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Five Tips to Developing a Successful Talk
by Shari Graydon
Even if you’re telling people 10 things they didn’t know about orgasms, or describing the experience of having a stroke from the inside out, it’s a lot harder to engage an online audience for your talk than it is to gather eyeballs for a celebrity meltdown or political sex scandal. But having watched some or all of several dozen talks in preparation for my own remarks at an upcoming TEDx event here in Ottawa, I’ve been reminded of a few things.
Organization counts: You don’t have to stick to the clichéd “tell ‘em what you plan to say, say it, and then tell ‘em what you said” approach, but adopting some kind of organizational strategy – even if it’s not articulated – makes it easier for an audience to trust that you have a plan and stick with you. A numbered list may be overdone, but that’s precisely because it gives your listeners a road map. Other options can be equally useful. In a tight time frame, for example, approaches that match a problem with its solution, counter myths with facts, or support a proposition with evidence, provide a built-in structure and facilitate transitions from one point to another. The added advantage of such structure is that the remarks become easier for you to remember, too.
Humility is appealing: The very act of speaking to an audience requires a certain hubris, but when a presenter’s ego – rather than her original content or conviction in relaying the message – constitutes too big a part of what’s on offer, it’s a turn-off. So leavening the references to one’s personal experiences or accomplishments with self-deprecating humour or bigger picture context is crucial.
Ideas matter: In an age dominated by diminishing sound bites, 280-character tweets and a relentless array of superficial imagery, it’s tempting to believe that substance is passé. But one of the reasons people still show up to hear live speakers is because they’re hungry for something different. And so even if you don’t have a remarkable new discovery or wholly original information, the expectation is that you will at least present your material in an interesting and engaging way. Unexpected juxtapositions, authentic personal stories, research-informed analysis – all of these are helpful if you’re not able to deliver genuinely new insights.
Language is powerful: I’ve been teaching various kinds of writing for 15 years, and one of the first lessons I learned from a mentor-instructor remains one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, and continue to give, encapsulated in the acronym PAC: Make your language Precise, Accessible and Concise. Use vivid verbs, specific nouns and adjectives that paint a strong image in your audience’s mind. Ensure you choose words familiar to the audience you’re addressing; jargon and acronyms are fine for insiders, but otherwise, aim for language that an 8th grader can grasp. And never use five words when one will do, or take 10 minutes to tell a story when the punch line only warrants two. But precision, accessibility and concision are just the starting point. The use of active verbs, lively metaphors, and judicious repetition can also make the difference between pedestrian and arresting.
Slides can undermine: We live in a visual world, and so if the words you’re speaking – as compelling as they may be – have to compete for attention with a lot of text on your slides, they’re going to lose. (Unless the text is too small to read, in which case everybody loses.) So most of the time, it’s better to use images that illustrate, clarify or enhance your words. Look for strong, simple, clear photos or graphics, the significance of which can be immediately grasped or easily understood with the help of the words you speak.
How to Write a Better Speech
by Shari Graydon
My cabinet minister client was a speechwriter’s dream: She had deep knowledge of, inspirational passion for, and a lifetime of stories relevant to her portfolio. She also had a great sense of humour, and a strong and unique voice, which I could hear in my head as I wrote.
Because she was a minister, and her conference pronouncements might be construed as government policy, ministry staff occasionally had transcripts made of her remarks. On one occasion, I was sent such a transcript. I read it eagerly, so gratified to see that she had delivered every one of the 2,000 words I’d written – and (gulp) another 2,000 besides.
Her extemporaneous digressions were relevant and often entertaining, but knowing what havoc they would have wreaked not only on her schedule, but also on the conference program itself, made me cringe.
Here’s what happens when speakers are given 10 minutes, and they take 20: they are effectively saying either…
“I’m such an amateur that I don’t know that a conference organizer asking me to speak for 10 minutes expects me to actually time my remarks so as not to inconvenience everyone else”; OR
“I’m so self-important that I think my insights deserve more attention than those of the other speakers.”
Neither option is likely to endear a presenter to the people who spent months planning the event, recruiting talent, and developing a program that would maximize stimulation and engagement while still permitting attendees time to network and pee. I appreciate that most offenders would excuse their failure to keep to their time window by saying they were too busy to rehearse. But that’s not an option.
Because when someone gives us a microphone and a captive audience, we need to treat that as the privilege it is.
Besides, every time-stealing performance is also likely to be met with misery by those presenters unlucky enough to share the offender’s time slot. Because they know that every extra minute stolen by the undisciplined speaker means either less time for them, or no time for questions. This is particularly infuriating for speakers who did, actually rehearse their remarks with a timer, paring back their insights to the requested length so as not to infringe on others’ time.
It’s also disrespectful to audience members who may be eager to hear others on the program.
