Olivia Vella took the internet by storm at 13 with her poetry slam “Why Am I Not Good Enough?”
The poem digs deep into the same insecurities we all carried at that age—and still, carry. Fitting in, being liked, reaching a bar set by an unseen force and asking ourselves constantly why we can’t quite make it. But the power of Vella’s poem goes beyond tugging at our inner pubescent child.
She employs many of the effective tactics audiences connect with in spoken word performances. She’s honest, vulnerable, relatable, and speaks with an intensity that you can’t look away from, even as she describes something as mundane as her daily activities.
Now, even if you don’t like slam poetry, there are some lessons public speakers can take from Vella’s performance:
1. Speak with intention and give every point a purpose.
Poetry is incredibly tight on its word count. Every statement works to build an image or a story effectively, which means every word has a purpose.
But you don’t have to write poetry to consider your work with the same keen eye.
Think about each point in your presentation. Ask yourself how they build together to create the main message you’re telling. Now, trim out any points or stories that don’t actively contribute to that structure. Without the extraneous sections, how does your story unfold? Are you delivering the same message?
If the answer is yes, then practice your new presentation until you feel comfortable with the tighter story. If the answer is no, go back to the start and rework it.
2. Practice your presentation out loud to get a feel for the sound.
Spoken word poetry is performative. Part of the overall effect is how different words and phrases sound out loud—how consonants clash or vowels blend. So poets spend a lot of time practicing out loud.
You should do the same.
I’m a huge advocate for testing the sound in a space before presenting—and I don’t mean doing a mic check and feeling that’s enough. You should always plan to get to the room or auditorium where you’re speaking early and practice speaking out loud for a few minutes. You’ll hear how your vocal tones and patterns land in the acoustics and you can adjust if you need to.
3. Be brave in your vulnerability.
Poetry is vulnerable—that’s why it connects immediately with audiences.
Think back to Oliva Vella’s poem. She doesn’t just tell you, “I’m 13 so I worry about what my peers think.” She digs into intimate examples from her own life and holds them up to the audience to make her point. She explains how much her shoes pinch her feet and cause blisters but she wears them to be cool. She details her morning makeup routine that irritates her face but that she feels compelled to continue to “be pretty.”
As a speaker, you have to be willing to bare some of your soul in the same way.
Now, if you’re giving a presentation to the board of your company, maybe don’t detail how much your feet are killing you. But find the relatable points of your talk and be willing to share a little of yourself to drive them home. Every audience is filled with humans, after all.
Appeal to the vulnerability within all of us and we will be more likely to relate to you.
4. Speak in your own voice—not someone else’s.
One of the biggest critiques of slam poetry is the tone many poets use when performing, sometimes called “slam voice.”
The problem with slam voice isn’t that it’s inherently bad or the techniques used within it aren’t effective. It’s that it’s formulaic, causing fellow poets and audience members alike to roll their eyes when they hear someone use it. Similarly, amateur public speakers may think they need to adopt a “presenter voice.” They may try to emulate another person, which makes them sound rehearsed and fake.
Your best bet is to speak in your own voice, with enough power to fill the space. You’ll be more relaxed knowing you don’t have to step into a role when presenting and the audience will appreciate your authenticity.