Archives For speech

Give Better SpeechesThe best way to become a better speaker–to learn how to give better public speeches and presentations–is to make more mistakes.

It’s counterintuitive, I know.

You would think that reducing or eliminating mistakes would make you a better speaker. But you’d be wrong…for three reasons.

Reason #1: The Willingness to Make Mistakes Allows You to Practice, to Learn, to Improve.

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Leaders Speak too OftenA speech is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to advance their organization’s success.

Leaders give a lot of speeches, presentations, informal talks, and interviews. Sometimes they speak too often and, as a result, dilute their message.

The speeches that leaders give should align with their three primary responsibilities:

1)      To Advance the Mission, Vision, and Values of their Organization

Leaders help their organization formulate, promote, and achieve their mission (what we do/hope to accomplish), vision (where we are headed), and values (the principles and ethical standards that inform what we do).

2)      To Promote the Vitality of their Organization

Leaders tend to the internal workings of their organization to promote its ongoing health. They know that focusing exclusively on getting the work done can, ultimately, lead to the organizations’ dissolution.

3)      To Contribute to the Welfare of the Community/World at Large

Organizations thrive in the long run not only by doing well (achieving their goals), but also by doing good (benefiting their members, their customers/clients, and society/the environment).

Here’s the question leaders should ask when given the opportunity to speak:

Will this speech to this audience, at this time, in this venue promote my organization’s mission/vision/values, its vitality, and/or the community/world we live in?

Effective leaders know when to give a speech and, just as importantly, when not to give one.  

Bring about changeWhen speaking to promote change, resist the urge to attack the status quo or its supporters.

The only reason to give a speech is to promote change of some sort: a change in how people think or feel or, more importantly, act.

If you’re happy with the status quo and you want people to keep on doing what they’ve been doing, don’t give a speech. Throw a party.

The underlying message of a speech promoting change always comes down to this: the new vision, initiative, product, service, behavior you’re proposing is better that what already exists.

How do you talk down the status quo without belittling those who had a part in bringing it about or who have a stake in maintaining it?

(When the status quo is clearly unjust, cruel, or oppressive, it may be honorable and brave to confront head on those who created and seek to perpetuate it.)

But in most cases assailing the supporters of the status turns them into opponents and hardens their resistance.

Do this instead. Demonstrate how the current problems or deficiencies–the status quo you wish to change–are rooted not in past mistakes but in subsequent changes.

Don’t say, “We’re having problems in the finance department because my predecessor [the current CFO] purchased an inferior accounting software program.”

Say something like, “When we purchased our current accounting software, it was highly rated. But in the intervening years, technological advances and our increasingly complex requirements have made it inadequate for our needs.”

Make it your goal to bring about the change you believe in, not to denigrate the status quo or vilify its supporters.

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.

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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Teleprompter, Speech, ScriptDonald Trump has nothing but contempt for politicians who use a teleprompter when making a speech.

He gives every appearance of standing in front of an audience and simply saying whatever comes to his mind. He extemporizes. He does not give prepared speeches.

Trump seems to think that using a teleprompter and, by extension, speaking from a prepared script somehow makes a speaker inauthentic. Insincere. Less authoritative.

Is that the case?

Does relying on a script — one that you’ve written or had written for you — make you a bad speaker? Does it lessen your credibility? Does it dilute your message?

Of course not. On the contrary, preparing a script and speaking from it is the best way to improve your speaking.

Giving a speech is like undertaking any project. You wouldn’t simply show up unprepared and wing it. Not if a lot was at stake. Not if you wanted to succeed.

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In 1940 when the most Americans were trying to stay out of the war raging in Europe, Charlie Chaplain made a film — The Great Dictator — ridiculing Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.

It’s an amazing movie: prescient, bold, and (if you can imagine) funny.

Chaplain plays both the dictator (Adenoid Hynkel) and a Jewish barber who looks exactly like him. Through a complicated series of events the barber, mistaken for the dictator, is forced to give a speech before a huge crowd.

Chaplain drops all pretense of humor and gives a stirring speech.

His speech is heartfelt, earnest, and totally without irony.

I like the speech both for its message (an appeal for universal brotherhood) and for its flat-out, unflinching sincerity.

This speech came to mind, I suppose, as a salve for my soul wearied by the recent spate of speeches by Presidential candidates. (The election is still 15 months from now!)

With few exceptions, the candidates’ speeches promote divisiveness and posturing.

Chaplain’s speech may be a bit over the top when it comes to earnestness, but I find it refreshing.

What about you? Do you have any speeches of the uncynical sort to recommend?

Storytelling and SpeechesThere are two easy ways to introduce a story when giving a speech: 1) Don’t introduce it — just jump right in; or 2) Say, “Imagine…”

When beginning a speech with a story — one of my favorite techniques — it’s not necessary, helpful, or wise to say anything about it. Just begin telling it.

(As a rule: the less you have to explain a story, the better.)

When seguing into a story somewhere later in your speech, you may need to alert your audience that you’re shifting from cognitive content (exposition, explanations, evidence) to an imaginative element.

The easiest way to do so is by using one word: “Imagine.”

Say, “Imagine.” Pause. Then, without further elaboration, tell your story.

Check out How to Tell a Story in a Speech.

Don't tell jokes in a speech.The stupidest piece of advice ever given speakers is “Always begin a speech with a joke.”

Don’t do it!

Unless you’re a professional comedian and the audience is already warmed up and primed to laugh, do not — I repeat, do not — start your speech with a joke.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll bomb. The other 1% of the time you’ll get a polite, halfhearted response. And where do you go from there?

Humor in a speech, on the other hand, is almost always appreciated.

When you tell a joke, you’re trying to make people laugh. When you use humor, you’re wanting to amuse them. You’re happy if they smile or chuckle.

Humor makes people more likely to like you. It weakens their resistance. It’s like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar: it helps the medicine go down.

To be humorous without trying too hard, follow these rules:

  1. Laugh at yourself, your foibles, your mistakes.
    Self-depreciating humor is the safest and surest way to win people’s hearts.
  2. Write it out.
    A sense of surprise, clever wordplay, exaggeration and embellishment, amusing anecdotes, and ironic twists get better with the kind of refinement and precision that comes from writing and rewriting.
  3. Rehearse.
    Paradoxically, it takes practice to use humor so well that it sounds spontaneous and unscripted.
  4. Keep it clean.
    Avoid embarrassing, insulting, or offending your audience. Don’t laugh at others or make them an object of ridicule.
  5. Don’t tell listeners what’s funny.
    Saying, “This is really funny” is a setup for failure. Simply tell your story or make your witty remark and allow the audience to respond. If they laugh, great. If they don’t, move on.
  6. Follow the AT&T rule.
    Is your humor Appropriate to the subject and the audience? Is it Tasteful? Is it Timely?

Even if your humor meets those criteria, remember: Less is more. So keep it short. Avoid long stories or complicated setups. And limit how often you use humor in a speech.

After all, as humorous as you may be, you still want to be taken seriously.

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