The bottom line is, when someone gives you a platform at an event they’ve invested time in planning, which includes other thought leaders on a packed program, this is what respectful professionalism looks like:
Think about what you can say that will be of most interest to the audience given the context for and focus of the event. If you’re drafting notes, aim for no more than 115 words per minute of allotted time.
Whether or not you’ve scripted your remarks, rehearse OUT LOUD using the stopwatch function on your smartphone. And DON’T read them at the kind of breakneck pace that prevents you from breathing.
Revise as needed.
Let me be clear on the second point: nobody wants to listen to your pinched and breathless voice as you stress it with the desperate task of delivering 30 minutes of material in 15. This act will not inspire an audience with confidence in your authority. And it will not support them in reflecting on, or remembering, what you said.
If you have something worth saying, you need to slow down. Research has found that audiences remember less what you said than what they thought about what you said. So you need to give them time to process, to consider, to make sense of your words…You need to vary your pace, and punctuate your key points with…pauses.
The pauses will take up a bit of time. You’ll have to sacrifice some of your precious words to accommodate them. But watch even just a few excerpts from a speech by Michelle Obama for a little inspiration. Even though she’s not offering complex analysis, the pauses she uses allow her audience some time to process and consider the significance of her words. To think about related consequences. To make personal connections. Every speaker benefits from that kind of engagement.
Five Steps to Overcoming Public Speaking Nerves
by Shari Graydon
What I hear often in workshops is that even thinking about the prospect of public speaking can make hearts race, palms sweat and mouths go dry. Here are five steps you can take to overcome those nerves:
Start with your head.
You can’t treat the symptoms without addressing the cause. And the cause is all in your head.
This is not to minimize the palpitations or over-active sweat glands. Those fight or flight symptoms are real. But they’re triggered by a manufactured fear, not the imminence of a genuine threat to your life.
Apocalyptic self-talk is behind why some of us experience those symptoms and some don’t. So if you’re afflicted, ask yourself if the mental chatter in the days, hours or minutes leading up to a presentation sounds anything like this:
These people know way more than I do; they’ll recognize me as a fraud.
They’re going to ask me challenging questions, and I don’t have all the answers.
My presentation is boring, they’ll be checking their phones within five minutes.
The chances of me losing my train of thought or otherwise humiliating myself are very high.
These are extremely common fears. But giving them air time constitutes exactly the kind of internal reinforcement almost guaranteed to inspire shaky hands.
So – and I know this is going to sound obnoxiously simplistic – you need to consciously substitute specific alternative chatter, appropriate to your context, because…
Positive self-talk is more powerful than you imagine.
Consider the following alternatives:
No one knows more about my project or research than I do.
I was asked to speak because I have something of value to share.
All questions are welcome; they demonstrate engagement and curiosity; I don’t need to know the answer to every one.
I’ve thought about what aspects of my topic will be of most interest to these people, and incorporated vivid language, telling images, relevant stories and surprising data to engage and enlighten them.
You’ll want to begin your alternative self-talk as far in advance of the presentation as you can. You can’t overcome the physical symptoms – the racing heart, the sweaty palms, the dry mouth – in the 20 minutes before you speak.
Start early; repeat often.
If you’ve spent 20 years running repetitive audio tapes in your head about how scary public speaking is, how ill-equipped you are for the task, and how badly you’re going to fail, you’ll want to take a running start at re-programming your poor brain. You don’t need the equivalent of two decades, but a month or two of chanting a new mantra every time you drive to work, step on the treadmill, or walk the dog, is probably necessary.
And while you’re doing so, it helps if you can vividly imagine yourself in the room, confident and relaxed, holding the audience spellbound.
Vividly imagining your success will significantly enhance its likelihood.
Serious athletes who are too injured to train don’t log onto Netflix for the six weeks it takes them to recuperate; they do the work mentally, instead. Because research has found that our brains often can’t tell the difference between a real and vividly imagined event.
Monitors attached to athletes’ legs have found that mentally putting yourself in the starting block, hearing the gun go off and sprinting down the track to the finish line, can create an astonishing level of muscle activity that helps to speed up recovery and maintain athleticism.
My own mental rehearsal also involves imagining an engaged audience who listen attentively, appreciate my sense of humour, and leave feeling both enlightened and motivated.
Repetition enhances performance.
Whether you’re an aspiring Olympic skater or a high-tech titan, actual practice is also necessary. Steve Jobs rehearsed out loud, and you should, too. The first time you tell a story, describe your research or deliver your pitch won’t be nearly as clear, concise or compelling as the fifth time.
Practicing your delivery in front of a supportive but candid friend (or even your smartphone on audio record) can be revelatory. The feedback helps you condense, polish and clarify. And the repetition reinforces the flow of ideas, making you more confident about your ability to deliver with the aid of a few bullets, rather than depend on an entire text.