Speaking Your Way to the Corner Office

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As a professional speechwriter, I often ask clients to do the following before we sit down and even think about putting pen to paper.

First, think about the best speech you’ve ever seen in person. Was it at a conference? Probably. A rubber chicken lunch? Perhaps. An annual general meeting? Not likely.

Second, think about the worst speech you’ve ever seen. Was it laden with “low hanging fruit,” by someone who was “drilling down” as if he or she would really rather be anywhere else on the planet than at the podium?

And third, watch Michael Moore’s 70-second Oscar acceptance speech for “Bowling for Columbine” in 2003, which managed to inflame Republicans and inspire Democrats while talking about the Pope and the Dixie Chicks all in the same breath.

I ask clients to do these things because it is a good way to realize what makes or breaks one’s ability to meet the objective of giving a speech — which is being memorable for something, hopefully your key message. And that is a good way to start a narrative journey.

Make no mistake. Collaborating on a speech should be a journey, with nobody entirely certain at the start where the text will end up. Keep in mind that speechwriters — be they staff or externally hired — don’t typically know everything they need to know to produce a great speech. So simply handing them forests of PowerPoint slides doesn’t do the trick. That is why there needs to be prep interviews. But even then, while speechwriters can ask good questions and do thorough research, we aren’t mind readers. So our clients need to be prepared to loosen up and share a few anecdotes to help us articulate key points effectively. After all, we’re not at the podium on game day.

Simply put, the speechwriting journey allows for time to collaborate on ideas, not to mention the selection of relevant facts and compelling stories that can be woven together. It also allows speechwriters to craft a few lines that will really stand out, giving the audience something to remember.

There is, of course, another question that needs to be asked before a journey with a speechwriter begins, especially if the speech giver is an ambitious person not yet in a senior leadership position. And that question is: Do you endure or embrace the speech experience?

Be candid in responding. And if you are a non-CEO who doesn’t embrace the speech experience, think about that while you keep in mind that being able to give a great speech can help you land in the corner office.

OK, so now that everybody embraces the experience, here are some tips.

BE CONCISE

We have all been there, most likely several times. You are at a conference and think the keynote speaker is about to share some real insights. But within a few minutes, it becomes painfully obvious that no such treat is in store. That’s because the speaker has instead launched into a detail-heavy text that makes a bank’s MD&A seem like the kid book Goodnight Moon in comparison.

When crafting a speech, remember what being in an audience is like and be concise. After all, the objective is being understood and remembered, even briefly, not ending your speech exhausted, like you just finished a spinning class. And if you’re not still fresh after speaking, why would you expect anyone in the audience to be alert enough to hear your key points, let alone be energized by them?

If you are clear and concise, your audience will appreciate your economy of words. Your boss, clients and high-potential sales prospects in the audience (make sure they are there) will take note. And you’ll jump down from the stage fresh and confident.

That said, don’t go too short, lest the audience feels you’re giving them (and the event organizers) short shrift, as if you’re doing them all a favour because you have nothing worth sharing.

Short can be great if you’re entertaining and informative. But many people substitute curt for short, which is a mistake. As a general rule on length, most keynote speeches should be 1,500 to 2,000 words. Anything longer than 2,500 words for a lunch crowd is really pushing it. Anything beyond that is Marcel Proust territory. And we all know how many people actually read Proust these days.

Exactly.

So unless you’re giving a Canadian federal budget speech, delivering a presidential State of the Union speech, or channeling Fidel Castro circa 1975, keep your speech short.

PRACTICE IS KEY

Don’t fool yourself. Very few people are born to give a fabulous keynote address without any preparation. Indeed, giving a good speech typically requires training as well as energy and commitment.

Don’t let your workload get in the way of this necessity. Barack Obama gives great speeches. And he is a rather busy guy. So if world leaders can take time to rehearse their speeches, as most do, then surely you can take some time in between staff meetings to rehearse your text.

After you have put ego aside along with time to practice, ask for and be open to blunt feedback. Good speechwriters and speech presentation coaches are excellent soundboards for how your speech will come across to your audience. Remember that they exist to help you look good.

