How to Get a Standing Ovation

Oh, the Standing O. It’s coveted by speakers. It’s hoped for by audiences. It’s the ultimate reward for a speech well-given.

Why is that some speakers can move us so deeply that we stand to our feet in triumph? Here at the Science of People we study the hidden forces that drive our behavior. We love looking for patterns to hard questions. And the science and psychology of a standing ovation is certainly one of them.

I’m going to show you how to wow your audience.

After studying hundreds of hours of TED Talks, we have found that there are patterns between the most popular speakers–the ones who can get the standing ovation and the ones that are great, but can’t quite wow their audience to their feet.

To get a standing ovation you have to capture the minds of your audience by dominating the 3 areas of a speech:

  • Your Message: The best speakers are able to package a strong message into piercing take-aways for the audience.
  • Your Verbal Approach: The best speakers also have specific verbal patterns that they use to capture the imagination and hearts of their audience.
  • Your Nonverbal Cues: The best speakers use nonverbal signals to energize their audience and cue the brain to take note.

In this post I want to go through the mechanics of each area to get a standing ovation worthy speech.

Your Message:

Let’s start with your message. Speakers package their message in a very unique formula to make sure it is heard by the audience. Here’s how:

1. Oh Golly Gee!

Here is the number one mistake speakers make:

Thinking credible means unemotional.

Many speakers who are trying to come across as professional and serious think that they have to deliver direct, emotionless speeches. This is the problem with most of the least popular TED Talks. They are interesting, well-presented speeches that are stiff and boring! Having emotions, caring about your work and fusing energy into your talk does NOT make you more professional. It makes your professional message more palatable.

Emotions are the condiments of speeches.

Emotions add spice, flavor and personality to your talk, your stories and your ideas. Here are the most common emotions speakers can add to their talks:

  • Passion
  • Vulnerability
  • Awe
  • Regret
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Power

2. The Solvable Problem

I hate to say it, but there is a formula to standing ovation worthy speeches. This formula taps into 2 fundamental human needs–that we don’t want to feel alone with our suffering and that someone can offer us a solution. Nancy Duarte analyzed hundreds of the top speeches from history. She looked at everything from Steve Job’s iPhone announcement to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She found that all of them follow a simple structure:

All good speeches start with a problem we all recognize–this instantly taps into a common pain that we can relate to and want solved. It is the problem of ‘what is’ or what is happening right now that is wrong. This peaks attention. Then the speaker promises a solution for this problem–which alleviates worry and provides relief to the audience. This is the ‘what could be.’ The best speeches go between problems and solutions, taking the audience on an emotional journey. (See her full AMAZING TED talk if you want the details:)

Example: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”:

  • Problem: “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
  • Solution: “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Anyone can do this with large or small lectures. For example, I do this with body language in every presentation I give.

  • Problem: “How many times have you walked into a party or a networking event and instantly felt awkward and uncomfortable?”
  • Solution: “The best way to combat your awkwardness is with a success routine.”
  • Problem: “The hardest part about sales is building trust. You love your product, you love your brand, but you have no idea how to share this love with a potential client without coming across as spammy or aggressive.”
  • Solution: “There is an incredibly easy way to fix this. They are called trust indicators.”

3. A Greater Future

As you take your audience on a journey of problems and solutions, you culminate your message with a promise of a greater future. The best speakers paint the picture of the best possible future that their message can provide. In other words, if every audience member uses your tips and solutions what will their life look like? What will their day look like? What will change for them? This can be both small and large–perhaps it’s the future of how they use their phone (if you have a new app) or the future of better health (if you have a new diet). You want to show them the outcome that proves why your solutions are worth the effort.

