Ttalk fastechnical experts complain that the people in charge don’t listen to them.

The people in charge complain that technical experts go into too much detail and take too long to get to the point, if they even have one.

Because the people in charge have the final say — that’s what being in charge means — it’s up to the technical experts to change.

If you’re a technical expert and you want your ideas to get a hearing or, better yet, to be understood, accepted, and implemented, you have to change the way you make presentations.

The best way to win support for your idea is to think long and slow (which you’re good at) and to speak fast (which isn’t your typical style).

When I say “speak fast,” I don’t mean that you have to pick up the pace of your delivery, although that may be helpful.

You don’t have to talk like a New York taxi driver who has had one too many cups of coffee.

To speak fast means to get to your point as quickly as possible and to take as little time as necessary to make your case.

The higher leaders rise in an organization, the less time they have. The more impatient they become. The less willing they are to wade through long and overly detailed presentations.

So do your research, analysis, thinking, planning, and preparation — your long and slow thinking — before your presentation.

Then develop one idea that you can present quickly.

Depending on the leaders involved, on their needs, and on their schedule, I recommend preparing and practicing three fast versions of the same presentation:

  1. The Micro-Pitch — 30 Seconds or Less
    The micro-pitch is your presentation in a nutshell: the summary of your main idea. It may sound something like, “I propose adopting a new technology, which is faster and more accurate than what we currently have and will save us money.”
  2. The Mini-Pitch — 3 to 5 Minutes
    If you’re given the time, flesh out the information or ideas you presented in the micro-pitch. So you may explain (briefly) what the new technology is, and what makes it faster, more accurate, and cheaper.
  3. The Pitch-in-Full — Up to 15 minutes
    When speaking to upper management, you rarely have more than 15 minutes. (They’re busy, remember, and their time is limited.) If they give you 15 minutes on the agenda, plan on speaking for 8 to ten minutes. Leave the rest of time free for discussion.

The idea behind speaking fast is to address the most important matters first. And present the least amount of information — not the most — required to gain acceptance for your idea.

Give leaders what they want — information and ideas they can use to help the organization achieve its business objectives. Give it to them fast.

Think long and slow. Speak fast.

 

 

The Idea or the StructureWhen crafting a speech, do you start with an idea or with a structure, with content or with form?

Some Say “Start with an Idea”

There are those who argue, powerfully in my opinion, in favor of beginning the speech writing process with an idea.

They have a point: Any speech worth its salt is built around an idea.

One would hope that the idea being presented is coherent, insightful, supported by reason and evidence, emotionally engaging, and relevant to the audience. Which is, sadly, not always the case, especially in political discourse these days.

As a speech writer, after a preliminary conversation, I ask my clients, “What do you want to talk about?” And then I follow up with the more substantive question, “What do you want to say about it?”

The first question–what do you want to talk about?–simply defines the topic. It could be something like climate change, a recent threat to the company’s future, a new policy or procedure.

The follow-up question–what do you want to say about it?–lays out an idea about that topic: the content of the speech. For example, this is what climate change is, this is what it means for us, and this is what we should do about it.

A speech is nothing without an idea. It’s like a beautifully wrapped package that’s completely empty.

So it seems right to start with an idea.

Others Say “Start with a Structure”

On the other hand, there are those who argue–and I’m beginning to adopt their position–in favor of starting with a speech’s structure.

Speeches are a way of structuring an idea, of presenting it clearly and persuasively.

Most speeches–98.2% of them–follow a form, a structure: they begin with an introduction, proceed through the body, and end with a conclusion. (I made up that statistic, by the way, so please don’t ask me to cite my source.)

Within that basic structure, there are other ways of structuring a speech.

You can use the “They Say/I Say” structure, a variation of which I’m using in this piece. Or the “Problem/Cause/Solution” structure. Or the “Past/Present/Future” structure. Or the “Where We Want to Go/Why We Want to Get There/How We Can Get There” structure.

And certain kinds of speeches necessitate certain structures. A keynote address takes a different form, from example, than a panel discussion.

Knowing how to structure a speech shapes the idea being presented.

Structures may not generate a specific idea for a speech, but they do make possible the meaning of any idea.

A speech without a structure is, like a drunkard’s monologue, incomprehensible and tiring, or, like Macbeth’s view of life, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So it makes sense to begin with a structure.

I Say “It Depends”

I favor starting with a structure. I agree with those who believe that you can’t even begin formulating an idea without structuring it.

But here’s where the it depends comes in.

Experienced speakers and speechwriters can begin by focusing on the idea they want to develop, because they intuitively think in terms of how they are going to structure it. They create a structure as they think about the speech’s idea.

But beginning speakers should start crafting a speech by choosing a structure that will work for them, a structure that forces them to formulate and express their ideas in a meaningful and moving way.

What do you think?

The first order of business when crafting a speech is to be clear. Clear about what you want to accomplish. Clear about explaining, developing, and supporting your main idea. Clear about the terms and concepts you use.

All good speeches are clear. That should go without saying.

But not all clear speeches are good.

