Spitfire Strategies

Say It Like You Mean It

Kristen Grimm

By Kristen Grimm

From toasting an organization’s anniversary to giving a keynote address to presenting to a board of trustees, public speaking is a major part of any leadership position. For some, public speaking comes naturally. You have seen these leaders in action. They power up charisma like it is an app they store in their brains, command the audience’s attention and leave listeners hanging on their every word. For others, public speaking falls somewhere between mildly anxiety-producing to complete drudgery.

I’ve helped leaders prepare to speak at Ted, Aspen Ideas Festival and the Clinton Global Initiative. I’ve worked with clients aiming to reinvigorate a fatigued army of grassroots activists, rally staff members to keep up the good fight and navigate supporters through the rough waters of a crisis. All these types of talks are important. Done well, these talks can use critical moments to propel organizations and issues forward.  

Here’s how to make sure you are ready to leverage these moments for all they are worth.

For starters, only agree to do a talk if it is strategic for you to do it. The first thing many leaders do when asked to speak is check the calendar. Don’t start here. Instead, ask: is giving this talk a top priority for my organization? Will it help forward specific goals? If the answer is yes, go for it. Then consider these tips for making the most of it.

You’ve said yes. Now it’s time to pull out your calendar. Block large chunks of time that you will devote to making sure it’s a success. Depending on the length and format, plan for 20 to 50 hours of prep time. You may scoff at this recommendation and think, “but it’s just a short speech.” In many cases, short talks take the most time to develop because you have fewer words to make an impact. Thoughtful prep is critical. You need to create the strategic underpinnings of your talk and craft words and visuals that convey your vision in a compelling way. You need to own the material and have time to practice the delivery. Take the time to prep right. Attention is a finite resource and something people give reluctantly. Don’t squander this opportunity to make your audience to sit up and pay attention.

Tip: Once you’ve blocked time on your calendar to prepare for your speech, treat it like you would any other meeting. Don’t bump it without rescheduling the time.

Know what you are getting into. Understand what the speaking opportunity is. Collect every detail about what you will be walking into. Who will be in the audience? How many people? Are you a keynote or the main event? Are you on a panel? If yes, who is on the panel with you? Who is speaking before you? Who goes after you? Will you be standing up or sitting down? Is there a podium? Are you expected to have PowerPoint slides or other visuals? How does the agenda describe the talk? Who is introducing you? How can you be sure what they say about you sets the right tone for your talk? Will the presentation be recorded? How will that recording be used?

Tip: Don’t let someone pull a bio off your website and use that to introduce you. Build credibility before you even open your mouth by tailoring your introduction to feature top points you want the audience to know about you.

Before you start writing your speech, ask: what idea are you trying to make contagious and how can you design your talk to do that? A speech allows you to explore a viewpoint, articulate a challenge or push for a solution. Cover ground the audience already knows and they’ll tune out, assuming they’ve heard it all before. Race ahead and you will lose all the people who can’t follow you. Decide what you want the audience to do at the end of your talk and design a talk that will make that happen. What desire do you need to ignite to get people excited? What confusion do you need to clear up? What crazy theoretical notion do you need to make real and touchable? In what order do you need to cover your main points so that when you are finished, your audience can’t help but be ready to do whatever you ask? This is the narrative arc of your speech and it needs to unfold like a good story with an enticing beginning, a solid middle and a rewarding end. You need to motivate people to stay involved and see what happens.

Tip: Bullet out your narrative arc first and then use words to bring it to life. Once you start writing, you’ll fall in love with phrases and blocking and be reluctant to revise them. Get the order and pace of the narrative arc down first; then add the text that makes it sing.

Credential yourself up front. Why should anyone listen to you? This is where you need to get personal. The audience needs to understand your intentions. How did you come to the viewpoint that you are about to share? What epiphany did you have that made you realize the importance of the topic at hand? What huge mistake made you realize it was time to do things differently? What expertise do you have that makes you an interesting voice on this topic? In just a few lines, you need to convince the audience that what they are about to sit through is going to be interesting and well worth their time.

