How To Write Powerful Presentations, Speeches, And Talks
There are very, very few people who can get up at a moment’s notice and give a good speech totally impromptu and on the spur of the moment. There are plenty of people who think they can and/or who will tell you they can, but the truth is most of them are deluding themselves and boring their audiences to tears.
There are also plenty of speakers who get up and present and make it look easy, as though they hadn’t prepared anything beforehand. These are the real experts who, despite having years of speaking experience under their belts, if anything put more effort into preparation than people who speak for ten minutes once a year at the Golf Club dinner dance.
So, what about that preparation? Really, it’s about remembering those key golden rules that apply to all good business writing and they are:
1. Define exactly not so much what you want to say, as what you want your speech or talk to achieve – ask yourself, “what do I want the audience to be thinking as I come to the end of my speech?”
2. Find out as much as you can about your audience and ensure your content is very, very relevant to them and their needs.
3. Use language and tone of voice that the audience will understand and identify with – and blend that in with your own natural style of speaking.
4. By all means use a bit of jargon and a few “in” phrases as long as you’re certain the audience understands them, but never use jargon others may not know.
The only extra point I would make here is, remember that people can’t rewind/replay or re-read you. For that reason you can’t expect them to absorb as much detailed information as they would if you were to write it in a document or CD-ROM, which allow them to refer back to details as often as they want.
Knowing your audience is also unusually important here – you’ll find out very quickly if you’ve got it wrong, because you’ll see it in their faces and their body language.
Cut the clutter
Depending on the nature of the presentation you’re making, sometimes you will be giving out delegate packs or some other form of permanent record of your material, so details, expansions, etc can go in there. Whether you’re doing this or not, though, what you say must be clear and uncluttered.
With live speeches, your success is almost entirely dependent on what your audience remembers of what you say. People have very bad memories, and if a speech has been boring or complicated or both, they will remember even less of its content and only recall how terrible it was.
Often senior managers are called upon to give speeches – usually to internal audiences – which cover a wide range of topics, for example a review of the company’s performance over the past year, announcements about new developments, etc. These presentations sometimes last for nearly an hour and attempt to cover more topics than a fat Sunday newspaper. At the end of it the audiences have absorbed very little, having been mesmerized by the drone of the boss’s voice and an increasingly urgent desire to leave the meeting and go to the washroom.
Yet, argue the senior managers, we have to get all this information over to them at our conference. The answer? Split a one-hour speech down into four fifteen-minuters, interspersed with the other presentations throughout the day or half-day session. (Or if you can’t do that, split the one-hour presentation across four different speakers.) Fifteen minutes is much more comfortable for the audience’s attention span. And the fact that there are more, shorter presentations creates variety which, to totally misquote an old saying is the spice of live communication.
Start by writing yourself a list of points – a structure. This should cover the usual story-telling technique of a beginning, a middle and an end, although the old soap-box principle of “tell ’em what you’re going to say, say it, then tell ’em what you just said” is a bit repetitive. Try if you can to keep the main issues in your presentation to fewer than five, no matter how long your speech is. If you can’t actually put it together as a traditional story, what you must do is ensure that one topic leads logically on to the next using some good, workable links.
The right order
It is possible to change direction abruptly in a presentation, but you need to be a practised speaker to pull it off and know how to use your stage body language as well as that other wonderful presenter’s tool, silence. Nothing gets an audience’s attention faster than a few seconds of total silence when they’re expecting a stream of words. All of this carried out by a novice speaker who can’t quite get the nuances right, however, can be a disaster.
Links are actually quite useful even if they are a little abrupt, because they act as punctuation to your material. They also tell the audience that we’re now moving on to something new. Your links can be as simple as a few words (“now that we’re all familiar with the financial background of the new project, let’s see how its implementation will affect the company’s turnover in the next 12 months.”) They can also be several sentences long, but shouldn’t be any longer than that otherwise they cease to be links and become short topics in their own right.
Openers and closers
Many people will tell you that a powerful opening and close of a speech are terribly important and in fact as long as those are good you can say pretty well what you like in between. I don’t necessarily agree. I’ve seen (and written for) many speakers who have agonized during several sleepless nights over how to start their speech with a big bang at the company sales conference, when all the time a simple, sometimes gently humorous opening is far easier – and more effective.
It helps here if we re-examine just why openers and closers are important in the first place. To put it politely, they help to locate the audience, to act as a signal that you’re about to start talking to them about something interesting or that you’ve just finished telling them something interesting.
To put it crudely, sometimes the opener at least has to act as an alarm clock – waking the audience up after a narcolepsy-inducing previous speaker – or as air-raid siren, warning the audience to settle down, shut up and pay attention.
But even if the speaker prior to you has been intensely boring and has had the whole audience shifting from one numb seatbone to the other for 45 minutes, you don’t necessarily have to go out there in a top hat and false nose riding a unicycle and playing a trombone at the same time. What will get the audience’s attention is for you to go out there and be yourself.
