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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.

I distinguish, somewhat arbitrarily, between a presentation and a speech.

Presentations and speeches both serve a purpose, but a different purpose. They are different beasts, and they deserve to be handled differently.

Presentations Are Informative

In the business world most people make presentations.

A presentation communicates information so that people understand it and can do something with or about it.

A presentation’s goal is to educate or inform audiences to take action.

Check out The 25 Best Slideshare Presentations of 2013 and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The top-rated presentation is titled Internet Trends. It is, according to the description, “filled with over 100 charts, stats and trends on digital, technology and economic issues that affect us all.”

An effective presentation is clear, accurate, and detailed. You want everyone in the audience to understand exactly what you mean.

A presentation is persuasive, if it is any good. You want people to do something — preferably what you want them to do — as a result of listening to you.

PowerPoint can be an effective presentation aid, because it allows you to display information…even “over 100 charts, stats and trends.”

Presentations tend to be matter-of-fact, prosaic, somewhat unimaginative almost by default. The title Internet Trends, for example, seems designed to elicit yawns.

Speeches are Influential and Inspirational

Few people these days give speeches.

Preachers, politicians, coaches at half-time, military leaders before a battle, and motivational speakers are the main practitioners of speeches today.

A speech shapes how people think and feel about an issue or topic, and changes their behavior as a result.

Churchill’s wartime speeches portrayed the war not as a doomed effort on the part of the British, but as a life-or-death contest between civilization (the British empire and way of life) and evil incarnate (Nazi Germany). His speeches steeled people’s resistance and gave them courage and hope to carry on.

An effective speech is evocative. It uses words and phrases to activate people’s imaginations, to call forth their memories, and to elicit the feelings associated with them.

Speakers don’t — or shouldn’t — project pictures for the audience to look at.

Speakers tell stories and create images that people picture in their minds.

Words — the right words — without pictures or external visual stimuli force the mind to supply its own images. On their own, words trigger the imagination, which in turn calls forth a flood of memories and emotions.

PowerPoint is not the friend of a speech. It keeps people in their heads, in their rational, conscious minds, divorced from their imaginations, emotions, and memories.

That’s why I titled my book Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint. What I really meant to say is that real leaders don’t make presentations (which use and should use PowerPoint); they give speeches.

Speakers play with words, the way a poet or playwright does. They’re not interested in pinning a concept down to a single meaning that is the same for each person in the audience. They know — and they are pleased by the fact — that each individual hears a different message (shaped by his or her experience, wisdom, and needs), draws his or her own conclusions, and resolves to take his or her own action as a result.

Presentations and speeches both serve a purpose, but a different purpose. They are different beasts, and they need to be handled differently.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

Influence is the ability to bring about some change in people’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, perceptions, values, actions, or behavior.

Whenever you give a speech you are, essentially, trying to influence your audience.

The purpose of a speech is, after all, to change how your audience feels, thinks, or acts. (If you’re happy with the way they are and what they’re doing, for God’s sake don’t give them a speech. Leave them alone.)

How to Make Yourself More Influential when Giving a Speech

First, be the kind of person who inspires trust.

Who you are as a person — your character, experience, reputation, values — is, in large measure, the message you communicate.

Put yourself and your vision, your hopes and dreams on the line. Make yourself vulnerable. Invite, rather than command compliance.

Second, align yourself and the change you’re proposing with their deepest held values.

You’re not going to change what people care about most, and you shouldn’t try. Instead, show them how what you want them to feel, think, or do affirms, protects, or advances their loves, values, dreams.

Third, challenge them to be more or better than they are.

Making people feel guilty or inadequate or wrong won’t incline them to change their ways. If anything, it will make them resent and resist you.

But at the same time you don’t want them to remain complacent, satisfied with their status quo. Not if you want them to change. So ask them to go beyond, to grow bigger than, to love better than who or where they are already are.

Important element of a speechThere are many elements that make a speech powerful, effective, memorable:

A message that has the power to change lives for the better, if only in a small way.

Images and stories, words and phrases that are both evocative and provocative.

A connection with the audience that communicates understanding, respect, and a desire to be of service.

A delivery that brings the message to life.

One of the most important elements of a speech is often missing: the person of the speaker.

Who you are as a person determines the audience’s interpretation of what you say, whether and to what extent they trust your message.

Who you are as a person shapes their response: their willingness to support, endorse, or implement your proposal.

Who you are as a person influences their engagement: their emotional and intellectual investment in your presentation.

Who you are as a person is perhaps the single most important element of a speech. And that element is too often missing.

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Making the Most of Q&A

Christopher Witt —  December 4, 2014 — 1 Comment

Encourage audiences to ask questionsQ&A is one of the most engaging, powerful, and effective elements of a presentation.

And yet many presenters (especially technical experts) avoid Q&A, mostly out of fear that they’ll be asked a question they can’t answer.

Addressing your audience’s questions makes them feel like participants, not passive recipients of your wisdom from on high. Their questions let you gauge how well they understand and accept your ideas.

I used to be happy with my presentations when the audience didn’t ask any questions. Their silence, I thought, meant that they understood and agreed with what I had said.

Now I think that an audience’s lack of questions means that they are so confused or so uninterested that they can’t be bothered.

Stirring the audience up and making them want to ask questions is a good thing. Knowing how to respond in a way that feeds their interest and drives home your message is even better.

Guidelines for Handling Q&A Effectively

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What could a late-night comic teach a beginning public speaking? As it turns out, quite a lot.

I had a hard time getting started as a public speaker.

I was terrified, stiff, and awkward. I made embarrassing verbal blunders, which made me more terrified, stiff, and awkward.

