by Wiley Brooks

3-legged stool

Most people, even those who give lots of speeches, will tell you that a good speech is a blend of strong content and an engaging delivery. But if you rely on just content and delivery, odds are that your audience will find what you said to be forgettable.

No one wants that. You want to inspire them.

A good speech is like a 3-legged stool. It’s equal parts content, delivery and structure. History shows that structure is the cornerstone of great speeches. The words you choose to use and the way you build sentences with them will make a speech memorable, even if you’re having an off-day and your delivery is just so-so.

So what makes for good structure? Simple language. The talks that people remember rely on short words used in easy-to-grasp sentences. Even if the subject is complex, the structure is not.

Back in the 1950s, a Columbia professor named Rudolf Flesch found that the clarity of a piece could be measured using a series of algorithms. The higher the score, the easier it was to know what was said. Now, more than 6 decades later, the Flesch score is still the gold standard for clarity. It is the engine used in my Clarity Tool on this website.

Most of what business people write scores in the 40s. Stories in the popular press tend to fall in the low 50s. Good speeches, though, always are at 60 and above on the Flesch scale. Anything less than that fails to roll off the tongue in a way that’s easy to follow.

When JFK became president, he gave his famous “Ask not. . .” speech. It scored a 60. A few years later, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to tell a crowd of more than 200,000 that “I have a dream.” That speech scored a 66. Even Honest Abe himself, speaking at a time when language was much more formal, recorded a 64 for the Gettysburg Address.

The speech I like to call most attention to, though, was by a business icon. Steve Jobs spoke to the graduates at Stanford in 2005. This very smart man speaking to some of the best young minds in the country gave a talk that measured 75 on the Flesch scale. Many cite it as one of the greatest commencement speeches of all time.

The next time you have a speech to write, follow the path of great speakers and use mostly one-syllable words in sentences that rarely go past 15 words. If you do, people might actually quote you long after the speech itself. That’s what happens when you inspire them.