How to Write & Give a Speech
A Practical Guide for Anyone Who has to Make Every Word Count
By Joan Detz
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Joan Detz
All rights reserved.
SO, YOU'VE BEEN ASKED TO GIVE A SPEECH. NOW WHAT?
A talk is a voyage. It must be charted. The speaker who starts nowhere, usually gets there.
— DALE CARNEGIE
It usually starts out simple: You get a phone call or an e-mail inviting you to speak at an event. Maybe your alma mater wants you to come back to campus and talk about your career. Maybe the local Chamber of Commerce just wants you to say a few words about your business at the chamber's next meeting. Maybe your favorite charitable organization wants you to stand up and share your expertise with the rest of the members.
But sometimes it's not so simple. Perhaps your boss wants you to give a presentation at a nationwide convention. Perhaps you're asked to participate in a podcast or a webinar. Perhaps your professional organization invites you to speak at an international conference.
What do you do?
Do you automatically say "yes" and then start scrambling to pull some remarks together?
Not if you're smart.
Remember: A speaking invitation is exactly that — it's an invitation. You have options. You get to decide if you:
immediately accept the invitation exactly as they offered it (I don't recommend this)
accept the invitation with some minor changes (for example, ask them if they can adjust the schedule a bit to accommodate your travel requirements)
thank the conference chair for the invitation and say you'll need a few days to review your calendar before giving them an answer (this discreetly allows you to determine if the event is worth your while)
let the organization know you'd love to speak with their members, but it's not possible this month (then suggest some months when your calendar would permit)
The point is: It's an invitation, not a subpoena. And as the invited speaker, you have some choices.
The time to position yourself for speaking success is right now — when you first accept the invitation and set the terms of your talk. Why agree to speak for thirty minutes if you know you can cover the topic in fifteen? Why accept their 4 P.M. speaking slot (which will complicate your airport commute) when you can ask to speak at 2:30?
ONCE YOU'VE ACCEPTED, DETERMINE WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY
Begin by asking yourself, "What do I really want to say?" Then be ruthless in your answer. You have to focus your subject. You can't include everything in one speech.
Let me repeat that so it sinks in:
You can't include everything in one speech. In fact, if you try to include everything, your audience will probably come away with nothing. Decide what you really want to say, and don't throw in any other material.
For example, if you're speaking to a community group about your corporate ethics, don't think you have to give them a complete history of your company, too.
If you're speaking to an alumni group to raise funds for your university, don't throw in a section on the problems of America's high schools.
If you're speaking to a local school about the need for new foreign language studies, don't go off on a tangent about the principal's salary.
Get the picture? You're giving a speech, not a dissertation. You can't include every wise thought that's ever crossed your mind.
Remember Voltaire's observation: "The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."
WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SAY
Suppose that you can't think of anything to talk about.
Well, if you don't know what to say, ask yourself some basic questions about your department, your company, your industry, whatever. Think like a reporter. Dig for good material.
Who? Who got us into this mess? Who can get us out? Who is really in charge? Who would benefit from this project? Who should get the credit for our success? Who should work on our team? Who will suffer if the merger fails?
What? What does this situation mean? What actually happened? What went wrong? What is our current status? What do we want to happen? What will the future bring? What is our greatest strength? What is our biggest weakness?
Where? Where do we go from here? Where can we get help? Where should we cut our budget? Where should we invest? Where should we look for expertise? Where do we want to be in five years? Where can we expand operations? Where will the next problem come from?
When? When did things start to go wrong? When did things start to improve? When did we first get involved? When will we be ready to handle a new project? When can the company expect to see progress? When will we make money? When will we be able to increase our staff?
Why? Why did this happen? Why did we get involved? Why did we not get involved? Why did we get involved so late? Why do we let this mess continue? Why are we holding this meeting? Why should we stick with this course of action? Why should we continue to be patient? Why did they start that program?
How? How can we get out of this situation? How did we ever get into it? How can we explain our position? How can we protect ourselves? How should we proceed? How should we spend the money? How will we develop our resources? How can we keep our good reputation? How can we improve our image? How does this program really work?
What if? What if we could change the tax laws? What if we build another plant? What if the zoning regulations don't change? What if we expand into other subsidiaries? What if costs keep rising? What if we did better recruiting?