Say something amusing, heart-warming, witty, whatever, as long as it’s something you would say in “real life.” You probably don’t want to say something rude about the previous speaker, although it will be tempting, but an in-company joke if it’s an in-company audience, or even a relevant quote by a famous person (there are numerous books and websites where you can find quotes) will instantly signal a major change and have the audience looking forward to what you have to say.
The opener and closer don’t have to be earth-shattering, but they do have to be part of you and your material. If you’re naturally a quiet, private sort of person there’s no way you should struggle with a passionate, emotive ending to your speech, even if others think you should be able to carry it off. One very important rule about giving speeches is if you don’t think something will work for you on the night, you’re right – it won’t. Don’t be talked into retaining anything you’re not comfortable with, because something that’s a small hiccup in rehearsals will become a major stumbling block on show day.
On-stage nervousness greatly magnifies any little glitch. If a few, self-effacing words of “thanks for listening” are all you think you will feel comfortable with at the end of your speech then that’s what you say, even if you use a speechwriter who tells you otherwise (and some of my colleagues would.)
Once you have created your structure and decided how best to open and close your speech, the best way to ensure it sounds natural is to switch on an audio recorder, talk through the structure to yourself, and transcribe the recording. (It’s a terrible job, but worth it.) Now, edit that transcript and tidy it up a bit, but don’t take out the commas and the periods. Long sentences in speeches can leave you gasping for breath and losing the plot. And don’t add in anything you wouldn’t say in real life.
Spoken speech is simply, only, what it says it is. It is monologue or dialogue as you would speak, not as you would write the same information or thoughts down on paper or screen. All you have to do is forget trying to write out your speech material (or your drama dialogue or narration) and merely say it out loud or in your mind. Then commit those words to paper or screen, a few at a time or in short phrases and sentences.
If it sounds right, it is right, and if it sounds wrong it is wrong even though it may look right on paper or screen.
Even great playwrights interpret spoken speech in exactly the same, uncomplicated way. Where you see their tremendous talent and creative genius is in how they use that simple technique to capture the uniqueness of the characters and scenarios they create. Think Molire, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Jack Rosenthal, Alan Bennett and many more. Their characters’ dialogue may seem unnatural to us when we hear it but that’s because the character is surreal and extraordinary – and the dialogue is, in fact, perfectly natural for that character.
I’ve lost count of the number of speeches I’ve listened to (not written by me I hasten to add) that came over as completely different from the personality of the speaker. This happens because many people believe that giving business presentations is a serious artform where the grander the verbiage and more ostentatious and self-important the oratory the more points they’ll score with their audience. It also happens because people write bad speeches so they are virtually indistinguishable from bad brochure copy or website text or any other manifestation of overstuffed corporate-babble.
Either way, it’s wrong. If you write stuff for yourself to say that reads like it was written for some pontificating old codger or worse still, for some formal brochure copy, you will come across as very two-dimensional, shallow, and dishonest. You will also make yourself very uncomfortable and stumble over the words and phrases, which adds “incompetent” to the list in the previous sentence.
Okay, you shouldn’t give a speech in the same ribald style you might use to tell a joke to your friends in the changing rooms at the gym or the 19th hole at the Golf Club. But you must ALWAYS be, and write for, yourself and your own personality. Unless you’re a trained actor, the only way you’re going to come over well is if you are as at ease as possible with your material. This won’t happen if you write words and phrases that may look very eloquent on paper, but which are lumpy mouthfuls to say.
The right style is always conversational. The best speakers always talk to audiences as if they were talking to a friend over a cup of coffee – a natural, friendly, personal style. Gone are the days when being in a business environment meant that you should never use a short word where a long one would do. Only lawyers and doctors do this nowadays and that’s largely because of their respective jargon which they’re stuck with. (Can you think of a short way of saying “antitrypanosomiasis?” In fact it might be “drugs to cure sleeping sickness,” but even that’s pretty long.)
Why a full script?
You notice that I say you must write your speech, even though I know you may deliver it from bullet points or entirely from memory. Highly experienced public speakers often do not write their speeches but work only from a memorized opening and close. This is fine if you’re a very experienced public speaker. If you’re not, don’t risk it.
A full script offers a number of advantages:
It provides a detailed framework if you’re an inexperienced speaker
It allows you to develop and balance your content more easily
It means you don’t have to make anything up as you go along
It acts as a safety net if you do speak from memory then forget something
It keeps you to your allotted time (most speakers present at an average of 120 words per minute, so divide the total wordcount of your written speech by 120 to get its rough presentation length in minutes.) It allows others to cue your visual support accurately (if relevant)
The downside of creating a full script is that other people in your organization can tinker with it, if they know it exists. However this is a small price to pay for the reassurance and confidence a full script can give you. As you get more practised at speaking you will probably find that you become less dependent on the script and may work off bullet points or notes, but I still think it’s worth writing the whole thing out initially.