I would prepare and rehearse — over-prepare and over-rehearse — my speeches.

I would deliver them from memory. And I was happy if I got through the whole thing without some major mishap.

At the time I thought a speech was a transfer of content from me (the person who knows) to the audience (the passive recipients).

As long as I had good stuff to present and got it all said, I thought my speech was a success.

One of my speech teachers turned my thinking around.

He helped me realize that my saying that I thought needed to be said wasn’t as important as the audience hearing what they needed to know.

And he taught me that lesson in a strange way.

He asked me who my favorite comedian was. I said Johnny Carson. (Obviously, this was many, many years ago.)

He told me to watch Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show for a week, and see what I learned.

What did Johnny Carson do that made him so funny?

Here’s what I learned: It wasn’t his material. His jokes were sometimes very funny, sometimes not.

What made him funny was his interplay with the audience.

He’d throw out a joke. If people laughed, he smiled. If they didn’t laugh, he’d look pained. If they groaned, that’s when he would come into his own.

Carson played with the audience. And together he and audience often created something much funnier than before.

Johnny Carson taught me the importance of interacting with the audience. He taught me

  1. To present an idea, one piece at a time.
  2. To watch how my audience reacted to what I said. Did they get it? Were they with me? Did they smile and nod, or cross their arms and crease their foreheads?
  3. To respond to their response. If they didn’t get or didn’t agree with what I said, I couldn’t simply plunge on with my prepared remarks. I had to acknowledge and engage them.
  4. To treat a monologue (i.e. a speech) always as a dialogue, and to keep it lively.

A speech isn’t the content you deliver to the audience. A speech is how the audience interacts with you and your ideas in order to come to their own understanding.

Don't speak without a reasonPeople are giving too many speeches these days. Way too many. And it’s gotta stop.

Don’t get me wrong. I love speeches–good ones, anyway–and I believe that speeches are a great way to influence and inspire audiences. But people, especially leaders, are giving too many speeches and, by doing so, lessening their impact.

Here are 7 Reasons NOT to Give a Speech

1. You don’t have anything to say.

If you don’t have something intelligent, insightful, or helpful to say to a particular audience — or anything they haven’t heard before and already know — it would be better to say nothing at all.

2. It’s not the right time.

When do you address a pressing issue, a crisis, or a traumatic event? Do you speak when emotions are at a fever pitch, when wounds are fresh, or do you wait a while? And when it is too late? It takes wisdom to know when to speak and when to keep silent.

3. It’s not the right audience.

Don’t waste your time, consideration, and effort speaking to people who have no investment in you or your message, or who are clearly hostile and closed-minded. “Know your audience” is one of the most universally applicable pieces of advice when it comes to speaking. A corollary is, “Know which audiences aren’t your audience.”

4. It’s not the right event.

Most speakers underestimate the impact of the event in determining the success of their speeches. Before you agree to give a speech, find out 1) the schedule (when you’ll speak and what happens before, during, and after your speech, 2) the sponsoring organization, 3) the venue, 4) the room layout, and 5) physical factors (e.g. microphones, lighting, stage). I’ve been there, I know: some events are so poorly organized or present a different image from what you want to be associated with. If so, just say “no.”

5. You’re not the right person.

Just as some audiences aren’t right for you, you aren’t right for some audiences. Your unique values, interests, approach, personality, reputation, and style always come across in your speaking. (If they don’t, you’re doing something very, very wrong.) If you haven’t figured this out by now, I don’t know how to break it to you: not everyone will like you or trust you or be receptive to what you say. Vive la difference! Let someone else speak to them.

6. You don’t have the time.

Preparing a speech (a good one, anyway) requires time. Time to research your topic and your audience. Time to ponder. Time to craft your message and refine it. Time to rehearse it. If you don’t take the time, you’ll give a crappy speech or, at the very least, an utterly forgettable speech. Better not to give a speech at all than to give one that serves no purpose.

7. You don’t care.

If you aren’t passionate about the topic you’re asked to address, either find a way to turn the topic to something you do care about or decline to speak about it. How can you expect an audience to care about what you say when you don’t care?

Giving a speech is both an honor and an obligation, an opportunity to say and do something worthwhile. Use it wisely. You’ll have a greater impact if you speak less frequently and if speak only when you are the right person with the right message for the right audience at the right time.

Short speeches have advantages over long speechesA short speech isn’t necessarily a good speech, but a short speech has several advantages over a long speech.

First, a short speech is more likely to hold your audience’s attention.

Because today’s audiences have the attention span of a gnat, the longer you speak — even if you’re presenting brilliant, exciting ideas — the greater your odds of losing their interest.

Say what you have to say as concisely as possible and stop talking.

Second, a short speech forces you to say what you mean…and nothing more.

The only way to keep your speech short is to develop a razor-sharp focus: develop one, and only one, idea. If you can’t sum up the central idea of your speech in under 15 words, you haven’t defined it precisely enough.

  • Cut out opening pleasantries like “I’m happy to be here today” or “I don’t have a lot of time so I’ll get right down to it.”
  • Eliminate anything — an idea, example, phrase, or word — that isn’t essential.
  • If you’re using PowerPoint, get rid of the cover slide and any slide that lacks a visual element (a chart, graph, picture, illustration).
  • Stop pussy-footing around. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t add conditional phrases and disclaimers. Take a stand. Show your colors. Boldly assert what you believe.

How long should a speech be? Just long enough to accomplish your goal and not so long that you lose your audience’s interest and goodwill.

I used to advise, “Never give a speech longer than 20 minutes.” Now I think 10 to 12 minutes is long enough. Five to six minutes might even be better.

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