TAKE A BRIEF TIME-OUT

Silence from the podium can feel awkward. But if it is planned well, it can be a golden tool if you understand how to maximize its value and use it to emphasize key points.

When working on a speech, think about one or two lines that you really want people to remember. And after you deliver them, give your audience a moment to process what you just said, especially if you’re challenging an assumption or goring a sacred ox. The same goes for when you’re throwing a statistic at them that you really want to stick.

Don’t overdo the silence. People will start to think you’re mentally wandering or simply wasting their time. Give the audience just a few seconds to reflect on what you said.

Even a few seconds of silence, of course, can feel like a lifetime when you are at the podium. But your audience will appreciate a few pauses. You can also use the time to take some water to help your voice stay strong.

LEND ME YOUR EARS

Like many things, good slogans come in threes. Peace, order and good governance. Liberty, equality and fraternity. Veni, vidi, vici, et cetera. Why? Simple. Triads have a rhythm that resonates well with listeners.

The point here is that flow matters because when you are speaking, your audience isn’t reading a text or following along on a teleprompter. Ears do the heavy lifting when people attend a speech, and while eyes can rest, ears never close, even if the mind between them sometimes wanders.

When crafting a speech, it is also important to consider aural quality. You must focus on the weight and sound of words because some words simply sound too heavy and awkward when used in normal conversation, which is how most speeches should come across. When a Director of Strategy is at the office, for example, he or she talks about “utilizing” assets, but they “use” a toaster at home.

So if you’re speaking at your local Chartered Financial Analyst chapter, feel free to use industry jargon and acronyms. But if you’re at the local chamber of commerce, then keep it simple, like you would with good friends. And never venture “outside the box” with your words.

CREATE A DIALOGUE

It may not seem like it, but speeches are dialogue. Although only one party is typically speaking aloud, the audience is engaged in conversation with you mentally. Or at least that’s the hope.

When audience members do not follow along, asking questions to themselves as they listen, the podium becomes a barrier, and the speech becomes a monologue or a one-way lecture. So try these techniques to create a dialogue:

Relate to people – Lead off with a brief personal story to which the audience can relate. Put yourself in their shoes to illustrate a key point. Many people will follow along, recognizing themselves in your story.

Ask questions – Pose a few questions to your audience to stimulate engagement. Then, as per above, pause long enough for them to actually think about their answers.

Involve the audience – In some speech settings, it may be appropriate to solicit audience involvement through a show of hands, for example. Used sparingly, this can help make your point and engage the audience, taking them on the journey together.

CRANK UP YOUR TITLE

Shakespeare’s rose would smell as sweet by any other name. But what about speeches — do their titles matter? Do titles help fill seats? Do they drive business?

Like all speechwriters, I’ve been asked by many clients for “killer titles” that will help pack the room for their CEO. No pressure. Yet, regardless of what some corporate executives may want, using any variation of “The Status Quo Is Not an Option” as a speech title is yawn-inducing. Content must be Red Bull-infused to get over a hurdle like that.

In writing this article I did some research on speech titles. Specifically, I looked at the titles of events held by the Economic Club of Canada from January to June of this year.

A few politicians — former and current — came in with the shortest titles. Former Chrétien cabinet minister Sergio Marchi was economical with his “The Electricity Imperative,” while current federal minister Lisa Raitt was equally brief when addressing “Canada’s Transportation Future.”

Canada’s Governor General was at the other end of the word scale. His Excellency David Johnston weighed in with “Towards an Innovation Nation: Inspiring a Culture of Creativity and Forward Thinking for a Better Canada.” It’s a really important topic, if you can get past the title.

It’s true that you can’t judge a speech by its title, just as you can’t measure how much business a title brought in. But it still pays to put your back into it, as it were, when coming up with a title, without going over the top. Crank it up a bit. Your audience deserves something clever.

At the same time, think about your title — and your entire speech — from a social media perspective. Content is the narrative of our times, and by harnessing social media you can increase the impact and reach of your speech.

If you keep these thoughts in mind the next time you want to deliver a memorable speech, I can’t promise you an Oscar. But you’ll be credible, memorable, and influential. And you just might give your career a nice boost.

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