Archive for the ‘Content’ Category

A workshop participant once told me about an outrageous statement he heard during a presentation to employees where he worked.

A partner in this large accounting firm was presenting the details of a new, high-fee service he wanted the employees to promote when they were with clients.  He finished his message by excitedly declaring how much more money the partners would make if many of the firm’s clients signed up for the service.

What a crazy thing to talk about to a group of employees!  I am sure it would have been music to the ears of a room full of partners, but employees were guaranteed to react negatively.  In fact, the gentleman I was talking to said he walked out of that presentation determined not to promote the service with his clients.

Of course, this is an example of an over-the-top failure to think about who you are talking to when making a benefit statement, but I have heard many less dramatic examples.

It is common, for example, to hear middle managers telling senior managers that they should approve an initiative because it will make life easier for the middle managers.  It may sound like a reasonable thing to say, but a benefit statement is really only persuasive if it describes a benefit to the person being persuaded.  In other words, the senior managers need to hear what the benefit is to them—or, at least to the company as a whole (i.e., their responsibility).

A car salesman wouldn’t say “Buy this car and I will make a big commission.”  In the same way you shouldn’t stress to audience members the benefit you will get if they do what you propose.  You tell them what benefit(s) they will receive if they buy in to your message.

I was reading a chat-group discussion that revolved around ideas for how to make sure you give a great speech or presentation.

Predictably, the most popular recommendation was: “Speak on what you are passionate about.”

I had just finished some writing on the critical importance of audience-focused speaking and found myself wondering whose passion is most important: the speaker’s or the audience’s?  Certainly, the two are not always the same.  Ask anyone in a large organization who is charged with cross-functional presentations.

As helpful as it is to tap into our own passion, our audience members will inevitably judge us based on what they care about.

It may not be as simple as: “Speak on what you are passionate about.”

I was channel surfing on Friday and caught the last few minutes of a speech by George Will, the syndicated columnist.

He used a closing technique that was impressively strong.  From memory he quoted several famous leaders—one right after the other.  Then he delivered a closing statement that summarized the point all these people were making—a point, I assume, that captured the theme of his speech.  

It’s not uncommon to hear a speaker quote someone at the end of a speech.  What was unusual was the use of several quotes from several different people.  One built upon another for a combined impact that no single quote could have.

 I’ve never used more than a few quotes spread out over a whole message; but, I’m definitely going to try this closing technique someday.

I’m not a big fan of speakers using jokes.  It’s too easy to either offend someone or—in an effort to avoid offense— to tell a joke that is so benign it’s lame.

However, if you have to tell a joke, please make it relevant to your topic.  It should have at least some connection to what you are talking about.

I once spent a day working with speechwriters who were on staff at a large corporation.  They talked about being frustrated by the CEO because he always wanted to start his talks with a joke.  They would prepare a strong, relevant opening and he would say: “I need a joke.  Give me a joke.”  If they resisted his request, he would come up with one from a book of jokes he kept in his desk.  The result was laughter (usually) but no relevance in how he was starting his message.

Go ahead.  Live dangerously.  Tell a joke.  But, use it to effectively tee up your topic.

There is a cheap way that some speakers try to sound profound.

They string together long chains of rhetorical questions as a substitute for specific insights and useful information.

So what is important?  How should we plan our lives?  Can we really know where we want to be in five years?  Is there a danger in limiting what we focus on?  Have goals worked for you?  Do you have some current goals?  Are they realistic? Have you shared them with others?     

They might tell you that they are provoking thought, a la the Socratic teaching method.  That doesn’t hold water because the essential dialogue is missing.

There is nothing wrong with the occasional rhetorical question.  It has multiple uses.  It can be an effective lead-in to a content-rich section.  It can also challenge audience members to consider how something just revealed might apply to them personally

What is not acceptable is stringing together rhetorical questions as a substitute for the valuable answers audience members expected from their expert speaker.

