Sooner or later – you can hope for later, but there’s no guarantee – you’re going to be asked to get on your feet and address a group of people whose opinion of what you say and how you say it will directly impact your career. Immediately, research confirms, you’ll be struck with a trepidation (known as glossophobia) that outranks even the fear of death. Both are inevitable.
Maybe that moment has already come. Maybe your boss put you on the club’s agenda for a meeting of club members, or your communications person signed you up for a speech in front of a local civic group. Maybe your reputation as an expert in your field earned you a place at the podium or on a panel at an industry conference. And maybe, if you’re a natural, like President Obama, Jimmy Valvano or Oprah, you knocked it out of the park. But few of us are in that league.
Knowing the day of reckoning is coming, here are a few things to consider. Because as someone who has been there knows, you don’t want to look out into your audience and wish you had started preparing a little sooner.
Audience. Who will fill the seats in front of you? What do they already know about your topic? You can skip that part. What do they need to know? This is the information that helps them make an informed decision or encourages them to think about your subject in a way that’s favorable to your organization. What will entertain them? Make no mistake, for those few minutes that you’re trying to hold their attention, you’re also in the entertainment.
Purpose. You’re taking the valuable time of people who don’t have any to spare. So don’t waste it or the opportunity. What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to educate? Change opinions? Rally support? Everything you say should be aimed at this goal.
Message. What’s the one thing – not the two or three things – you want people to remember? Condense this to a single sentence, write it on a notecard and tape it to your computer so you’re reminded of it as you develop your content. Drive this one idea home throughout your talk. If you do it often enough and well enough, when audience members are asked afterwards what you said, they’ll know what you want them to know.
Structure. Deciding on the talk’s structure – think of it as a home’s framework and the rest of your content the joists and flooring – makes the actual writing much easier. A simplistic but effective way to organize a talk is one you’ve probably heard before: (introduction) tell them what you’re going to tell them, (body) tell them and (summary) tell them what you’ve told them. Novices and pros alike use this approach with great success.
Content. What you actually say should be a combination of the research (not too dry and not too much) that makes the logical case for your argument, the examples that make your points relatable and the stories that make your talk memorable. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good story is equally valuable to speakers and their audiences.
Statistics and logic lead an audience to a certain point, but story makes them want to believe. A story also breaks up the pace and gives your audience a chance to relax from all of the logical stuff. The elements for a good story within a speech are the same as those you grew up listening to and the same as those that fill a movie theatre: a beginning, a crisis or key event, a resolution and a lesson. Choose stories that reinforce your key points and tell them as if you’re in the backyard with friends.
Authenticity. Let your passion for your work, your course and your team shine through. Don’t be afraid to get personal. You’re not being boastful when you tell people what influences have shaped your life and formed your values. Be brave in revealing your own motivations for your profession. A smile, a wink, a grimace and a self-effacing laugh add warmth and credibility.
PowerPoint. Some of the most compelling and effective talks were delivered by a man or woman standing in front of a group of people, looking them in the eye and saying what he or she really believed. And they did it without the clutter and distraction of PowerPoint. But if you feel you need it – and some subjects do because of their complexity – make sure you use it sparingly. Use BIG type and BOLD images. Think of your slides as electronic wallpaper – there to illustrate a point and to give the audience visual relief, not as a crutch for the speaker.