When I started public speaking in about 1986, I was deathly afraid of public speaking—for one thing, working for the division run by Steve Jobs was hugely intimidating: How could you possibly compete with Steve? It’s taken me twenty years to get comfortable at it. I hope that many of you are are called upon to give speeches—it’s the closest thing to being a professional athlete that many of us will achieve. The purpose of this blog entry is to help you give great speeches.
- Have something interesting to say. This is 80% of the battle. If you have something interesting to say, then it’s much easier to give a great speech. If you have nothing to say, you should not speak. End of discussion. It’s better to decline the opportunity so that no one knows you don’t have anything to say than it is to make the speech and prove it.
- Cut the sales pitch. The purpose of most keynotes is to entertain and inform the audience. It is seldom to provide you with an opportunity to pitch your product, service, or company. For example, if you’re invited to speak about the future of digital music, you shouldn’t talk about the latest MP3 player that your company is selling.
- Focus on entertaining. Many speech coaches will disagree with this, but the goal of a speech is to entertain the audience. If people are entertained, you can slip in a few nuggets of information. But if your speech is deathly dull, no amount of information will make it a great speech. If I had to pick between entertaining and informing an audience, I would pick entertaining—knowing that informing will probably happen too.
- Understand the audience. If you can prove to your audience in the first five minutes that you understand who they are, you’ve got them for the rest of the speech. All you need to understand is the trends, competition, and key issues that the audience faces. This simply requires consultation with the host organization and a willingness to customize your introductory remarks. This ain’t that hard.
- Overdress. My father was a politician in Hawaii. He was a very good speaker. When I started speaking he gave me a piece of advice: Never dress beneath the level of the audience. That is, if they’re wearing suits, then you should wear a suit. To underdress is to communicate the following message: “I’m smarter/richer/more powerful than you. I can insult you and not take you serious, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” This is hardly the way to get an audience to like you.
- Don’t denigrate the competition. If you truly do cut the sales pitch, then this won’t even come up. But just in case, never denigrate the competition because by doing so, you are taking undue advantage of the privilege of giving a speech. You’re not doing the audience a favor. The audience is doing you a favor, so do not stoop so low as to use this opportunity to slander your competition.
- Tell stories. The best way to relax when giving a speech is to tell stories. Any stories. Stories about your youth. Stories about your kids. Stories about your customers. Stories about things that you read about. When you tell a story, you lose yourself in the storytelling. You’re not “making a speech” anymore. You’re simply having a conversation. Good speakers are good storytellers; great speakers tell stories that support their message.
- Pre-circulate with the audience. True or false: the audience wants your speech to go well. The answer is True. Audiences don’t want to see you fail—for one thing, why would people want to waste their time listening to you fail? And here’s the way to heighten your audience’s concern for you: circulate with the audience before the speech. Meet people. Talk to them. Let them make contact with you. Especially the ones in the first few rows; then, when you’re on the podium, you’ll see these friendly faces. Your confidence will soar. You will relax. And you will be great.
- Speak at the start of an event. If you have the choice, get in the beginning part of the agenda. The audience is fresher then. They’re more apt to listen to you, laugh at your jokes, and follow along with your stories. On the third day of a three-day conference, the audience is tired, and all they’re thinking about is going home. It’s hard enough to give a great speech—why increase the challenge by having to lift the audience out of the doldrums?
- Ask for a small room. If you have a choice, get the smallest room possible for your speech. If it’s a large room, ask that it be set “classroom style”—ie, with tables and chairs—instead of theatre style. A packed room is a more emotional room. It is better to have 200 people in a 200 person room than 500 people in a 1,000 person room. You want people to remember, “It was standing room only.”
- Practice and speak all the time. This is a “duhism,” but nonetheless relevant. My theory is that it takes giving a speech at least twenty times to get decent at it. You can give it nineteen times to your dog if you like, but it takes practice and repetition. There is no shortcut to Carnegie Hall. As Jascha Heifitz said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, my critics know it. If I don’t practice three days, everyone knows it.” Read this article to learn what Steve Jobs does.
It’s taken me twenty years to get to this point. I hope it takes you less. Part of the reason why it took me so long is that no one explained the art of giving a speech to me, and I was too dumb to do the research. And now, twenty years later, I love speaking. My goal, every time I get up to the podium, is to get a standing ovation. I don’t succeed very often, but sometimes I do. More importantly, I hope that I’m standing and clapping in the audience of your speech soon.
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