5 Expert Tips for Giving the Speech of Your Life
There’s that invitation that involves public speaking that you want to accept. And then there’s that once-in-a-lifetime speech you want that invitation to become.
You know the kind of speech I’m referring to: the pivotal presentation that defines a person, cause or culture -- that crucial communications moment your audience members will remember for weeks afterward.
To set the stage (pun intended) for this event, imagine an imaginary setting: a new CEO’s first all-hands-on meeting with a global company following a contentious merger. If the organization is to survive, our CEO must project confidence and optimism.
Alternatively, picture a city official making the case to the International Olympic Committee to bring the Games -- and the $5.2 billion in revenue associated with them -- to his city.
Or think about an impassioned thought leader poised to convince a TED audience that his idea will revolutionize how schools operate. Or maybe the speaker is a humanitarian preparing to convince the United Nations to continue funding a violence protection program for poor women in the developing world; those women are counting on the speaker's program to keep them out of harm’s way.
It’s clear by now that this speech isn't going to be about quarterly sales, a status meeting or routine presentation. No, this is one of those make-or-break moments when the speaker must persuade, inspire and/or win big because the stakes are just that high.
To find out what such an accomplishment would need to entail, I reached out to five experts whose clients have included the real-life CEO, city official, thought leader and humanitarian living these crucial communications moments. Below I share their best tips for transforming a good speech into the speech heard 'round the world.
1. Go beyond holding people's attention. Get them to feel, know, do.
If you're preparing to give the speech of your life, you probably mastered the art of holding the attention of an audience years ago. But in these pivotal moments, you want more than people's eyes and ears trained on you. “You want your audience to feel, know and do specific things,” says Alexandra Franzen, a professional writer, author and writing coach.
Although we don't currently work together, Franzen and I collaborated many years ago, putting together messaging for my brand strategy clients. I've followed her work online ever since and attended her workshop. So I know firsthand that her insights are valuable for connecting with an audience, since she's helped hundreds of change-makers prepare for big-stakes speeches like TEDx Talks, movie and TV pitches and conference keynotes.
Related: The Top Rules Of Public Speaking
Working behind the scenes as a ghostwriter and speechwriter for some big names, Franzen swears by her Feel -- Know -- Do technique because she says it challenges clients to think more deeply about their presentation’s vision and purpose.
Keep in mind that while your purpose in taking the stage may be obvious to you, your audience is looking to you for direction. You’re the expert, so don’t be afraid to "own it." Before crafting your script and stepping onto the big stage, Franzen suggests, ask yourself the following questions:
What do I want my audience to feel? Do you want them to walk away from your presentation feeling inspired, motivated, energized, understood, relieved or curious (or some other emotion)?
What do I want my audience to know? What's the big message, lesson or main piece of information you want to convey?
What do I want my audience to do? What's the action you want them to take once they step out of the room? Do you want them to vote? Donate? Sign up for your next program? Hire you?
First answering these questions can be the difference between giving a fine speech and moving your audience to take action.
2. Use emotion and logic to motivate.
Speaking of moving your audience to action, in high-stakes situations, your No. 1 goal is always to get someone, somewhere to act differently. Never lose sight of this goal.
Many speakers mistakenly believe they’re being persuasive by presenting data in the form of fancy charts, graphs and spreadsheets. Warning against this is Sally McGraw, a ghostwriter and editor currently working with some of my clients.
McGraw has helped dozens of authors craft compelling proposals and pitch letters to successfully secure book deals. “In my experience," she says, "persuasion is more about the heart than the mind. If you want to sway someone to your side, you need to convince them emotionally as well as logically.” If you expect your facts to do all the heavy lifting, she says, your argument may feel dry and distant.
But if you broadcast genuine emotion, you’ve got a shot at winning your audience's deep trust and loyalty. McGraw suggests you share stories, anecdotes and insights, instead of focusing solely on hard evidence. “Introduce a complex concept by explaining why it's meaningful to you, or pitch an idea by describing how it changed your life,” she says. “This may sound awfully woo-woo, but dang if it isn't effective.”
Chip and Dan Heath, who are authors and masters of persuasion, agree with McGraw about engaging your audience emotionally. But they put their own twist on the idea. In their book, Switch, which is about convincing people to make a change, the authors use the metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider. Each of your audience members has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side. To move them to act differently, you’ve got to address both sides.