These questions should lead you to some interesting ideas. Need more inspiration? Visit a Web site from another field. Check out a blog with a different perspective. Read an academic journal from another discipline. Scan a magazine you don't normally read. Look at a foreign publication. Follow an RSS feed for a week or two. Join a new LinkedIn group to discover what others think. Do something to get a fresh perspective.
In short, welcome inspiration wherever you find it. The American painter Grant Wood once admitted, "All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow."
Mystery writer Agatha Christie confessed she got her best ideas while doing the dishes.
Author Willa Cather sought inspiration by reading Biblical passages.
So, learn to keep your eyes and ears open. Take your good ideas wherever you can get them.
Think less about the past and more about the future. Thomas Jefferson said, "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." Most audiences will feel the same way. Don't bore them with a five-year historical review of your industry. Instead, tell them how your industry will impact their own lives over the coming year.
One good way to focus your content: Ask yourself, "If I only had sixty seconds at that lectern, what would I absolutely have to say to get my message across?" There's nothing like a sixty-second limit to focus the mind!
Ask yourself, "What would interest this group?"
Media mogul Ted Turner once found himself in a situation where he was scheduled to give a speech in New York, but even en route to the city, he still had not decided on his message: "I just thought, what am I going to say?"
You can imagine the reaction from the dinner audience when Ted Turner announced he would give $1 billion to United Nations causes. Turner's speech didn't just make jaws drop in the audience. His speech transformed philanthropy.
Your speech doesn't have to give away $1 billion. But it should be interesting.
And it can't run long. I'll give Thomas Jefferson the last word:
"Speeches that are measured by the hour will die with the hour."
ASSESSING YOUR AUDIENCE
Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.
— JIMMY STEWART
Communication is a two-way street. Speakers shouldn't talk "at" audiences. Speakers need to talk "with" audiences. And the speakers who are wise enough to treat their audiences like partners in the communication process will fare much better.
This means: Speakers need to understand their audiences — and understand them well.
Harold Ross, in his 1925 prospectus for The New Yorker, summed up the magazine's content as "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." That described his prospective reading audience quite nicely, but speakers facing a live audience will have to do a more detailed audience analysis.
Before you spend one minute researching your topic, before you write one word of your speech, first assess your audience. This chapter will give you a list of important questions to ask.
FAMILIARITY WITH THE SUBJECT
How much does the audience already know about the subject? Where did they get their information? How much more do they need or want to know?
For example: If you are a military speaker at a civilian forum, give your audience the background they need to understand your message. But don't overload the content. Don't hit them with too much data. You want this group to get your message — not be inundated by your messaging.
Why are these people coming to hear you speak? Are they really interested in the subject, or did someone (perhaps a boss or a professor) require them to attend? Will they be friendly, hostile, or apathetic?
A word of caution about "hostile" audiences: Don't be too quick to assume an audience will be hostile, and never give a speech with a chip on your shoulder.
Even if the audience doesn't agree with your viewpoint, they might appreciate your open-mindedness, your careful reasoning, and your balanced approach.
And besides ... audiences can change their minds. In the words of William O. Douglas, who held the longest service in the history of the US Supreme Court: "The audience that hissed yesterday may applaud today, even for the same performance."
A word of advice about apathetic audiences: Some people won't be the least bit interested in your subject. Maybe they're in the audience just because they were obligated to attend, or because it was a chance to get out of the office for a while. Granted, you may be interested in your subject, but you'll find plenty of people who aren't.
Surprise them. Startle them. Wake them up. Use anecdotes, examples, and humor to keep their attention.
Will the audience have preconceived notions about you and your occupation? Remember: People are never completely objective. Emotion often overrules reason.
Try to imagine how the audience feels about you.
One effective way to make an impression on the audience is to shock them a bit — to confront and shatter their preconceptions. If you surprise their emotions, you may influence their reasoning.
For example, if you are a social worker, the audience may have a preconceived notion of you as a liberal, someone with no idea of what social services cost the taxpayer. Shatter this preconception. Talk about the need to cut administrative costs in social agencies. Talk about the need for stiffer penalties for those who abuse the system. Talk about the need for individual responsibility.
This approach will surprise — and probably impress — them. They will be more likely to remember your message.
