Shoes v. Ideas: what makes a great speech?

What makes a great speech? Is it the location? The scenery? The shoes you bought specifically for the occasion?

Or is it the words you say and the chain reaction of thoughts those words start in your listeners’ minds? Is it the ideas you spread? The change you make in the world?

The TED Talks tagline is “ideas worth spreading.” What? you’re probably thinking, you mean it’s not about the shoes?

No, I know you’re not thinking that. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I’m all about the words. Although, to be honest, I did wear a spectacular pair of lavender-and-green Fluevogs to deliver my TEDx Talk. (The link will take you to an equally spectacular pink-and-purple pair.)

If you have something important to say, it doesn’t matter if you show up barefoot in a one-room shack. As long as the audience is physically comfortable enough to listen to you…and as long as you say something worth hearing, everyone gets something valuable out of the experience.

the women who spoke with me at TEDxBayRidgeWomen
That’s me in the pink jacket

I did not deliver my TEDx Talk in the grandest of surroundings. That didn’t matter to me, because I knew this was the first time TEDx had come to this particular community. If you’re a smart organizer, you test the concept first: build it and see who comes.

Who came was a diverse range of people with stories worth sharing, ideas worth hearing, and a marvelous mix of audience members who laughed, applauded, and even took notes. One woman told me she’d come because a post I made in a Facebook group prompted her to buy a ticket and she was so glad she had.

Who left was a group of five speakers—nearly half the planned lineup—the night before the event. They took with them their high heels, one gorgeous gold-embroidered black velvet jacket, and an attitude that their ideas are only worth sharing in certain surroundings.

The organizer found a few replacement speakers at the last minute and, honestly, those talks—prepared and given in two hours flat—were among my favorites. One woman spoke about the culture of the Sherpas who help people climb Mt. Everest, as she had. One spoke about how the musical theater classes she teaches at a small public college help her students learn so much more than show tunes. A Native American poet spun a gripping piece of word-art out of thin air. Her theme, how we treat each other, acknowledged the wide gulf between the kind of people who would bail the night before the event, and those of us who stayed and shared our ideas and learned from each other.

Yes, it’s lovely to stand on a big stage in front of a velvet curtain and all. But it’s far lovelier—and leaves a more lasting impression—to say something meaningful. If you’re not doing that, no shoes in the world will save you.


I’ll be offering a program on Speechwriting for Speakers starting in January. If you’d like more information, send me a note through this form.