Here's the second part of an article that was originally featured in Communications Director magazine.
Imagine someone you’ve never met asks you to take a trip with them. They won’t tell you where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone, what you’ll see along the way or even when you’ll be back. Would you go?
You probably wouldn’t. And yet every day hundreds of speakers stand in front of audiences all around the world and do essentially the same thing. They begin talking without giving the audience any clues about where they are headed or when they’ll be finished.
Yet, listeners need those structural clues much like travelers need road signs. Knowing where they are, where they’re headed and what to expect along the way will increase their attention span and engagement. They will become active listeners instead of passive passengers in this speech journey.
There are lots of structures you can use. Here are a few favorites:
- Chronological – This is a simple structure often used to explain what has happened and why. Dates become signposts and listeners understand the progression.
- Geographic – You can use geography to break down the sections of your talk. Explaining what’s happening in the North, South, East and West, for example, gives the audience a comfortable sense of control and anticipation.
- Numbered Lists – This is one of the most useful and, frankly, my favorite. After identifying a common problem, the speaker can easily tell the audience something like: I’d like to discuss three ways we can address this problem. This allows the audience to follow along, understand the journey and anticipate an ending.
The secret to using any structure is in letting the audience know what the structure is. If you tell them you’ll make three important points, for example, you’ll see people pull out notebooks and write down the number “1.” They’re now actively engaged and paying attention.
The fourth tip is for all of those corporate types out there who belong to the PowerPoint brigade. The tip is this: Work on the words first and PowerPoint slides second (if at all.)
Too many speakers today rely on PowerPoint slides for their presentations. As a result, they forfeit a good deal of leadership potential.
Here’s the most important thing to remember about PowerPoint. It is NOT your presentation. The speaker – along with the words they deliver – is the presentation. Least important is the slide deck.
PowerPoint can actually undermine a speaker’s potential to lead. After all, the point of any speech is to put your speaker/leader in front of an audience in an effort to persuade listeners to take some action. That requires a certain amount of logic, a certain amount of emotion and a certain amount of character – the three essential components of persuasive communications.
When speakers rely too heavily on slides, they lose two of those components: emotion and character. PowerPoint is the “coldest” and passionless speech tool available. It encourages passive learning and, importantly, takes the audience’s eyes away from the speaker where the essence of character lives.
PowerPoint also asks the audience to do too much. When we use PowerPoint, we expect an audience to HEAR the speaker’s words, WATCH the speaker at the podium, and READ the words on the slides. They simply can’t do all of that at one time.
My mantra is fewer slides not more. And while you’re at it, try to use fewer images and fewer words on each slide, too.
If your speaker insists on using PowerPoint, ease them off their addiction by first explaining that the audience wants to hear them, not read slides. Then encourage them to at least open their speech with five minutes of pure talking (to help establish character and credibility), followed by a few slides and ending with talking (again to reinforce those important leadership attributes.)
Remember that listening alone is hard work. And we do a disservice to the audience when we introduce material that makes it even more difficult.
That’s why the last of my five big tips to make your speech something the audience will actually listen to and hear is to add a little style into your writing.
No, this isn’t where you make your speaker sound like Kofi Annan or Winston Churchill. It’s where you edit the words toward three specific goals. You want to 1) make the words simple and clear; 2) make the language exciting and fresh; 3) make your speaker sound warm and personable (even if they aren’t).
Too many writers approach speeches thinking they have to sound dramatic and grand. As a result, their speakers appear to the audience as pretentious and pompous. The objective shouldn’t be toward elevated language; the objective should be audience understanding.
Small words are better than long ones. Familiar words are better than unfamiliar one. Sentences, too, should be simplified for the audience and the speaker.
This is especially true if you are writing for a non-native speaker. Audiences need time to process unfamiliar accents and speakers need to be comfortable delivering the words. Simplicity helps on both counts.
Simplicity doesn’t mean making the speech as lean as you can, however. In fact, most speechwriting is more expansive than other types of writing because you must give audiences time to catch up to what the speaker is saying.
If the goal is to create understanding, you often have to repeat your key messages, repeat and restate statistics and use examples and anecdotes to amplify your points.
At the same time, the language should be fun and exciting to hear. That means deliberately editing in a few of the most useful rhetorical devices. Inserting a rhetorical question, for instance, not only breaks up the speaker’s delivery patterns, it makes the audience think.
You’ll also want to make sure to vary the length of your sentences. Follow a longer sentence with a few short, staccato ones and make sure none of the sentences are too long for your speaker to deliver without gasping for air.
Finally, strive to make sure your speaker seems warm and personal. No one wants to hear someone – or be led by someone – who is all business all the time. So make an effort to make your speaker seem real and approachable.
The best way is to have them share personal anecdotes with the audience. If the anecdotes include some soft, self-deprecating humor, even better.
You can also use short, humorous quotations to great effect. These allow the speaker to be funny even if they naturally aren’t. These don’t have to be from Greek philosophers or business gurus, by the way. The speaker could quote one of their own children, a spouse, a funny headline from the newspaper or even an ad from television.
Lastly, make sure the speaker uses the word “you” a lot. Rewriting sentences to include the word “you” ensures the speakers talk directly to the audience. It’s a subtle device that audience members appreciate and will respond to.
This simple exercise is one of the last editing steps I take because I find it helps me – as a writer – remember who I’m really writing for. I’m writing for an audience and the speech has to be interesting for them above all else.