A safe and nutritious meal can be tasteless. (Think of the food served in a college dining hall or cafeteria, or at most conferences.) So, too, a clear, easily comprehensible speech can be flat, boring, and insipid.

To praise a speaker for giving a clear speech is like praising a chef for preparing a meal that doesn’t make anyone sick. Faint praise, indeed.

Too often–and I’m guilty of this–speechwriters and speech coaches advise keeping speeches “short and simple.”

Keep your sentences short. Don’t use big words. Eliminate all inessential words, phrases, or thoughts. Chop out all digressions, asides, parenthetical remarks. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Follow that recipe too slavishly and you’ll sound like the runner-up of the Bad Hemingway Contest, speaking only in nouns and verbs, eschewing adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors, piling on one short and direct sentence after another.

A speech isn’t an impersonal reporting of the facts, objective and unadorned.

A good speech is a window into your thinking, your way of seeing the world, your personality. It should be as rich, deep, and uniquely interesting as you are.

 

Beyond the basics of speechwritingIt’s fairly easy, with experience and a little study, to craft a “good enough” speech.

What I call a good enough speech has a goal and achieves it by…

  • Developing a single point: a clearly developed, logical, and supported-by-the-evidence idea.
  • Focusing on the audience’s needs and experience, giving them insight or information they can use to their benefit.
  • Providing the right balance–determined by the circumstances and the audience–of right-brain and left-brain appeal.

To turn a good enough speech into a great speech, you need to add three elements: myth, metaphor, and musicality.

 

1. Myth

A myth isn’t a fable about gods and goddesses or ancient heroes, a legend that is demonstrably false.

A myth is a story that reveals a truth worth pondering, that resonates deeply in people’s psyches, and that sticks in their memories because it feels like something they already know.

Good stories–even contemporary, personal stories–have a mythic dimension.

A story you tell about something that happened to you–an event, an encounter with someone who changed your life, an obstacle you met and overcame–has the power to become everyone’s story.

And that’s the reason to tell a story in a speech. Not to brag about your accomplishments, wisdom, or virtue, but to illuminate your audience’s lives.

2. Metaphor

I use the term metaphor broadly to include all figures of speech–similes, metaphors, and analogies–that compare one thing or situation to another.

A metaphor, in the sense I’m talking about, lets people visualize, not just conceptualize what you’re talking about.

A metaphor doesn’t just clarify an idea by comparing what is known to what is unknown. A metaphor links the feelings evoked by one thing or situation to another.

Lincoln’s entire Gettysburg Address is one, extended metaphor of a nation’s birth, decline, and rebirth. And in ten sentences it managed to evoke feelings of hope and the willingness to persevere.

3. Musicality

Great speeches are pleasing to the ear.

They have a rhythm and a pace; they start slow, they build up speech, they pause, they pick up speed again.

They have an approximation of rhyme in their use of assonance and consonance.

They use parallel structures and repetition.

A great speech isn’t just an exposition of truth. It is also a thing of beauty.

 

 

the person of the speakerThe four elements of a great speech, according to Demosthenes–the greatest of ancient Greek orators–are:

  1. A great person
  2. A noteworthy event
  3. A compelling message
  4. A masterful delivery

In my opinion, the person giving the speech is what matters most.

This is becoming increasingly clear as the presidential primary season plays out here in the United States, and as attention is being given more to the candidates than to their message

To take the most obvious example, whatever is reported, discussed, or analyzed about Donald Trump, positively or negatively, has more to do with his character than with what he says he will do, if elected.

The person giving the speech has, for better or worse, taken center stage.

That’s why character matters so much.

By character, I don’t mean a person’s ego, personality, image, or–gag me–personal brand.

Character, to my way of thinking, involves a person’s long-established, deeply rooted values, integrity, experience, knowledge, compassion, and wisdom.

To be a great person, in Demosthenes’s understanding (and in mine), doesn’t involve status, or wealth, or renown. A great person is one whose virtues contribute to the welfare of others.

PS I build my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Publishing) around Demosthenes’s four elements of a great speech.

Photo courtesy of Death to The Stock Photo.

complex speechAll speeches have to be clear.

If you confuse an audience, they tune you out. They may even turn on you, angry at you for wasting their time or making them think harder than they want to.

One way to make a speech clear is to keep it simple. Reduce the scope or complexity of the idea you’re presenting, and focus on a single feature or aspect of it.

The problem is, although simplicity can facilitate clarity, it can also dumb down an otherwise smart idea.

Some ideas—some of the most insightful and incisive ideas—are by nature complex. And if you simplify their complexity in an effort to make them clear, you’re doing a disservice both to your ideas and to your audience.

Don’t confuse “complex” with “complicated.”

Something is complex if it is composed of many interconnected parts.

Complicated is something else altogether. Complicated means “difficult to analyze, understand, or explain.”

I’m in favor of complex speeches, not complicated ones.

If your idea is complicated, you’d be better off writing a research paper or a white paper or a formal proposal. Written pieces give people time to digest what they’re reading, to pause when needed, to refer back to a previous point, to look something up, to think about one point before moving on to the next. None of that is possible in a speech.

