You need to know

Nobody cares what you think

Expert tips for improving your public speaking.

Ingrid Gonçalves, AB’08

Larry McEnerney, AB’80, director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program and longtime instructor of the beloved class Little Red School House, doesn’t always say what you want to hear about public speaking.

But with these deceptively simple speechwriting tips from Speak—McEnerney’s pilot undergraduate workshop—you can convince your audience to listen.


DO focus on function.

It’s not about what you want to say. It’s about what you want your audience to think. Why are you giving this speech? Your objectives should guide the entire writing process, from word choice to argument structure.

Remember: your audience might not be sitting in front of you. When Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren spoke before the US Senate in 2014, denouncing a bill provision that “would let derivatives traders on Wall Street gamble with taxpayer money,” she claimed to address her “Republican colleagues.” But Warren’s real audience was the American people—voters who could pressure their representatives not to bow down to big banks.


DON’T let content dictate structure.

“Certain structures fit with how audiences think when they listen,” McEnerney says. “People can be persuaded to believe the content of what you say simply because of the way you say it.”

President John F. Kennedy demonstrated the power of parallel structures in his 1961 inaugural address:

In parallelism, the trunk is followed by branches with similar words aligned in similar positions, creating a sense of balance and momentum.

Skillful architecture can make your message feel logical, even inevitable. Build the structure first. Then fill in the content.


DO frighten your audience.

You have 90 seconds at most to prove you’re worth listening to. Creating a sense of wrongness makes the audience crave a solution—a solution you’ve set yourself up to deliver, thereby establishing your value as a speaker.

Better yet, create a two-layer problem: “Faced with these threats [of terrorism], the temptation may exist to forge blindly ahead,” French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin told the United Nations in 2002, “That would be a serious mistake. Force cannot be the sole response to these elusive adversaries that are constantly transforming.”

As McEnerney explains, De Villepin’s tactic is extra effective because it says, “The way you think about terrorism—the problem you know you have—is wrong. That’s an additional problem you didn’t know you had.”


DON’T be scared to break the rules.

Forget what you learned in eighth grade English. Back in school, your writing served to demonstrate your grammar skills to a teacher who got paid to read your work. Your objectives are probably different now that you’re a grown-up.

Some extra words here and there are OK. Negation isn’t the enemy; it’s your friend. The dreaded passive voice can be used to emphasize the object of an action. Feel free to recycle your sentence openings. Feel free to do whatever you want as long as your writing supports the function of your speech.


(Illustration by Tom Tian, AB’10)