The size of an audience won't affect your subject matter, but it most certainly will affect your approach to the subject matter.
Small groups and large groups have different listening personalities and different psychological orientations. The wise speaker knows how to appeal to the needs of each group. People in small groups (say, up to fifteen or twenty people, maybe a board of directors, or a PTA committee) often know a lot about each other. They can frequently anticipate each other's reactions to new ideas.
People in small groups tend to pay closer attention to you because it's too risky for them to daydream. They may know you, and they may fear being caught off guard by an unexpected question from the podium such as, "I haven't been involved in this project, but I'm sure Paul Smith could tell us about that. Paul, would you be kind enough to stand up and give us the latest details?"
You can take advantage of this small-group attentiveness by emphasizing reason and by offering solid information.
People in large audiences don't normally know everyone else. It's easier for them to sit back and feel anonymous. It's also easier for them to daydream.
Speeches to a large audience can — indeed, often should — be more dramatic, more humorous, more emotional. Rhetorical devices that might seem contrived in a small group are now useful. The larger the crowd, the greater the need for "a good show."
People in large audiences tend to think, "Okay, recognize me, entertain me, inspire me. Make me feel good about myself when I leave here."
Cater to these needs.
Also, there's one other important reason to ask about the size — big or small — of an audience.
Obviously, if you assume several hundred people will attend, you may feel embarrassed and disappointed when only forty show up. On the other hand, consider this awful experience: A spokesperson for a health organization frequently spoke to small groups of nurses. One time she showed up at a convention and learned she had to speak to a couple of hundred nurses in a large auditorium. She didn't know how to use the microphone. Her PowerPoint wasn't bold enough for the new, large space. And she didn't have enough handouts. Is it any wonder she felt overwhelmed and nervous?
It's important to find out about the age range of an audience and to plan your speech accordingly.
What works for one age group could backfire mightily with another. For example, the military successfully uses repetition to tame antsy nineteen-year-olds, but that same training technique might fail with sixty-year-olds. (Several military aides once gave a repetitious slide show briefing to President Reagan — only to bring the lights up and find the president sound asleep, along with almost everyone else in the room.)
So, take a moment to think about the ages in your next audience.
Suppose, for example, you must represent your company at a special town meeting. The meeting starts at 7 P.M., and you expect whole families to attend — including parents with young children in tow.
Now, you may plan to talk to the homeowners in the audience about the need for new zoning regulations, but you must also be prepared for the pitter-patter of little feet running up and down the aisles and the cries of babies who want to be fed.
Realize that these distractions are inevitable, and that they will probably occur — alas — just when you get to the most critical part of your speech. If you are mentally prepared for these possibilities (and if you have some friendly one-liners ready), you will be less rattled when the disruptions occur.
Or, suppose you're talking with a group of college students. Pace your remarks to appeal to young people. Keep it lively. Keep it moving. And keep it brief. (If you can use great visuals, so much the better.)
Ask in advance about the likely male/female ratio, and use this information to help you prepare appropriate statistics and examples.
Be sure to cite appropriate sources as well. If you quote seven experts in your speech, but all seven are male, your oversight will be noticed. Instead, use balanced research that your audience will find credible.
Suppose you speak as a representative of the local electric utility. An affluent, community-minded group might appreciate hearing about your utility's contributions to cultural groups in the area. But people on fixed incomes won't be impressed to learn you give $30,000 each year to the local philharmonic. They would rather hear about specific ways to cut their electric bills or how your utility gives money to their local public libraries, where families can borrow free books and films each week.
I once heard an engineer who spoke to all sorts of community groups about his corporation's projects. Unfortunately, he spoke the same way to graduate engineering students as he did to retirees who had no previous experience in the field. You can imagine how well his highly technical speeches went over with the retirees.
Of course, you don't need to change the point of your speech. Just talk at a level your audience can understand.
Even if you don't plan to address politics, it's important for you to understand any political preferences in this audience. Has the group taken an official stand on an important national issue? Did the group actively support a local candidate for office? Does the audience take a hard-and-fast view on certain issues?
When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, his blunt message of freedom brought applause from the tens of thousands who had gathered for an open-air Mass in Santiago. (Continues...)
Excerpted from How to Write & Give a Speech by Joan Detz. Copyright © 2014 Joan Detz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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