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.

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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.

 

A good SpeechA good speech engages both the intellect and the imagination.

Which may explain why there are are so few good speeches today, in business, in politics, and in the pulpit.

When you’re giving a speech, of course you have to address your audience’s intellect. This is especially true in business and in academia.

The intellect demands reason and logic, information and ideas, evidence and proof. It expects facts and figures, explanations and definitions.

But you also have to engage your audience’s imagination, which is, in the words of Northrop Frye, “an intermediary between emotions and intellect.”

Imagination speaks the language of story and fable, of metaphor and simile, of symbol and myth, of dreams. It is the playground of curiosity, wonder, and fantasy.

Speeches pitched to the intellect may educate or inform, convince, or persuade. But they rarely move people emotionally or move them to action. They run the risk, if they are overly intellectual, of being arid, boring, and lifeless.

Speeches addressed to the imagination may motivate, influence, or inspire. But they will leave practical-minded people unmoved. And if they are lopsidedly imaginative, they will be at best entertaining, at worst woo-woo.

Good speeches please both the intellect and the imagination. They are logical and clear and, at the same time, intriguing and absorbing.

Use your gut instinctsOne of the best ways to improve your speaking is to learn from good speeches.

Over the years I’ve developed my own down-and-dirty methodology for evaluating speeches. There are more sophisticated ways to assess a speech’s merits, mind you. But this one works for me. It may work for you.

One caveat: I’m talking about how to analyze a speech for your own edification, not how to give someone else feedback about their speaking.

Step One: Trust Your Gut Instincts

Pay attention to your feelings during and immediately following a speech.

I’m talking about a simple appraisal of your visceral response that allows for only one of three possibilities:

  1. Love it!
  2. Hate it!
  3. Totally indifferent.

Or, put more simply, yay, nay, or bleh.

Don’t universalize your reactions. I’ve loved speeches that other people have hated. And people have raved about speeches that have left me cold. The same is probably true for you.

Be aware of your general emotional state. Sometimes our feelings have nothing to do with the speech itself. We may be in a foul mood to begin with—it happens—or preoccupied, depressed, or disengaged. In those cases, don’t blame the speaker.

Simply notice and accept your emotional reaction. Trust your feelings, your intuition, to provide useful information.

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When giving a speech, business leaders today tend to choose one of two options: speaking from a written speech (a script) or from  a list of talking points.

The Plusses and Minuses of Speaking from a Written Speech or Script

A script for a speech is a written text: a word-for-word document that speakers read to their audiences.

On the plus side a script is carefully constructed. It has a beginning, middle, and end; a logical and persuasive flow; and the right balance of information, ideas, explanations, illustrations, and stories.

A script uses rhetorical devices—phrases and sentences that are both memorable and moving—to engage the audience’s hearts and minds.

And a written speech makes the speaker sound smart, articulate, leaderly. (Is leaderly even a word?)

On the minus side, writing a speech is time-consuming. It’s expensive, if you don’t write it yourself. And it’s difficult to get right. (Not many people have the training or experience needed to write one).

Also, few speakers have the ability to read a script without sounding stiff and overly formal.

The Plusses and Minuses of Speaking from Talking Points

Talking points are a list of the most important information and ideas—summarized in a phrase or short sentence—concerning the topic of the speech.

The biggest plus of talking points is efficiency. It takes several hours, sometimes many days, to write a speech. You can throw together a list of talking points in the morning and be ready to speak by lunchtime.

And when you speak from talking points, you sound, well, unscripted. Given todays political and cultural climate, audiences think they’re hearing the real you.

The main minus of relying on talking points is that, well, you should unscripted. Unless you’re an accomplished, articulate speaker, your speeches will sound like an ordinary, everyday conversation: rambling, unfocused, and lacking any clear direction.

What’s the alternative to speaking from a script or from talking points?

What if you don’t have the time to put into writing a speech but you want something more focused and purposeful than talking points?

I recommend using what I call “soft scripting.”

A soft script is hybrid. It has elements of a fully written script, but it looks like a list of talking points.