Anecdotes and humor
Unless your presentation is an information-heavy financial report or other totally factual speech, a few anecdotes (preferably personal ones) are highly effective in helping to illustrate the points you make. Especially in England where self-deprecation and extreme modesty are the required penances to be paid by the successful, audiences warm to speakers who tell stories against themselves. That’s probably because your admission of being human brings you closer to them and therefore you seem more approachable and believable.
It’s also because audiences are naturally voyeuristic and love to feel they’re getting an inside glimpse of the real you. Whatever the reason, though, anecdotes work, as long as they’re short, to the point, and totally relevant to your other material.
Humor is something to be approached with caution, although used wisely it works superbly well. There is a big difference between being witty and telling jokes, and unless you are a first-class raconteur you must avoid the latter in your speeches, even if they’re for “after-dinner” or other social purposes.
If you’re not a naturally “funny” person you won’t suddenly transform yourself into one just because you’re standing up in front of a group of people. If anything that tends to make you less, not more funny. So whatever happens don’t be persuaded to tell a few jokes if that’s something you would never dream of doing informally at a social gathering.
If you do feel comfortable telling jokes, then use them sparingly, as punctuation – unless you’re to be “best man” at a wedding or the entertainment after a social dinner, wall-to-wall jokes are usually inappropriate. Jokes in a speech should always be tailored to the audience and material. Gag writing is a specialized writing technique and there are quite a few good books around on comedy writing, if you’re interested in learning how to do it.
If you’re looking for jokes to adapt there are some good joke books available in bookstores (including one or two written by yours truly… ) and of course you can find them online via the usual big sites – try keying in +JOKES+(YOUR SUBJECT). If you key the same thing into a search engine you’ll also come across jokes archived on websites devoted to the subject concerned.
Something you need to be mindful of is copyright and legally you may not have the right to use a joke as it appears in a book or on a website, because when you give the speech that could constitute public broadcast. Obviously I can’t be more specific about this because the circumstances vary from country to country. If you’re at all concerned about the copyright implications of using jokes in your speeches you should ask your legal advisers for guidance.
I don’t want to be depressing, but once you’ve finished all the hard work of preparing your material, writing your speech and (if relevant) organising your visual support, you then get down to the really hard work – rehearsing. You’ve got to practise, practise, practise.
Not too soon before the event, or you’ll be so stale and fed up with the speech you’ll lose interest. But don’t wait until the night before, either. Memorize the speech as well as you can, but don’t worry if you forget the odd “and” or “but.” If you say “er” and hesitate slightly now and again, it will make your speech sound more natural. What you must memorize perfectly is the content, and the order.
Then on the day, you will use your script or bullet points as a reminder – not as an essential element that you would be desperate without. All that rehearsal – in the shower, in the car, to your family or if they don’t appreciate your oratory, even to your dog – will pay off because you will be confident a) that your material is good and b) that you know it well.
If you’re giving your presentation in a large conference environment you may find yourself working with a show crew and a very sophisticated set and equipment. Novice speakers can feel daunted by all this stuff but what you must always remember is that it’s there to make your job easier, not harder.
Many times my elbows have been clutched nervously by speakers who’ve just caught their first glimpse of a teleprompting device, only to find that the next day when they’ve used it they wonder how they ever managed without one. I won’t go into how to use a teleprompter here because it’s a bit complex and in any case, when you rehearse your presentation one of the show crew will teach you how it works.
All I will say is that teleprompters are wonderful, because they free you to deliver your performance without having to worry about anything at all – your whole speech, or your bullet points, are always in the right place without you having to do anything. And provided that you don’t wander “off script” and start ad libbing with no warning, your visual support material will be cued by someone else too. All you do, is be the star.
Any further tips? Oh yes, cue cards.
I know they’re low tech, but the places where you may have to speak are not always going to be state-of-the-art theatres, so they’re useful. Two very, very important things to remember. One, always get two sets made, not just one. Keep them in separate places – e.g. one in your pocket and one in your car – so if one set gets lost you know you’ve got another handy.
And two, ensure that both sets are irrevocably tied together in correct order via a securing device looped through a hole in the corner of each card. That way you can turn the cards over as they’re used, but should you drop them you won’t have to fumble around trying to pick them up and re-order them. The securing device does not have to be sophisticated, as long as it’s strong.
I once confounded the CEO of a major European telecomms company who, fortunately for me, was an engineer by trade, when I showed him the high-tech fasteners I’d used on his cue cards. “Good stuff,” he said, “they work well. Can my secretary get these at a stationery store?”
“No,” I replied, “from your local car dealer’s workshop. They’re wiring loom clips.”