How to inspire: 5 strategies for speakers and leaders

Inspirational Sky

What makes you say after a speech or a presentation: “Wow, that was inspiring!”?

Inspiration. We know it when we see it, but it’s hard to define. It’s different for all of us, and yet, I do believe that there exists a pattern for inspiration.

To start with: of course the basics need to be right. Almost nobody finds a talk with a nervous speaker or without structure inspirational. Sentences like…

“I know it’s hard to read, but what we want to show here on slide 34 is the detailed overview…”

…are not truly inspiration boosters. If you feel you need to improve on these basics check out the articles here and here.

For those of you who mastered the basics of giving a talk and want to be truly inspirational, I created the concept of the 5 H of Inspiration: Head, Heart, Heavy Duty, Humor and Hand. I share with you concrete strategies on how to put this concept to practice:


This is all about the ‘WoW’ factor; of appealing to the mind so that your audience is fully engaged and feels like they are learning something new.

Strategy: Have a new look on known content

If you do your audience analysis well, you often find they share ‘common knowledge’. Just repeating or slightly expanding on this common knowledge is not inspiring (“We will see digital disruption” “Oh, really?”).

Take instead a different approach and give a different perspective: an unknown data point, a wow fact or something unexpected on a known content. Warren Buffett is a master at this, when he for instance shared:

“I will tell you now that we have embraced the 21st century by entering such cutting-edge industries as brick, carpet, insulation and paint. Try to control your excitement.”

Boom. Immediately you are intrigued, need to understand it further, think about your assumptions. That is appealing to the head and a first step for inspiration.


Putting your heart in your talk is all about openness and connecting to the human side. This is the true core of inspiration. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said “To handle yourself – use your head – to handle others – use your heart.”

Strategy: Show authenticity & vulnerability

There is an interesting reaction in almost all audiences I have seen: Although nobody likes a bad speaker, people also often don’t like the overly polished speaker, the speaker who is smooth and perfect. Because the latter often leaves an artificial feeling.

In speech preparation, this is a tough one, as one, of course, wants the speech to be great. A great speech simply requires a lot of preparation. My key tip is to still show vulnerability and authenticity: Build several moments into your talk where you naturally have to open up. One of the best ways to achieve this is via personal stories.

Think about how your content connects to your personal life and then use for instance the Pixar story structure: Once upon a time there was___; Every day, ____; One day, ____; Because of that, ____; Because of that, ____; Until finally, ____.

Author Carmine Gallo estimates that powerful presentations that have been rated inspirational have 60-70% of personal stories as content. That might be on the high side, however, in my leadership talks I always try to build in at least 2-3 personal experiences from having been a leader of others.

Heavy Duty

This is all about the deep feeling of something larger than us. Inspirational presenters regularly tap into this feeling.

Strategy: Have a positive vision of the future

Happiness researcher Nick Marks did an interesting thought experiment during his TED talk. He let us recall Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I have a dream”. And then he asks: What would have happened if Martin Luther King would have said instead: “I have a nightmare”? MLK probably would have had all the reasons to make this statement but we can easily see that the impact of his speech would have been lower if he had.

Leaders have a positive outlook of the future, and inspirational speakers show a way out. That doesn’t mean everything is sugar-coated and whitewashed. But there needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel for us to feel inspired. As the saying goes: “Seeing the positive in a negative situation isn’t naive, it’s leadership”.


Humor and inspiration are sometimes viewed as not compatible. However, when we laugh at something, we can truly connect with the topic and the speaker. And this is needed to be inspired.

Especially if you want to inspire for change, this is vital. As Oscar Wilde said, maybe a bit drastically: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Strategy: Find “Truth & Pain Moments”

This is not about jokes, and moments a la “two camels in the desert”. The key tip for appropriate business humor: point out the “truth & pain” in every situation that you are talking about in an exaggerated fashion.

One of the key things I try to do in my keynotes is to find current pain points or true situations in organizational life. Examples are long meetings, complexity, number of reports, lack of feedback, phone conferences: typical behaviors that everybody can recognise and finds a bit painful. I then try to show these in a self-deprecating fashion. See how David Grady puts this into action by talking about conference calls, another truth & pain area in companies.  And here an article on concrete strategies for business humor.

As a metric, I recommend to look at laughs per minute and push inspirational presenters to weave in –where appropriate– at least every 2-3 minutes some “truth & pain moments” that have humor potential.


This is an important one. In my view, to be truly inspired we need to know that it is possible to implement the change or the suggestions or whatever the speech topic is. This is about the feeling that while the topic might also be grand (see Heavy Duty) there is something that can be done and implemented.

Strategy: Talk about your “opus magnum” that shows that it is really possible

Ten years ago one person gave me a 4 out of 5 rating for my speech. It was a friendly acquaintance so I asked him what I could have done to get a “5”. He said: “Nothing”.

Looking at my embezzled face he elaborated: “Nothing on stage, that was all good. But to be inspired I need to have a sense of the overall life of the speaker, of the implementation, of the achievements and I could not see that from your speech. So I wasn’t sure if you’re only talking theory.”

That doesn’t mean that you need to have won 15 Academy awards or be World Champion. It means that your past speaks volumes that what you are talking about is feasible because you implemented it personally. You walk the talk.

That’s also one key criteria for selected TED(x) speakers: they should talk about what they know and what they have done. So weave in your concrete experiences and highlight the steps that you have taken.

Balancing the various elements

I recommend to use this 5 H concept as a checklist for your talks. There is not the one thing that makes all of your audience inspired. However, if you want to have an inspirational impact, make sure that you “tick” at least 4 of the above 5 Hs. I will continue posting further strategies, and maybe you have additional elements? I look forward to hearing from you.

Do you want to know more or explore these strategies? Contact me to discuss possibilities.

Here a list of book recommendations for advanced speaking and presentations.

Lars Sudmann is an expert on high-performance leadership in global corporations. You can contact Lars to work with you as change consultant, executive coach, or keynote speaker & workshop facilitator for your next event. This article also appeared on his blog:, where you can also watch his TEDx talks. You can also follow Lars here and on Twitter

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