What makes a good speaker great?

Ben Hunt-Davis MBE reveals the three areas you need to work on to give your talks listener-appeal.

Reading time: 4 minutes

Over the years I’m sure you’ve sat through many conferences, meetings, forums, kick-offs, board meeting, seminars and events.

During that time you will have undoubtedly seen some outstanding speakers and some very poor presentations.

Personally, I particularly remember one event when an elderly man, introduced as an economist, shuffled on to the stage. He had his hands in the pockets of his suit jacket and he looked slightly dishevelled and out of place.

His topic was not one that I was particularly interested in and I wrote him off before he opened his mouth.

In the next 45 minutes he proceeded to explain how the global economy worked in terms that even I could understand by talking about his wife’s shopping habits, while having us in hysterics. He was outstanding.

At the other end of the scale, during an event in Malta for a global medical equipment company, I watched the firm’s marketing director limp through some beautifully produced slides which used the story of a cycling team to explain the businesses marketing strategy.

The links made sense but it was excruciating to watch the poor man die on his feet, telling a story that he didn’t seem to care about.

On another occasion the mixture of abject fear and hopelessness was palpable as the managing director of a construction company described standing for five minutes outside a front door, summoning up the courage to knock and tell the mother of three that her husband had been killed at work in a fall.

The vividness of her story made it the most memorable, emotional and impactful safety briefing that I’ve ever heard.

The aim should be to have people thinking ‘me too’ rather than ‘so what’

It is not the slides, it is not the topic, it’s not the physical movement of the speaker that makes them great, good or indifferent. There are three simple areas that have to be worked on in order to make a good speaker great.


A great presenter makes the topic relevant to the people that they are talking to. There was no burning need for me to increase my knowledge of global economics but the presenter made the topic relevant.

He made me understand why I should want to know more and his vehicle for explaining economics was based on someone who fitted many stereotype that we all understood.

When I started doing keynotes about my sporting experiences it took me some time to learn what people are actually interested in, what is relevant to them, what they can connect to in their everyday lives.

Even if someone if funny, if they are not relevant people will switch off. The aim should be to have people thinking ‘me too’ rather than ‘so what’.

Emotional engagement

To quote Carl W Buehner: “They may forget what you said – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

The marketing director was not a cyclist, he wasn’t a cycling fan, he didn’t create an emotional engagement to his topic because there was no emotional connection from him to his presentation other than discomfort.

You can create emotional connections through being still and quietly spoken or being loud and energetic. Physical energy is not necessarily the answer. The trick is to really care, and show others that you care.

I recently had the privilege of listening to a managing director talking for about 10 minutes to her factory managers about why what they are doing is important and the faith that her boss, the investor, has put in them all.



Her passion was very clear for everyone in the room to see, hear and feel. It wasn’t the slickest speech, she had no visuals, but she meant what she said and the impact was huge.

If you want people to do something differently following a presentation or a conference you need to make them feel differently so they act differently.

It you want them to feel differently, you have to take them on an emotional journey. To do that, you need to be on an emotional journey.


Most of us know that stories are memorable and therefore we should use them when presenting. The trick is finding the right story and tell it with the colour and detail to make it stick.

The right story might be about having to break the news of a death following an avoidable accident or it might be an amusing and in the grand scheme of things – an inconsequential anecdote about a customer experience that you had that demonstrates a point that you’re trying to make.

The topic of the story is not important but the colour and detail bring it to life. Cutting short the detail and the colour can kill the impact.

In so many situations the right story will convey the message far more powerfully than the theory or the facts.

A great speaker will be able to tell a story with colour and detail in a passion way where the content is clear and relevant to those listening.


About the author

Ben Hunt-Davis, MBE, Olympic Gold medallist and experienced keynote speaker is co-founder of Will It Make The Boat Go Faster and co-author of the eponymous book. 



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