cuts. Wordy explanations won't do it. Emotion will.

A Last Word

Most speakers never attempt to give an inspirational talk. There is a "sound barrier" that stands in their way. They are willing to give a talk to inform or to persuade or to convince. But the thought of being inspirational frightens them. They are afraid to extend themselves into an emotional area. Afraid they won't get it right, that they are taking a chance; afraid that they will look foolish if they show their feelings. Afraid that the talk will expose their vulnerability, their soft side, their humanity.

Indeed, it does. And therein lies its power and its magic.

Where does the talk to inspire fit in your repertoire as a speaker? It's the top of the ladder, the peak of the mountain. It demonstrates that you have broken through as a speaker. You have gone where few speakers dare to go.

And you will be remembered for it. You will breathe life into an audience. You will change the way people look at the world. You will make a difference in their lives. You will become one of the exclusive few. It will take a commitment on your part. You'll have to "close the exit doors in your mind" to achieve it.

But once you give a successful inspirational talk, you'll feel on top of the world. So will the audience. And all will know that you shared an important moment together.

Key Learnings for Delivering a Talk to Inspire



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