Content matters. But simply piling on content means eventually, it doesn’t matter. What you say in your speech is important, but how you say it and how you arrived at the content you’re presenting is equally urgent. Remember, you content is simply the product of a series of choices you need to make in constructing your talk. Consider these five areas:
Start With a A Goal
There must be a driving reason for the speech to be happening. Like in any movie, story, sales pitch, or message communication of any kind, what’s the compelling reason to be watching and listening? The more actionable the goal, the better. “When we’re done today, you will understand X and will be able to use it to your advantage.” You should convey your goal in 1 or 2 sentences.
The audience cares about themselves most, so your speech or talk can be perfectly crafted, but if it suffers from a weak or uninteresting goal, you’ll be disappointed with its impact. In a recent TED talk, a speaker started with the premise “Be Nice to Nerds” because they are responsible for innovation in our world. The moment I heard this, I didn’t care a bit about her talk. Why not? Because she didn’t care enough to come up with something original. Any person could have thought of that theme in their sleep. Talking about the importance of “nerds” at a TED talk? It was like arguing that bread is important to sandwiches. At a Deli convention. BOR-ING. (I’m leaving aside the triteness that has recently infected the term “nerd” for another time. Bleh.).
Check out the upcoming Ignite DC list of presentations. Which ones sound compelling to you and which sound merely descriptive? (Hopefully mine, right?)
Have 3 Main Points
In comedy, there’s a Rule of 3. A punch line has an example, a second example that adds context to the first and provides tension, and then a third example that provides the twist for humor. The twist doesn’t work without the first 2, and doing 4 items just prolongs the twist, which in this case is the payoff. The Rule of 3 in comedy provides a structure and a rhythm to delivering humor.
Actually, in life, there’s a Rule of 3. (It IS the magic number, after all). Plays happen in 3 Acts. Slogans are in 3s (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and the structure is even in religion (Christians note the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”). The more people receive information in 3s, the more their minds expect it and can better process it. So, after defining your goal, determine the three most memorable and effective points you can make to achieve the goal of your message.
This is essentially the “picture is worth a thousand words” argument. Telling someone your argument is clear and direct. Showing them your argument in story or anecdote form is like coming to a listener on their own terms.
Stories support main points. They give the listener a break from your arguments or statistics. They humanize your content and make it more relatable. Using stories, or at least specific examples to reinforce your main points, adds credibility to your argument. “Here’s what it looks like when it happens.” This is also a good practice for preparation for Q&A. You should never make a point without having an example ready.
Know Your Material
Know your material inside and out, but don’t memorize your material. Whether you like to think of it this way or not, your talk is a performance. Memorizing your talk word for word severely happens its in-the-moment authenticity and your ability to incorporate the feedback and energy you get the from audience, once you get to a level where you can do that.
Knowing your material means being an expert in the content of your speech so that you can get back to the “main road” should you veer off of it at any point. It also means rehearsal. You need to give yourself a chance to make the mistakes you’re going to make, especially with new material. Any speaker / comedian /performer will tell you that the only thing that solves jitters is preparation and the only way to prepare is “stage time.” It can be in front of a camera to no one, in front a friends, or in casual conversation. Give your brain a chance to “live” the material.
And finally, don’t read your speech. Whatever you can do to avoid this, do it. Reading your speech is flat out lame. If you don’t know your material, it appears you don’t really believe it or mean it.
Know When to Stop
Remember the 1988 Democratic convention, when a little known Arkansas Governor with a love for speaking seemed to talk forever? When future president Bill Clinton finally got around to wrapping up his speech that night, the crowd cheered. Boring your audience is never a good way to go and falling in love with the sound of your voice is a good way to get there.
Just as 90% of writing is re-writring, you can always work a speech over to see if you can tighten things up. Just as an exercise sometime, go through a talk you’ve already given and see if you can trim it down by 25%.
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- TED Tuesday: Keith Bellows on the camel | Percy Group Communications | April 10, 2012