  • President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress in 1941 with a powerful speech that promised: “Freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. To that new order we oppose the greater conception–the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.”
  • Steve Jobs promised audience members: “So, today, we’ve added to the Mac and the iPod. We’ve added Apple TV and now iPhone. And you know, the Mac is really the only one that you think of as a computer. Right? And so we’ve thought about this and we thought, you know, maybe our name should reflect this a little bit more than it does. So we’re announcing today we’re dropping the computer from our name, and from this day forward, we’re going to be known as Apple Inc., to reflect the product mix that we have today. The Mac in 1984 is an experience that those of us that were there will never forget. And I don’t think the world will forget it either. The iPod in 2001 changed everything about music, and we’re going to do it again with the iPhone in 2007.”

Your Verbal Approach:

What are some of the verbal tactics of the best speakers? Here I break down the most powerful word strategies you can use from stage:

4. Once Upon a Time

Have you heard the writing advice “Show, Don’t Tell”? The same applies for speakers. Speakers can tell audiences the problems and solutions, but showing the problems in real life and the solutions in action requires stories. Stories are incredibly powerful because our brains eat them up! Research has found that as you tell a story, the listener’s brain activates as if they themselves were in the story! Not only does this capture people’s attention, but it also makes your points more memorable. Let me tell you a story about the importance of stories.

I love science and used to put as many studies and facts into my presentation as possible. My slide deck was filled with nifty charts and stunning graphs. At one speaking event, I showed up and their projector wasn’t working–I couldn’t show my slides. I basically had to wing it. I was so nervous and worried I almost canceled the event. I thought it was ridiculous to cancel an event just because my slides weren’t working so I pulled it together and warned the organizers that it would probably be one of my worst presentations. Since I had no visuals to go off of I had to explain the experiments as stories (without numbers) and rely on examples from real people I taught instead of formal case studies. At the end of the speech the room burst to their feet–it was a small room of about 25 people, but still I was floored! I got some of the best feedback from that speech than I had ever gotten. Why? I used stories to show my points instead of dry facts and figures.

  • Think of the 3 main problems in your speech. Now think of stories to demonstrate them.
  • Think of the 3 main solutions in your speech. Now think of examples of people who used them.

5. A Laughing Mindset

I am not going to tell you to put a bunch of jokes in your speech–although it would be great if you did, I know that it is almost impossible to try to come up with jokes that don’t come naturally. So instead I am going to ask you to consider a laughing mindset. We noticed that the best speakers–the ones that got standing ovations had people smiling and mentally smiling throughout a Talk even when it was serious. What I mean by mentally smiling is that the speaker set-up inside jokes and a congeniality with the audience that felt like sitting with an old friend.

Watch Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk. He does an amazing job of keeping the laughing mindset. He does tell jokes, but he also gives you the feeling that you are an old friend and you are about to have a good time:

Here’s how you can create a laughing mindset:

  • Create an inside joke. Stand up comedians do this really well. I went to hear one stand up comedian and at the very beginning he started off with, “Oh brother, you know what happened to me today?” Then he told an amusing–but not laugh-out-loud story. Then he did it again. “Oh brother, you know what happened to me yesterday?” and continued with another story. By the end of the routine, he could just say, “Oh brother.” And the audience would laugh. He created his own inside joke with the audience–both funny and powerful.
  • Act it out. Sometimes a well-placed eyebrow raise or an exasperated sigh can loosen up the audience to the laughing mindset. Think of some of your stories that you came up with in point #3. Can you act out any aspects of your stories? Did your kid give you a hard time about something? Can you mimic them? Did you stumble into a bar late one night? Wink, wink, nudge nudge. Try to punctuate your words with expressions of your points. This pulls the audience towards you.
  • Smile to inspire. When you smile you cue the audience to relax and smile. As you will see below, smiling also helps your perceptions of intelligence.

6. Rhetoric Metaphors

Researcher John Antonakis analyzed speech patterns and found that the most charismatic speakers use more metaphors. Why? These get the brain engaged. Rhetorical questions also keep your audience awake and helps them understand your main message.

  • Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is a question you ask of the audience without requiring a response. Something like, “Do you know how this tip can work for you?” or “How many of you have felt like the man in the story?” You don’t need people to actually raise their hands (although they might). The reason these are so powerful is because any kind of question engages people mentally; we are programmed to respond to questions even if it is just internal.
  • Metaphors: Metaphors are like mini-stories. You tie something that someone understands to a new idea or concept. I LOVE metaphors–I think they are the most powerful way to get ideas across. For example, I teach people how to read microexpressions and liken the ability to decode the face to watching life in High Definition–all of a sudden you see things that you didn’t notice before. In other words, I turn the skill of decoding facial expressions into a metaphor with the connection to HD TV. WHENEVER I use this metaphor with live audiences people will either audibly say, “oh” or “ah” or nod their head yes, as if it clicked for them. That’s the power of a good metaphor.

Your Nonverbal Cues:

Your body language is an incredibly important ingredient for your speech’s success. We are giving off nonverbal signals all the time–you have to make sure they ADD to your message and not take away from it. I have talked about nonverbal cues before, so in this post I want to summarize the most important body language cues for speakers.

7. Nonverbal Credibility

We took some time in our lab to analyze the body language of internet experts–those online celebrities who have massive cult-like followings. They have the equivalent of standing ovations on their 1 million plus viewed videos. I identified 7 patterns from 7 leading experts that you can use:

8. Nonverbal Charisma

Remember our TED Talk experiment? One of the patterns that became apparent when comparing the most popular TED Talks with the least popular TED Talks was how speakers used their hands. The more hand gestures, the more successful the Talk. There was a direct correlation between the number of views on a TED Talk and the number of hand gestures.

  • The bottom TED Talks had an average of 124,000 views and used an average of 272 hand gestures during the 18 minute talk.
  • The top TED Talks had an average of 7,360,000 views and used an average of 465 hand gestures–that’s almost double!
  • By the way, Temple Grandin, Simon Sinek and Jane McGonigal topped the hand gesture charts with over 600 hand gestures in just 18 minutes.

When you speak with your hands it’s like you are engaging your audience’s brain on 2 different tracks. You are explaining your ideas with your words AND your hands. This is both memorable and engaging.

9. Nonverbal Engagement

Nonverbal communication isn’t just about body language, its also about vocal cues. We had our evaluators rate the TED speakers on vocal variety, or the amount of fluctuation in their voice tone, volume and pitch. Again, the relationship was clear. The more vocal variety a speaker had, the more views they had. When you are practicing giving your speech or your next presentation, try saying your words at least 5 different ways. Practice putting emphasis on different words, slowing and speeding up your pace and varying your volume on important points.

  • It’s OK to memorize your speech, but it’s better to internalize it. When your speech feels so natural that it is ingrained in your mind, you will deliver it like it is your own personal story.
  • Scripts kill. Don’t ever, ever script your speech. There is no way you can read with the same natural vocal charisma as a speech that is conveyed without a script. You can bullet point, but don’t script and don’t read!

10. Smile Tall and Smile Proud

This finding is the only pattern that goes against the current research. Studies on smiling have found that leaders typically smile less. Nonverbal scientists believe that smiling is actually a low power behavior. However, in our research we found that the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher their perceived intelligence ratings were. Those who smiled at least 14 seconds were rated as higher in intelligence than those who smiled for less. Doesn’t this seem counter-intuitive? When we think of an intelligent person, we usually think of someone very serious. But even when TED Talkers were speaking about a serious topic, like Sheryl Sandberg’s talk on women leaders, smiling still helped her intelligence ratings.

  • No matter how serious your topic, find something to smile about.
  • Always smile upon being introduced and during your applause (hopefully, your ovation). Start on a high and end on a high.

Watch this video to understand how we found our TED patterns:


Utilize these tips, internalize these tips and practice these tips until they become your own. And most importantly, always speak from the heart and always tell the truth. It should go without saying, but these patterns only work when you are being authentic and honest. I have no doubt that you can use your ideas to change the world, you just have to deliver them in a way where people hear them!


Do you have a favorite talk? Do you know of a speaker that is standing ovation worthy? Share the video below or on our forums to inspire us all. Also watch my favorite speeches and keynotes!

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