The three secrets which can make you good at public speaking and stop you from doing a Theresa May

How David Cameron managed to keep his audience engaged where May failed, and why Steve Jobs was known as one of the best public speakers in the world

Helen Packham
Sunday 08 October 2017 15:40 BST
The Prime Minister last week delivered one of the most remarkable conference speeches of recent years
The Prime Minister last week delivered one of the most remarkable conference speeches of recent years (PA)

Whatever you think of Theresa May, public speaking isn’t easy. And despite what the critics say about her problem-ridden speech at last week’s Conservative Party conference, I think she used a very powerful speaking tool to bring back her audience and keep them engaged: humour.

After she’d undergone a long bout of coughing, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, handed May a cough sweet, to which she responded: “I hope you noticed ladies and gentlemen, the Chancellor giving something away for free!” The audience erupted with laughter.

TED, the conference organisation known for being the “gold standard” in speaking, certainly recognises this. Carmine Gallo watched 500 TED talks to discover what makes the most compelling “viral-worthy” talks, and humour was a top feature.

Humour has the power to break down emotional barriers and makes us more likeable. It also creates an atmosphere of shared trust. Some of the most watched TED talks, including Ken Robinson’s “Do schools kill creativity?” and Brené Brown’s “The power of vulnerability” both use humour to leave a lasting impression.

Ken’s talk, with over 47 million views, opens by praising the speakers who have come before him that day before adding, with self-deprecating humour, “I’m leaving!”

Brené, with over 31 million views, opens her talk with: “A couple of years ago I was speaking at an event and the planner said: ‘I have a problem with what to call you because I want to call you a researcher, but I’m worried that if I do no one will come.’” Both these lines received a response of rapturous laughter.

Theresa May's speech breaks down due to coughing fit

The truth is that we all have the skills to be a good speaker. From a challenging conversation with a spouse, a big presentation at work or standing on the stage at an event like TED (which I was lucky enough to do last year), it’s a skill you’re likely to have called upon and one which is surprisingly easy to build if you know how.

Here are the best ways to save a speech from becoming a disaster, according to my research and the research of others:


As human beings, we all possess this versatile skill, because it is hardwired in us. For 40,000 years we have created meaning through telling stories to each other, from sitting round campfires to chatting in modern day coffee shops. Back then, it helped us make sense of the burning orange ball in the sky and today, it enables us to connect with each other on a deeper level and make useful emotional connections.

Chris Anderson, curator at TED, is responsible for organising the world’s top talks. He says that the art of storytelling in speaking is “the key to unlocking empathy, stirring excitement and promoting a shared dream.” When listening to stories, we are more likely to stay engaged, take the message onboard and do something with it as a result.

Letters fall off Tory slogan behind Theresa May during conference speech

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and known by many as one of the world’s most compelling speakers, focused his entire Harvard commencement speech around sharing three stories from his life. Each story was relatable, inspiring and had a message for the audience, including how he dropped out of college, and how that ultimately led to his success.


This came high up in Gallo’s research. A message is so much more compelling if delivered with passion, because it shows that the person delivering the message really cares.

Think about the best speeches or talks you have listened to. I bet they were full of it. If you feel passionately about something, you will communicate it with enthusiasm and ignite the same feeling in others – even if the subject matter sounds like it could be dry.

In his 70-minute speech at the Conservative Party conference in 2015, David Cameron was able to keep an audience engaged, laughing and applauding in agreement by delivering his speech with passion. It couldn’t have been further than Theresa May’s.

Sharing the journey

According to the narrative theorist Joseph Campbell, there is only one story: the hero’s journey, in which the protagonist faces a series of challenges that lead to a powerful life lesson. This formula is used in most blockbuster films and many famous speeches.

Sharing our journeys is empowering for ourselves and inspiring to others. No matter where you are on your path, there will be someone further back than you. This means that the journey is worth sharing because it may help someone else make better decisions.

It’s worth noting that doing this also shows vulnerability, an important key in connecting with others (check out Brené Brown’s talk for more on that.)

At his commencement address to Harvard in May 2017, Mark Zuckerberg shared his and other’s journeys as part of his speech. He said: “Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built. I also built games, chat systems, study tools and music players. I’m not alone. JK Rowling got rejected 12 times before publishing Harry Potter. Even Beyoncé had to make hundreds of songs to get Halo. The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.”

So whether you are a leader, colleague, boss, parent or spouse, harnessing the skill of speaking can give you an essential toolkit for navigating your everyday life. These skills can disarm the harshest critics, engage the hearts and minds of others and inspire real action. So instead of mocking Theresa May, perhaps we can all learn from her, and how she bounces back (or fails to) from setbacks using these powerful skills.

Helen Packham is a leadership and business coach. You can find out more about her work here and watch her TED talk here

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in