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Good idea = good speechA speech is only as good as the idea it advances.

Yes, you need good delivery. If you mumble or speak in a monotone, pepper your speech with ums and ers and ahs, look like you’re about to die of a heart attack — if, in short, your delivery sucks — you can lose people’s goodwill and attention. And then your speech is dead. Kaput. 

But even the best delivery can’t breathe life into a dumb idea. And a good idea can triumph over a middling delivery.

Abraham Lincoln was not known for the power of his delivery. He spoke too slowly. His voice was high and somewhat reedy. Yet his speeches retain their power to this day, because of the driving force of the ideas they set forth.

Lyndon Johnson’s delivery suffered by comparison to that of his predecessor, John Kennedy, but his speech on civil rights, “The American Dream,” still packs a punch, because of the courage and wisdom of its central idea.

Build your speech around one, and only one idea.

Which means your idea has to be a good one.

1. Give your speech’s idea bite.

Give people something to sink their teeth into. Challenge your audience in some way, asking for or demanding their attention and engagement.

You don’t have to be abrasive or unnecessarily confrontational, but there’s nothing wrong with presenting an idea that makes people think.

Critical thinking is a good thing, and to be encouraged.

2. Make your speech’s idea elegant.

Elegance is beauty born of the marriage of form and function.

Structure your idea in a way that makes sense, both intellectually and emotionally. If you can’t explain your idea without referring to your notes or, worse, to your “slide deck,” you’ve probably failed to create a coherent argument. (Coherence — a pleasing unity — is one aspect of elegance.) 

Choose your words carefully. Make them both precise and evocative. Business jargon, corporate speak, and buzz words — mission critical, open the kimono, core competency, best practice, etc. — are the antithesis of elegance. They betray a lack of faith in the idea’s ability to stand on its own two feet.

3. Give your speech’s idea juice.

Juice is, in surfer lingo, the power to move things forward. Since the goal of any good speech is to, ultimately, to change what your audience does, your idea has to be able to move people to take action.

Don’t simply set out your idea, explain it, and illustrate it. Give your listeners reason to take action. Appeal to their most closely held values — to love, fairness, pride, concern for the common good — and to their emotions.

When Demosthenes, the father of Greek oratory, was asked to name the three most important outcomes of a speech, he replied “Action. Action. Action.”

The purpose of a business presentation — any type of business presentation — is to win buy-in for an idea. You don’t simply present information for its own sake. You want people to do something: to give you their feedback; to implement your proposal or to allow you to implement it; to give you the money, time, or personnel to continue your project; to hire you or to buy your product or service; to contribute their own efforts or expertise.

So, in effect, every business presentation is also a sales presentation. There may not be an exchange of money for goods or services, but there is still an exchange: you give something and they give something in return.

5 Tips for Winning Buy-In for an Idea

  1. Be a credible advocate.
    Your idea will not and cannot speak for itself. It needs you to present and represent it. If you’re not willing to back your idea up with your time and effort and, more importantly, with your reputation, it stands no chance of being adopted or implemented. It is only as credible as you are, and conversely you are only as credible as your idea is. Be fair and honest and aboveboard, but don’t pretend or try to be impartial or objective.
  2. Build alliances.
    The best ideas don’t always win on their merit. (You know that already, don’t you?) Sometimes, good ideas get shot down and inferior ideas get the thumbs up because of office politics, turf warfare, or interpersonal grudges. So be savvy. Before you even schedule a presentation figure out whose support you need and how best to secure it. And develop a strategy for winning over or, at least, disarming those who might oppose your proposal.
  3. See it from their perspective.
    Of course, you have a personal stake in your presentation. (If you don’t want something from the people you’re presenting to, why are wasting your time and theirs?) But the only way you will get what you want from them is by showing them how they will get what they want. So show them how your idea will help them solve a problem or achieve a goal that matters to them. This presumes, of course, that you know them well enough to understand their agendas.
  4. Follow up.
    Selling an idea doesn’t begin and end with a presentation. You do much of your work beforehand: doing your research, building alliances, creating and rehearsing your presentation. And you do a lot of work afterward: strengthening commitments, answering objections, and (sometimes) gaining final approval.
  5. Learn.
    Whether you win or lose, you owe it to yourself (and your team if you worked with one) to learn from your effort by performing an after-action review. Were there any surprises? What worked well? Why? What didn’t work? Why not? What would you do differently next time?

Selling an idea isn’t the same thing as selling a product of service, although it’s similar. It’s really about helping people understand what you’re proposing and how it will benefit them or their organization. In some ways it’s easy. It doesn’t involve twisting arms or selling your soul. But in some ways it’s hard. It does require you to figure out what you want people to do and why they would want to do it.

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