I’m rereading Natalie Goldberg’s 1986 book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

In a segment called “Baking a Cake,” she draws a parallel between baking and writing.  When you combine the ingredients in a cake recipe, you don’t have a cake, you have batter.  You only get a cake when you add heat.  Similarly, strung-together details don’t make a good piece of writing; “You must add the heat and energy of your heart.”

I can see the same analogy being applied to speaking.  Information without the “heat and energy of your heart” falls short of an engaging message.

Goldberg also talks about the reverse: writing that is all heat and energy without detail.  You get the “sense of great warmth,” but there is “nothing to bite into.”  I’ve listened to any number of political speeches that match that description.

I was reading recently that a number of cooking show hosts have become such celebrities that their personal appearances are like mini rock concerts.  People yell and cheer as ingredients are added to some concoction.  Amazing!

You may never reach celebrity status as a speaker, but you will increase your popularity by adding some “spices” to your messages.

The basic spices from your public speaking spice rack include metaphors, analogies, examples and anecdotes.

 You can leave them out but that is like serving plain chicken to dinner guests.  It’s nutritional, but who wants to eat more than a few polite bites?

Here’s the scenario.

You just put the final touches on a presentation when you are informed that your next paycheck will be calculated based on how well the presentation audience can recall your main points.  A questionnaire is going to be sent to everyone who was present and the average score will determine your pay.

Would you leave it as is or redo it?

I suspect you would dive back in and make some changes.

The revised piece would have fewer, simpler, more focused slides.  The main points would be previewed, reinforced with repetition, and reviewed.  Carefully crafted examples, analogies and anecdotes would be included for better understanding.  More opportunities for audience participation would be built in. 

 In the end, it would probably look a bit different.

You are at a fundraiser for cancer research.

One of the speakers is talking about the devastating nature of cancer.  This person describes the terrible consequences and then moves into a story about the final days of a loved one.  Thirty seconds into the story the speaker is suddenly seized by emotion and can’t continue.  

You and your fellow audience members are empathetic and touched by the emotion, but the speaker is shaken and embarrassed.  Also, important points the speaker wanted to make are left unmade.

I’ve observed several of these emotional breakdowns over the years.  Inevitably, the speakers have said afterward that they didn’t see it coming.  They had practiced their talks without incident.  Yet, when they started telling their story to an actual audience, emotions welled up and overcame them.

Sometimes, this can happen because they did not specifically practice the story.  They practiced all the other content of their speech, but they were confident the story itself was dependably memorable.  This left them unaware of how emotionally explosive certain recollections would prove to be.

But even if they did practice the story, there is still the potential to be overwhelmed when the emotion of public speaking is added to the mix.  The anxiety of standing in front of an audience can meet up with powerful memories to cause an emotional perfect storm

Stories packed with emotion can be powerful additions to a speech but, like electricity, they need to be thoughtfully handled and respected.  They should be practiced to the point where they can be delivered with enough composure in reserve to handle the additional stress of public speaking.

“This stuff is so dry!”

I’ve heard this complaint from scores of presenters over the years.

Whether their presentation features scientific data or a financial analysis, they feel defeated by the material.  They despair of being able to hold an audience’s attention.

Last week I was working with someone who is scheduled to present to a group of clinicians who will be conducting a pharmaceutical research study.  She is charged with explaining the study guidelines. 

We had only reviewed a few of her slides when she declared: “This stuff is so dry!”

I challenged her to think back over what she and her associates had gone through in developing these guidelines.  What hard-learned lessons from previous studies had they drawn from?  What debates had they engaged in?  What rationale formed the bases for some of the less common guidelines they were insisting on?

Answers to questions like these take an audience behind the scenes.  They reveal interesting (read: non-dry) stories about the otherwise “dry” content detailed on the slides. 

Including some of these behind-the-scenes stories and explanations will both enrich a presentation and energize a presenter.

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