Having a point and being able to express it clearly isn’t the only skill required of speakers, but it is one of the most important skills.
If people can’t figure out what you’re talking about or what you’re getting at, they’ll stop listening to you. They’ll lose respect for you. And they won’ t do, think, or feel what you want them to.
This is the test of an effective speech: Can you say in one sentence (in 10 to 20 words) what it was about?
(There are, of course, other questions to ask, but only after you have first answered that question.)
Unfortunately, many presentations fail that most basic test. For example…
At an MIT Forum the president of a start-up was given 30 minutes to speak about his company’s product and business plan to an audience of over 150 people.
I found his presentation an incomprehensible mess. Afterwards, I asked another attendee what he thought of it. “I don’t know what his product is or does,” he said, sounding exasperated. “I don’t know what he plans to do with it. And as a venture capitalist, I don’t know why I would invest in a company run by someone who can’t even explain the most basic thing about his company.”
A prospective client asked if I could help her speak about her newly published book. She had already given a number of presentations at books stores and to various professional organizations. She hadn’t sold enough copies to make it worth the time and effort.
I asked her, “In one sentence, what is your book about?”
She talked for at least five minutes, but she never answered my question. I had an idea right then about why she wasn’t promoting her book more effectively. Why would people be interested in something so vaguely described?
I join friends for breakfast after church on Sunday. Knowing my profession and my propensity for sharing my opinion of all things related to speeches, they often ask what I thought of the day’s sermon. I tell them how long the sermon was. (Yes, I time every speech — even sermons — that I listen to.) And then I turn their question back on them. I ask, “Can you tell me in one sentence what it was about? What was the preacher’s one main point?”
Typically, one-third of my friends confess that they have no idea what the sermon was about. One third offer a one- or two-word generality like forgiveness or being kind to strangers. Those who do offer a summary statement are amazed by what other people say. “How did you get that,” they ask, “out of what the preacher said?”
(Someday I’ll blog about what I look for in a sermon.)
What’s the Point?
The point of a speech is its organizing principle. It creates a meaningful unity out of everything else you say: your ideas, evidence, explanations, examples, stories, data.
- Lincoln’s second inaugural address: After a long and bloody war to end an awful institution, we must come together to heal our wounds and divisions.
- Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons upon becoming Prime Minister: Our policy is to wage war against a monstrous tyranny. Our aim is victory.
- Sojourner Truth’s “And Ain’t I a Woman” speech: Women are equal to men and deserving of equal rights.
The point of a speech is like the plot of a story. Without a plot, a story is simply a series of events that don’t mean anything, that never progress through conflict and resolution to a sense of completion. A speech without a clearly defined and articulated point is simply a recitation of information and ideas that don’t add up and don’t go anywhere.
The first question, when you’re creating a speech or presentation, is always, “What’s your point?” Answer that question in one sentence, and you’re off to a good start.
(The second question, by the way, is “Who cares?” But that’s the topic for another post.)