Complex speeches don’t have to be complicated. They can be quite clear, even elegantly clear. It’s a matter of identifying the various pieces of the idea and arranging them in a logical fashion.

If you are yourself simpleminded or if you think your audience is, then by all means eliminate all complexity.

That’s what most people running for political office are doing these days. They’re taking complex issues, involving problems that have stumped people for years, and proposing a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

Here’s the real issue. The simplicity or complexity of your speech should be determined by the idea itself. If the idea is simple, make your speech simple. If it’s complex—yay for you!—make your speech complex.

Either way, make sure it’s clear.

Check out How to Plan a Speech.

 

Political rhetoric has become ugly, stupid, and brutish.

We can, of course, blame the politicians. Some more than others.

But politicians only say what they’re saying because people turn out to hear them, applaud them, support them, give them money, vote for them.

I grieve over the sorry state of political rhetoric. But I worry more about what our willingness to tolerate it, even celebrate it, says about the kind of people we have become.

Is this what we want? Is rage our only response to loss, change, and injustice? Is greatness to be found only in strength and the willingness to use violence to get what we want? What good do we expect to come from contempt, divisiveness, and bigotry?

I don’t know if, as people say, we get the kind of leaders that we deserve. But I believe that we get the kind of speakers and speeches that we’re willing to listen to.

One way — not the only way, but one way — to change the nature of political rhetoric is to change our response to it: to be a kinder, wiser, more discerning audience.

7 Habits of Successful SpeakersGiving a speech–at a sales meeting, an association event, or a general convention–is a great opportunity and a scary proposition.

You have one chance to promote your idea and to build your credibility.

Successful public speakers have mastered a set of practices and made them into habits they consistently use to make the most of every presentation.

1. They Obsess Over Preparation

Great speakers make what they do in front of an audience look effortless. You might be tempted to call them “naturals.” But here’s their secret: they’ve worked long and hard to get ready for their moment.

Know your audience. Establish your goal–what you want the audience to do as a result of listening to you. Create your message, refine it, simplify it. And then practice it out loud at least twice, preferably three times.

Continue Reading…

Confusing an audience is always a mistake.

But being precise, definitive, and conclusive in a speech isn’t always a virtue.

Sometimes your goal as a speaker is to educate your audience. Or it’s to persuade them to take a specific action—to support your initiative, to green light your project, to implement your procedure.

In those cases—and in most workplace presentations—you’ll want to avoid any and all ambiguity. By the end of your speech, your audience should know exactly, in no uncertain terms, what your point is and what you want them to do.

But when you seek to inspire an audience, you need to take a more open-ended approach.

Sometimes, when you’ve finished speaking, you want the audience to have more questions than answers. More wonder, less certainty. More to think about, mull over, and investigate.

Sometimes you want to plant an idea in people’s imaginations and trust them to bring it to fruition.

Sometimes you want people to invest your words with their own wisdom. And you’re willingwantingto see where that takes them. Even if it’s in a direction you had never imagined.

Ambiguous can mean obscure, vague, or cryptic. Which isn’t what I’m advocating. It can also mean “open to more than one interpretation.” Which is a quality many great speeches share.

If everyone in your audiences ends up thinking exactly the same way, you may have given an effective speech. When they each have a different take on what you’ve said, a unique insight, you may—you may—have done them a better service.

interrupted story, speechEveryone knows by now—or should know—that telling a story is one of best ways to make a speech interesting, powerful, and memorable.

I’m not talking about fables or stories that are made up out of whole cloth simply to illustrate a moral. Or about stories you’ve found on the internet or heard from some other speaker or read in a business book.

No, I’m talking about true stories. Stories that involve real people, actual events, risks and struggles that have tangible consequences.

I prefer personal stories, stories that feature the speaker in some way without, mind you, making him or her the hero. But telling someone else’s story—as long as it’s not widely known and properly attributed—can also be effective.

One of my favorite ways of telling a story in a speech is what I call the interrupted story.

If you haven’t used this technique yourself, you’ve probably heard a speaker use it.

How the Interrupted Story Works in a Speech

Begin telling your story. Jump right in without preface. Avoid saying, “I’d like to tell you a story.” Just start.

Establish the context of the story and present the main character. Then introduce a wrinkle of some sort, a “disturbance in the force.” Not a major crisis. Just an event or thought or circumstance that gives you the opportunity to pause.

Stop telling the story. Step outside of it for a moment to comment on it, to look at what’s happening below the surface, to connect the main character’s concerns or feelings or problems to those of the people in the audience.

Then pick up your story again. Carry it forward until you get to a point where the audience wants to know what happens next.

And stop. Leave them hanging for a moment. Comment on something—an added piece of information, an insight, a question—that adds depth or resonance to the story.

And do it one more time. Tell your story right to the climax. And stop. By now your audience is hooked. They want to know how it ends. So what you say at this time—the main point of your speech—lands on expectant ears and hearts.

Then finish the story. And briefly, in one sentence, if at all possible, finish your speech.

You can  build an entire speech around your story, if it’s a good story. But why would you tell any other kind of story?

What’s your experience with this type of speech?

 

You might want to check out Hallmarks of an Effective Speech.

 

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