5 Tips To Ace Your Next Speech

By Dean Foust

Are you dreading that upcoming presentation?  Knees shaking and palms sweating just thinking about it? You’re not alone. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld noted that more people fear public speaking than death. Which, he jokes, means that more people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.

Here are five tips that will help you write a great speech. (And if you prefer the support of an executive speechwriter who can help draft the remarks and provide presentation coaching, I can help.)

Tip #1: Start with the audience’s needs and work backwards. 

It is NOT what you want to say, it is what your AUDIENCE wants or needs to hear for them to act. As speechwriters like to say, write from the seats — not from the stage.

Just as marketers create customer personas, invest the time to create a persona for your audience. Who are they? What keeps them up at night and, conversely, what inspires them?

Next, what message will resonate with how they think and speak? For instance, don’t use acronyms or jargon that the audience won’t understand. And if you’re speaking to Gen Z employees, quote MrBeast not Morgan (as in, J.P.).

Ask yourself: how do I want the audience to feel? Threatened? Inspired? Empowered? And last, what will motivate them to take the action you want? Creating these audience personas makes it far easier to write an effective Call to Action.

Tip #2: Deliver a big, original idea that rewards the audience for their time.

I spent 23 years as a writer, editor, and bureau chief at BusinessWeek — and my last editor-in-chief challenged us to write stories that “surprise the reader” with news or a fresh take they didn’t get from the The Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe Economist or elsewhere. If we couldn’t tell the reader something they didn’t know or hadn’t read already, our story didn’t make that week’s magazine.

The same principle applies to speeches. 

As the Director of Executive Communications for UPS, my team and I looked for opportunities for our top executives to make news during a big speech — often, announcing a new service or philanthropic commitment.

If we didn’t have news, we worked to identify a big idea that the audience hadn’t heard elsewhere. Everyone knows the Chinese market is big. But did you know that by 2050, China will be home to 32 of the world’s 200 largest cities? And 24 will be larger than San Diego? A great stat is you’re speaking in San Diego, and you can easily find the comparable number for whatever city you’re in.

So, ask yourself: Do I have a message that will stick? One that makes the audience say, “Wow. I never knew that.”  This is the sentence that you want your audience to Tweet out during your talk or share with their friends or colleagues after your speech. You just need a good soundbite.

Great soundbites use superlatives (“the largest,” “the first,” et al.) or find a way to make a statistic or number seem relatable. UPS invested early, and heavily, in alternative fuel vehicles, and when the company hit its goal of driving its first 1 billion miles in these alt-fuel vehicles in 2016, we noted that this was “the equivalent of well over 4,000 trips to the moon.”

And of course, Steve Jobs did this adroitly at the launch event for the iPod. Rather than just list the storage capacity of the new device, Jobs said the iPod let you carry “1,000 songs in your pocket.” With that one line, the music industry was forever changed.

Tip #3: Open with a bang.

Neuroscience shows that you have 20 seconds to grab the audience’s attention, yet many speakers waste the first minute or two telling a joke, thanking everyone at the head table, or on housekeeping (“coffee in back, restrooms to the right”). 

Many great TED speakers opened with a provocative statement that hooked the audience from the start. Nilofer Merchant opened her 2013 TED talk with a bold declaration: 

“What you’re doing at this very moment, right now, is killing you … Sitting has become the smoking of our generation.” 

A strong opening lets audiences know, right away, that this is one of the most important talks they’ll hear this year.

Open with statements that appeal to the audience’s emotions. Many speakers rely too much on logic — overwhelming the audience with a welter of facts and statistics. But neuroscience has proven that EMOTION, not facts, is what drives audiences to action. 

And the key to moving audiences emotionally is telling great stories in your presentation. People will forget your facts within a day but will remember a great story for years to come. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner said we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact WHEN it has been wrapped in a story.

As the writer Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Let Inspirent Communications write your next speech, talking points, or script. Click here to contact us.

Tip #4: Create “heroes” and “villains.”

They don’t have to be actual people, and it’s probably best that you don’t tag real people as villains. “Villains” can be your biggest competitor, or concepts like global warming or waste and inefficiency.

As for the “hero” … well, it’s not you. Beware speakers who say, “I’m going to blather about my struggles for an hour and what you can learn.” Few have stories that justify this approach.

Your hero should be your audience, or at least a third party with whom they identify. 

And it’s okay — if not preferable — that the hero struggles with a big challenge. Life, literature, and cinema are filled with heroes who struggle. Every story needs tension to be compelling.

What’s your role in the story? You are the wise mentor who helps the protagonist (customers, employees, policymakers) unlock their potential and achieve their dreams. Great salespeople do this well.

Think Yoda to Luke Skywalker, or Dumbledore when he tells Harry Potter, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities.”

Tip #5: Memorize the opening and closing of your talk — but not the middle.

Most executives don’t have time to memorize a whole speech — and if they try, risk leaving out critical information. 

But do try to memorize the opening and closing, ideally 2 to 5 minutes for each.

Neuroscience shows that audiences will remember your opening and closing remarks (particularly if you open with a story), so memorizing a strong beginning and end makes your talk feel authentic. 

The middle of your speech is where you provide your supporting arguments, and the audience will understand if you refer to notes then.

 

The tips I’ve shared this week are just a few of the building blocks that go into every speech we write — and how we coach executives to deliver those speeches on stage.

We offer speechwriting services, and one-on-one and group presentation coaching to help speakers wow their audience. You can content us at dean@ceospeechwriters or by calling 678.983.7310 for more information.

 

Contact Dean Foust to write your next speech, talking points, or script.

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