Patrick Winston “How to Speak” MIT Lecture Analysed

Parrick Winston’s “How to Speak” end of year lecture was a firm favourite at MIT running for over 40 years. This article reviews the last of these lectures captured at MIT on YouTube, providing a summary, a breakdown of key points, an expansion of each of them, a critique of the lecture, and some pointers for future enhancements.



Patrick Winston’s “How to Speak” MIT Lecture


Patrick Winston’s lecture emphasizes the critical importance of communication skills in achieving success in life. He likens sending students into life without these skills to soldiers entering battle without weapons. He asserts that success hinges on one’s ability to speak, write, and the quality of their ideas, in that order. Winston’s formula for communication excellence includes knowledge, practice, and a lesser emphasis on inherent talent. He uses examples from personal experiences and others, like Mary Lou Retton’s novice skiing, to illustrate his points.

Winston advocates for techniques to enhance speaking skills, such as avoiding starting talks with jokes, emphasizing empowerment promises, and using cycles to reinforce points. He also stresses building a ‘fence’ around ideas to distinguish them from others, using verbal punctuation for clarity, and engaging the audience with questions.

He underscores the importance of proper environment setup, like adequate lighting and pre-visit to speaking locations. Winston favors the use of props and blackboards in presentations for their interactive and empathetic qualities.

Regarding slide presentations, Winston warns against common pitfalls like overcrowding slides with text and suggests techniques for simplifying and effectively using slides. He touches upon the importance of teaching students how to think, using stories and analogies.

Winston concludes with strategies for ending presentations effectively, advising against common but weak approaches like simply saying “thank you” and instead suggesting alternatives that leave a lasting impression.

Bullet Point Highlights

  • Communication Skills: Emphasizes their importance for success, comparable to soldiers needing weapons.
  • Formula for Communication: Knowledge, practice, and less focus on inherent talent.
  • Techniques for Speaking: Avoiding jokes at the start, making empowerment promises, and cycling through points.
  • Distinguishing Ideas: Building a ‘fence’ around your idea for clarity.
  • Verbal Punctuation: Using it for clearer communication.
  • Environment Setup: Importance of good lighting and familiarizing oneself with the speaking location.
  • Use of Props and Blackboards: For interactive presentations and engaging the audience.
  • Slide Presentations: Tips for avoiding overcrowding and simplifying slides.
  • Teaching Thinking: Using stories and analogies to teach students how to think.
  • Ending Presentations: Recommends impactful ways to conclude talks rather than a simple ‘thank you’.

Expanded Points

Communication Skills

  • Importance for Success: Winston likens communication skills to essential tools for success, much as weapons are crucial for a soldier. In the modern world, being able to effectively express ideas, negotiate, and persuade is vital in almost every profession. Effective communication can open doors to opportunities, resolve conflicts, and foster stronger relationships both professionally and personally.
  • Comparable to Soldiers Needing Weapons: Just as a soldier is ill-equipped without a weapon, a professional without communication skills is unprepared. In the battlefield of life and career, these skills are indispensable for navigating challenges and seizing opportunities.

Formula for Communication

  • Knowledge: The foundation of effective communication is knowledge. Understanding your subject matter gives you the credibility and content necessary to communicate effectively.
  • Practice: Like any skill, communication improves with practice. Regularly engaging in public speaking, writing, and interpersonal communication hones one’s abilities.
  • Less Focus on Inherent Talent: Winston argues that while natural talent can be beneficial, it is not as crucial as knowledge and practice. This democratizes communication skills, suggesting that anyone can improve with effort and learning.

Techniques for Speaking

  • Avoiding Jokes at the Start: Starting a talk with a joke can be risky as the audience may not be mentally prepared for humor. Instead, it’s recommended to begin with substantive content.
  • Making Empowerment Promises: Begin by telling the audience what they will gain or learn by the end of the speech, which engages and motivates them to pay attention.
  • Cycling Through Points: Revisiting key points throughout a presentation helps reinforce them, ensuring the audience retains the most critical information.

Distinguishing Ideas

  • Building a ‘Fence’ for Clarity: This metaphor suggests clearly defining your idea and differentiating it from others. It involves clarifying what your concept is and what it is not, helping the audience understand and remember your unique perspective.

Verbal Punctuation

  • Using for Clearer Communication: Verbal punctuation involves using your voice and pauses effectively to signify the end of one thought and the beginning of another, much like punctuation in writing. It helps in structuring your speech in a way that is easier for the audience to follow.

Environment Setup

  • Importance of Good Lighting: Proper lighting is essential not just for visibility, but also for maintaining audience engagement and conveying a professional atmosphere.
  • Familiarizing with Speaking Location: Knowing the environment where you will speak can help in adjusting your presentation style to suit the setting, and also in reducing anxiety.

Use of Props and Blackboards

  • For Interactive Presentations: Props can make presentations more engaging and memorable. They can illustrate points more vividly than words alone.
  • Engaging the Audience: Blackboards or whiteboards allow for dynamic interaction, where you can visually develop ideas in real time, engaging the audience more actively.

Slide Presentations

  • Avoiding Overcrowding: Slides should be simple and uncluttered. Overloading slides with information can overwhelm and disengage the audience.
  • Simplifying Slides: Use key bullet points, relevant images, and minimal text to make slides more impactful and easier to follow.

Teaching Thinking

  • Using Stories and Analogies: Stories and analogies make complex ideas more relatable and understandable. They provide a familiar context, making it easier for students to grasp and remember new concepts.

Ending Presentations

  • Impactful Conclusions: Winston suggests avoiding a simple ‘thank you’ as it can imply that the audience’s attention was a courtesy rather than interest-driven. Instead, he advises using a powerful closing statement that reinforces the key message or leaves the audience with a memorable thought or call to action.


  • Insightful Content: Winston’s lecture is rich with practical advice, drawing from personal experiences and well-known figures to make his points relatable and memorable.
  • Lack of Modern Context: The lecture could benefit from more examples and references to current technologies and communication platforms to enhance relevance.
  • Overemphasis on Personal Anecdotes: While effective, the extensive use of personal stories might overshadow general principles that could be more universally applicable.

Recommendations for Improvement

  1. Integrate Modern Examples: Incorporating current technologies and platforms into examples would make the content more relatable to a contemporary audience.
  2. Balance Anecdotes with Broader Principles: Ensuring a balance between personal anecdotes and general communication principles would broaden the lecture’s appeal and applicability.
  3. Interactive Elements: Adding interactive segments, such as audience participation or real-time examples, could enhance engagement and understanding.
  4. Supplement with Case Studies: Including case studies of successful and poor communication in various fields could provide practical insights into the application of his principles.