Here are four principles that seem to guide the great speakers I’ve seen recently, whether they’re talking about a vision for the company or the rollout of a new ad campaign.
1. Answer the question, “Why?”
When I started out as a speaker, I was told to use a grabber–a snappy, attention-getting opening sentence designed to pull people out of their own heads and get them interested in what’s in yours.
But I noticed that anytime I was listening to a really good speaker, they weren’t so concerned with the showy stuff at the start. They were more concerned about posing this question: Why is it urgently important that we discuss this topic?
Maybe a story, or a joke, or a news item from the paper can work. But using tricks and shtick to get attention may not draw them into the topic, and it could hurt your credibility. You don’t want to do the equivalent of the disappearing bunny trick to get them to focus on your serious talk.
Providing answers to the “Why” question is the better, more credible, and meaningful way to open your talk.
2. Find the passion.
I work with a range of organizations that require highly effective public speaking. Churches for instance. I was recently talking about the essentials of persuasive speaking with a church leader and asked her what the most important trait was for church leaders.
I thought she’d say intelligence, or charisma, or spirituality. “The most important trait,” she said, without hesitation, “is passion.”
She continued that if a speaker has passion, an audience will “put up with all kinds of stumbling and flaws.” But without passion–even if the words are clear and fluent–a speaker “will not sustain our attention or our hearts.”
Passion is contagious. But it can’t be forced. When a speaker is genuinely held in its grip, the listeners know. They can feel it.
3. Talk conversationally.
Conversations unfold in a series of moves, or triggered associations. Someone tells a story about their dog, and that prompts a response from another person about their own pet. Or a confession of sorrow gets a response of comfort. Conversations travel on a give and take, back and forth, two-way street.
Yet most of us don’t present conversationally. Instead, we make lists. “I will cover these four topics,” we say. Or, we show an agenda of topics, and then move through them sequentially. And often the topics don’t flow intuitively from one to another.
It’s now very popular to talk about story. Story is the new, or newish, buzzword. And stories are similar to conversations because actions taken by the characters in a story move it along by triggering consequences. There is an intuitive, cause and effect association between one scene and the next (there’s a wonderful, short text that explains this called Backwards & Forwards).
So if you need to present a list-like talk, one in which each topic is not linked to the one before or after, you need to be more careful about how you move from one to another.
In other words, you need to be aware of where you could lose your listeners. Does a particular thought cry out for an illustration, a concrete example? Do you need to anticipate an objection? Do you need to state exactly where you’re going? Are your transitions from slide to slide clear? You may have two or three anecdotes that you’d love to tell, but if you want to hold audience attention, or finish the talk in a defined length of time, you’ve got to be willing to cut.
Make connections between main ideas. Showcase them as stepping stones of logic or association, thoughtfully leading your listeners from one idea to the next.
4. Find a sense of truth.
Most people think that acting is about pretending, being someone else, and being a good faker. Actually, it’s all about finding and demonstrating a sense of truth in what you’re saying.
Actors are not judged by what they say, or even how they say it, but on how they make the audience feel, and how effectively they create belief in the reality of the story they’re enacting. They’re judged on how convincing they are. Each and every successful actor does this her own way, by playing the part using parts of herself.
Speakers are also judged on how convincing they are. As a speaker, your job is to know what you want to say–know your lines, if I can extend the theater metaphor–say them well, and be convincing. Your job is to get the audience to believe in you and your message: you want them to suspend their disbelief, to drop their skepticism, move out of their inertia, and comply with your request.
The best way to do this is to draw on your own experience as you bring the material to life. Doing so will lend your speech a deeper sense of truth.