Personally, I’ve never ridden an elephant, but I can imagine how difficult it might be to move one when it's feeling stubborn. The task is all about learning to speak the elephant's language. The same is true of your audience.
3. Make your first words count.
“First words matter. Make them better,” Dia Bondi reminds us. Bondi is a leadership communications catalyst who has helped executives, humanitarians and government officials from organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Rio Olympics Selection Committee prepare compelling speeches; so she would know.
I became acquainted with Bondi’s work because we are fellow Activators in SheEO, a venture fund designed to support fledgling, women-run businesses. She's hired me in the past to work on her brand messaging.
Bondi understands how to bring crucial communications moments into stark relief: “Your time on stage will be defined by the first words you utter into the mic," she says. "Starting strong tells us what the rest of your time will be like, who you are and what you’ll be expecting of us as you move through your content.”
Not surprisingly, first impressions matter. From the moment we shake hands with a potential client, we know we have only a few crucial seconds to convince him or her to listen to what we have to say. Now scale that moment to giving the speech of a lifetime to an audience of hundreds.
If your palms are getting clammy, take a deep breath. Bondi's advice on those first words is “You’ll know how best to start if you write your first words last. Get your story out on paper, speak it through once or twice and then ask yourself, What is the most compelling verbal entry point for your time on stage? A metaphor? A personal story? An image on the screen that provokes?”
In 2017, she recalls, she attended a large fundraiser in a standard hotel ballroom, with waiters in white vests and guests who were the predictable polite philanthropists coming to a predictable event to donate a predictable amount.
What couldn't be predicted, Bondi said, was what the recipient of an award did for her acceptance speech: "She took a deep breath and sang an American folk song, full force and a capella. In that moment, we knew who she was, what she was about and what mattered to her. From the lyrics to the delivery, she had us at hello."
Don’t worry. You don’t have to start with a song. But you do need to grab your audience immediately by letting them know who you are and what you’re about.
4. Tell a story.
Like a great book, speeches that start a movement or motivate people to act employ skillful storytelling. There’s actually a psychological reason you can recount the plot line of Breaking Bad five years after watching the final episode, but you can’t remember what your financial advisor told you about stock futures yesterday.
Stories create memories with staying power because they attach emotions to events -- like Velcro in the brain. If you don’t feel like an expert storyteller or are having a hard time conceptualizing what kind of story you could tell about getting your C-suite to increase your budget allocation by 200 percent, Kymberlee Weil can.
As a TEDx producer and speaking strategist and founder of Strategic Samurai, she can offer some ideas. Weil coaches speakers on how to give the speech of their lives on the TEDx stage and beyond. (In fact, I've used her services in the past in crafting ideas for TEDx events.) She has worked with more than 200 TEDx speakers worldwide, so she knows what to look for in a powerful speech.
“Your authentic story can connect your audience to you forever by allowing them to feel what you feel, see what you see and understand what you understand through your point of view," Weill told me. "Your audience may not remember a collection of facts; however, they will remember a well-crafted story.”
So, instead of simply trying to convince a VC (or Shark!) to fund your startup by talking about the macro benefits, share the personal story of one particular customer and how your offering supercharged that person's work or life. If you're asking a government official to change the law, drill down to the human impact of the request and what that means for the community.
Rather than saying, "This program benefits thousands," point out how not refunding the program could affect 10,000 women and their families in Kenya -- "like this one" (insert an image of a real family the program has helped).
5. Succeed at being you.
When all else fails, be yourself. Arrive early, greet those in the room with a warm smile, shake hands and connect before you begin speaking. "Rather than fixating on the abilities of others, concentrate on your own unique strengths. Identify what you do well, which may be as simple as a warm smile. And let your natural skills and talent shine,” says Stephanie Scotti, a speaker, presentation coach, executive communications specialist and author of the forthcoming book, Talk on Water – The Mindset for Powerhouse Presentations.
In her 25-plus years’ experience, Scotti told me, she's seen how letting the “real” you shine through boosts self-confidence while building rapport with your audience.
She acknowledges, however, how hard it is to step outside your comfort zone. “When faced with a high-profile presentation, many of us strive to be perfectionists,” Scotti says. Whenever she helps clients to give an important speech, she tells them to remember “It’s about connection, not perfection.”
Giving the speech of a lifetime is an amazing opportunity. While it might feel like intense pressure, know that if you are well prepared, the odds are good you’ll hit it out of the park. Take these tips with you. The next time you step up to speak, you'll deliver a speech that gets things moving.