How to Give a Great Speech

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“What’s your process for writing a speech?”

That was an unexpected interview question several years ago. An energetic organizational development professional with a Ph.D. at a large corporation sat across the desk from me awaiting my response.

“Process?” I racked my brain as I tried to stave off panic. “I just sit down and do it,” I thought.

Because I’m on the intuitive end of the Myers-Briggs preferences spectrum between intuition and sensing, I prefer patterns and future possibilities to an over-emphasis on process.

However, a response was required.

And here’s my process, whether I’m writing a speech for a C-level leader or myself – like in the photo above that Shel Holtz took of the social media general session at the 2013 IABC World Conference.

As I reflected on how I prepared, I came up with a 12-step process. Here are thoughts on each.

Planning. What are the objectives for the speech? What do you need the audience to think or do differently? Beyond that, assess the format of the speech. Is it a keynote? An interview? A panel? Decide if the selected format will enable you to best meet the objectives. If not, make a change.

Analyzing the audience. Who is the audience? What are their key characteristics? What do they believe and what do you need to change about their beliefs or actions? Consider ways you can make an emotional connection with your audience.

Ideating. Sketch out ideas on paper, ask others for input and set times to “think without thinking,” a concept inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Consider what you want to accomplish. Then set it aside and go for a walk, take a nap or do other work. The ideas will flow later as your subconscious mind generates them while you walk, sleep or work.

Researching. Create a thesis statement. What are you trying to prove? Or disprove? Then do some research for facts and figures that support your thesis. Bring a critical eye to the online sources you choose. Will they carry enough weight with your audience? Do they add variety? Do they help you present your subject in fresh, unexpected or humorous ways?

Outlining. Create a rough outline from everything you’ve done so far. Start with a compelling opening. A dramatic statement. A startling question. Or a keen observation. Then make sure your information flows in a logical progression. Find the surprise in your material for the ending. Give the audience a “so what” to summarize. And leave them with a strong call to action of what they should do next. Start thinking about accompanying visuals. What photos, images or videos could enhance your message, add humor or bring emotion to your subject?

Writing. Now it’s time to write the first draft of your speech. But first you’ll have to get rid of the inner critic. What works for me is to “write sh**.” Just “write anything” to get words on the page. No judgments about whether they’re good or bad. Just put words on the screen. Because they can be shaped later in the editing process. That’s what I do with this blog. The real art comes in the editing, eliminating and refining.

Refining. Set your draft aside. Ideally for a day. If you’re short on time, even an hour will help. Then look at your draft with a fresh set of eyes. You’ll probably find that it’s better than you thought. And you’ll have some perspective to start editing and refining it. Does the opening grab the audience right from the start? Does the material flow in a logical way? Have you used simple words and short sentences that you would actually use in conversation? Have you triple-checked all of your facts?

Developing visuals. What visuals will enhance your talk and bring your key points to life? Consider your medium. Will you use Prezi, PowerPoint, SlideShare or a SlideDoc? Your visuals aren’t your speaking notes, so don’t cram them with a lot of words. Think about the visuals that can help tell your story. A photo or a video clip, perhaps. Watch TED talks for ideas and inspiration.

Rehearsing. Memorize your speech, or at least the key points, so you can deliver your talk in a friendly and relaxed way. I record myself giving the speech on my iPhone, and then I listen to it during drive time to memorize and refine it. Arrive early and rehearse on the stage where you’ll give the presentation. Know who will introduce you, how you’ll enter the stage and where you’ll stand or sit. Move around the stage – and even among the audience – if you can as you speak. Magic Johnson did this once at a conference I attended. He literally jumped off the stage, walked up and down the aisles, took selfies with audience members and generally spun speaking gold.

Promoting. Promote your speech before before and after you give it. Promotion before will encourage more people to attend. There are the usual ways, such as the conference website, social media channels and news releases. Tap into your own social media, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram or others. Make sure the audience knows your Twitter handle and the conference hashtag. Right after your speech, jump into any conversations in social media – to retweet observations that amplify your message, make new connections and extend the reach of your talk. Post a video of part or all of your speech in YouTube.

Presenting. Here’s where feedback on other speeches can help you. Whenever you speak, see if it can be recorded. As painful as it may be, watch the recording. Identify what you did well and what you would improve. Ask others for feedback. Act on it. Sleep well the night before your talk. Eat a good breakfast. Wear something that makes you feel great – especially bold solid colors that will stand out and contrast with the stage. Do the Amy Cuddy Wonder Woman power pose right before you speak. If you’re nervous, remember the audience is rooting for you. Be human and relatable. Pretend you’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone in the audience. Make eye contact. Smile. Breathe. Enjoy.

Getting feedback. Stick around after your talk to answer questions and ask others what they thought. See what the buzz is in social media. Watch the video of your talk. Check out the conference evaluations, if there are any. Just like in your life and your career, strive to get better each time you speak.

Many people have inspired me as I’ve come to love public speaking. I listen to TED talks during drive time – to learn something new, pick up speaking tips and identify thought leaders I may seek as speakers as corporate leadership events.

Chris Anderson who curates TED is writing a book called Talk This Way, out in spring 2016. In the meantime, some of his thinking is crystallized in How to Give a Killer Presentation in Harvard Business Review.

And Nancy Duarte is one of my favorite thought leaders in presenting with panache through storytelling – in her TED talk, LinkedIn blog and website.

This week I spoke about self-awareness to high-potential leaders at my company. Using the process above, I hope I’ve helped inspire colleagues on their development journeys. Based on some of the feedback, I’m hopeful and inspired that I did.

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Caroline Leach

Hi, I'm Caroline Leach. I help people and organizations tell their stories. I'm a Marketing VP at AT&T, a former Communications VP at DIRECTV and an enthusiastic alum of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This blog, Social Media Savvy for Corporate Professionals, shows you how to build your personal brand, advance your career and embrace your future. It helps you promote your employer and your network too. Opinions expressed in this blog are my own. Your comments are welcomed and encouraged. I'd love to hear from you!

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