A soft script is a very detailed outline—maybe two pages long—with a very clear structure:

  • an introduction that captures people’s interest and gives an overview of what’s to come;
  • three to five main points that explain, substantiate, and illustrate the speech’s main idea; and
  • a conclusion that issues a call to and an impetus for action.

It captures in writing carefully crafted phrases and sentences that are meant to be spoken word for word.

A soft script takes more time to create than a list of talking points, but less time to write than a script. It makes speakers sound smart and spontaneous. And it presents a clear and persuasive argument without wasting time or an audience’s attention.

Can speeches provoke violence? In a word: yes.

The goal of a speech is to move people to action.

A speech may educate and inform, entertain and amuse audiences. But it does so as a means to an end. And that end is action.

The action inspired by a speech may be noble and ennobling.

Speeches have inspired people and nations to work on behalf of the abolition of slavery, women’s equality, the rights of labor, civil rights, resistance to tyranny, environmental protection, the peaceful resolution of disputes.

But the action inspired by a speech may be — and often has been — violent.

Speeches have roused audiences — en masse or as individuals — to riot, to rampage, to lynch, to bomb, to burn, to assault.

To provoke violence — either immediate and specific violence, or unspecified violence — a speech has to do three things:

  1. Demonize “Them”
    Violent-provoking speeches always identify an enemy: the cause of our suffering, the source of all that is wrong with this world. “They” are different from us: of a different race or ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They are threatening our way of life, our jobs, our rights and prerogatives.
  2. Rouse Passion
    Violent-provoking speeches justify and inflame an audience’s anger, rage, and resentment. Reason and logic incline people to think more than to act; they are to be avoided. Passion moves people to action. And the more intense the passion, the greater the potential for violence.
  3. Justify Violence
    Violent-provoking speeches make violence reasonable and righteous. “They” have attacked us and all that we hold dear. We are the victims. We have the right — even the obligation — to fight back.

To deny that speeches can provoke violence, you have to deny the evidence of history, all the times that speeches have directly and indirectly roused audiences to violence.

And to deny that speeches can provoke violence, you have to deny that they can set people to work for a worthy cause.

On a related but separate issue, you might want to read Is Violent Speech a Right?

How Leaders SpeakLeaders give speeches all the time. They speak to promote their organization’s vision and mission. They speak when the stakes are high, in times of crisis and great opportunity.

Public speaking skills and leadership skills go hand in hand.

See also Leadership Speeches.

Tips for Leaders Who Want to Improve their Public Speaking

1. Take a Stand

Take a stand literally. Plant your feet squarely and solidly, balancing your weight evenly on both feet. Move with a purpose, not simply to pace. And take a stand figuratively. Don’t be neutral or disinterested. Stake out a position and make your best, your strongest case for it.

2. Keep it Short, Simple, and Strong

Brevity in a speech is always a good thing. It’ll help you hold your audience’s attention, and it will force you to focus on what matters most, eliminating all fluff. Simple is good, too, because it aids clarity and understanding. And strength is a sign of confidence and inspires confidence.

3. Be Big

Who you are — your character, reputation, values, vision — shapes how the audience hears and interprets what you say. So don’t hide off to the side of the stage in semi-darkness. Don’t cede center stage to a PowerPoint presentation. Demand people’s attention. Be yourself — your best self. And make your gestures bigger than usual.

4. Pause

One of the best ways to gain people’s attention while giving a speech is, paradoxically, to be silent. As you begin, take your place on the stage. Arrange the microphone and your notes, if you’re using them. Look up. Look people in the eye. And take a breath. Pause. When people settle down and return your eye contact, then and only then begin speaking. Frame your most important points with a brief pause.

5. Tell a Story

Avoid those cutesy teaching stories you find in books or on the Internet, stories that everyone has heard, stories that have an obvious moral. Tell, instead, a story from your own life, or a story about someone you know and admire. If it’s not meaningful and fresh to you, it won’t touch your audience.

See The Importance of Stories in a Speech.

What tips would you add about public speaking skills for leaders?

 

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