Blake Dowling: What it takes to craft a great ‘life lesson’ speech

Stage fright in public speaking or bad karaoke singing live in f
Sometimes you adapt. Sometimes you pivot. You never give up.

The other day, our team was meeting and discussing marketing; I mentioned I would give a speech to a group in Tallahassee, and the topic would be “life lessons.”

That grabbed everyone’s attention, as my regular discussions are tech trends, branding, and things like that.

I explained they were not looking for a tech talk; they asked me to bring something new to the table.

The Tallahassee 100 networking group, 2021.

I thought back to last year when I had given a “life lessons” speech to a group called the Tallahassee 100 — to discuss my book project.

I brought that back to life because my wife attended the T100 dinner; she said it was the best talk she had ever seen me give. She has sat through many snoozers of mine over the years, so I take her feedback to heart.

I dusted off the old speech and had it ready to go. Walking into the room, I realized there were some retired Tally folks, so I called an audible and opened with a joke my granddad always told me.

It went something like this:

Around 1905, a guy walked into my family’s mule business in Ozark, Alabama, asking my great-grandfather if he had any deals on mules.

Mr. Holman tells him, “I do indeed,” but I have to warn you, he does not look so good.

The man looks at the mule, says he seems fine, and buys him.

However, the man brings him back the next day and tells my grandfather, “This mule is blind.”

Grandfather replies, “I told you he did not look so good.”

Bada bing. True story.

The family mule business, 1905, Ozark, Alabama.

I got a lot of laughs out of the room, and some people I knew in the audience said that was something to be proud of — as it did not happen often.

I like to think I captured the spirit of that first talk and gave it some new life last week. Knowing your audience, preparation (I ran through it twice), audibles, and other factors contribute to a good chat’s success or failure.

Putting our own spin on it is undoubtedly what makes it great, and while I have no grandiose thoughts that this speech will take off worldwide, it is a chat I will continue to share as a nonprofessional speaker as we can all relate to “life lessons.” Hearing “lessons” we all know from someone else’s perspective is a good recipe for learning, empathy, and growing.

Public speaking in Tallahassee, 2022.

With professional speakers in our state, no one is more on top of their game than Don Yaeger. Don is an award-winning keynote speaker, an eleven-time New York Times bestselling author, and former Sports Illustrated associate editor.

I caught up with Don as he was about to give a talk in South Dakota. Asked how he got into speaking professionally, he shared a few thoughts during our phone call:

Most writers do not gravitate to speaking as you become a writer for a reason. However, there was a Speakers Bureau at Sports Illustrated where writers were given a chance to speak, and unlike my peers, I loved it. It is a different storytelling method; you learn from the audience, and your message may land differently depending on the group.

Sometimes you adapt. Sometimes you pivot. You never give up.

Just as the one and only Jimmy Valvano said in his powerful 1993 ESPYS speech about his battle with cancer: “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”

Don and I both shared that every year watching Jimmy give his legendary speech is a bringer of tears every time. What a legend he was.

Don also added about public speaking: “The key to being a great speaker is to remember you are not telling your story — you’re telling a story that the audience can use to be better in some aspect of their world. It is about them, not you.”

Thank you, Don, for joining us today — he is off on more speaking engagements in Florida; if you need a speaker, you can contact him here.

Speaking is powerful; an emotional and on-point speech like the one from Jimmy V can survive and thrive for decades and provide inspiration for any circumstance.

Just like Jimmy V., Martin Luther King Jr. (“I have a dream … “), John F. Kennedy (“ask not what you can do for your country … “), Ronald Reagan (“tear down that wall … “), or Winston Churchill’s famous speech (“we shall fight on the land … “), all of these are embedded in our society.

In the early part of the pandemic — when 80% of our staff went remote — I borrowed Winston’s speech and made an Aegis version of it.

Why? It was a profoundly serious speech to borrow, but I needed something to bring us together and make us laugh, as even Florida shut down during the summer of 2020.

We needed unity, and it was a time that I thought could use Winston-themed motivation. That speech is still on our wall in the office, and if you have not seen the version highlighted in the film “Darkest Hour,” now is the time to watch it.

After talking with Don, I also checked in via email with John Watkis, author of “Speaking Notes: The Eight Essential Elements to Make Your Speech Music to Their Ears.”

Watkis is a member of the Central Florida chapter of the National Speakers Association and had this to share on public speaking and what attributes a good speaker must have:

“The most important attribute a speaker must have is the ability to reflect an understanding of the audience he or she is speaking to.

“Beyond mastery of a subject or topic, a speaker must understand how the audience feels about the topic, what they know about the topic, and what misconceptions and myths they believe about the topic.

“Without understanding the nuances that exist, a speaker risks delivering a generic message instead of a targeted message that the audience understands and responds to.”

The Zoom world we have been in the past few years took something away from us as good speakers, and a good speech is hard to beat.

As I prepare for my next regional “chat,” I will challenge myself to keep sharpening the blade on its presentation and ensure I bring something valuable to the table, whether it’s life lessons or cybersecurity. I also look forward to hearing that next “speech” from someone who inspires me to do something, gives me an idea, or creates awareness about something.

Or, in the case of Jimmy V, that makes me laugh, think, or cry because if you can do that, mission accomplished for your day and your speech.

Go Packers and go Rutgers basketball. Rest in peace, Jim Valvano.


Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies, occasional giver of speeches, host of the Biz & Tech podcast, and author of “Professionally Distanced.”

You can reach him at [email protected].

Blake Dowling

Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies. His technology columns are published by several organizations. Contact him at [email protected] or at


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