Tip: Don’t start by undermining yourself. A classic example is to say, “X person is a hard act to follow… never agree to go after so and so.” This tells the audience that you don’t think you are as good as the last person and all but gives them permission to excuse themselves to the restroom or check their email. Instead, flip it and say something like, “I am thrilled to go after X because she gave me the perfect opening to explore this really important idea. Thanks, X, for that great opener.” Don’t be arrogant, but don’t sabotage yourself either.

Involve the audience in your talk. Go beyond the traditional Q&A. As you design your talk, find ways to encourage audience participation. You could ask them to do something that will make your topic personal to them (see what Bandi Mbudi did here). Or, you could remind them of a historical time and ask them where they were and how they were feeling. Call on people in the audience and share the spotlight.  Ask them to tweet or post something in the moment that makes them publicly weigh in on the topic at hand. When you make your talk dynamic – something people are not just listening to but participating in – you command the kind of attention that builds toward moments of momentum.

Tip: Don’t talk for more than 15 minutes at a time without including some opportunity for audience participation. If they know something’s coming that will require them to respond, they are more apt to pay attention. It’s also a good chance to check in and make sure everyone is still with you.

Write down the top things other speakers do that really annoy you. Don’t do these things. Ever. We’ve all sat through talks that are boring or worse. We know what we hate. When a speaker skips through a bunch of slides because she is running out of time, we think, “Clearly those weren’t important to begin with.” If there are AV problems, we consider the speaker ill-prepared (unless perhaps he has a funny cat video we can watch while he gets the problem sorted out). Personally, panelists who repeat what another panelist said (or speakers who repeat what the presenter before them said) and then say, “I know Joe just said this but it bears repeating,” make me shudder. Speakers need to advance the conversation, not give a flashback.

Tip: Make a list of your pet peeves – write them down on paper so you remember them all. Then swear you will never do them. Pull out your list when you get ready to start practicing your talk.

Be yourself. Find a way to let yourself come through in your public speaking persona. When people stand up in front of a room, they often become automatons. They go through the words but have no emotional connection to what they are saying. They talk about serious issues with big fake smiles on their faces. Or make jokes they know aren’t funny then wait for the laugh that isn’t coming. If you are not funny, don’t build a speech full of one-liners. If you have a wry sense of humor, riff in a few places and share this talent with your listeners. People want to know the real you. Get personal with them. After talking about statistics, say what all that data makes you think and feel. People want to know their leaders not just hear from them.

Tip: Personal anecdotes help let your guard down – and let the audience in.

Strip your talk of vague, generic gobbledygook. Once you’ve written your talk, go through it with a red pen. Circle all the long generic phrases that include words like “sustainable,” “triple bottom line,” or “high-density.” Use clarifying words, not big words and phrases that have a myriad of definitions and mean different things to different people. Use visual words that tell the audience exactly what you mean. Use words that make people feel something. Instead of, “vulnerable populations” say, “people who haven’t had a break their whole lives.” The latter puts a face on the issue. It becomes something about a former neighbor or colleague or fellow parent. It makes it real.

Tip: You may have been working on your talk for so long you can’t spot generic or vague phrases. Ask a colleague to go through it and circle words or phrases that are confusing, vague or make an issue seem sterile rather than compelling.

Put more time into practicing your talk than you put into writing it. Some leaders are still writing their speech while they’re on their way to deliver it. This is a mistake. The delivery is where you seal the deal. Otherwise, you may as well make it a blog post. If you planned for 10 hours to write the talk then plan for at least 11 hours to practice your delivery. Read through the piece aloud and smooth over any places where you stumble over the words. Practice several more times and make sure you are connecting with every word you say. Match how you feel and how you respond to the material with what you are saying. Then focus on your body language. Are you enhancing your words by how you are holding yourself or distracting from them? Know the material cold so when you finally present it you can focus on how people are responding to it rather than trying to remember your next word.

Tip: If you’ll be standing up to give the presentation, stand up for practice. If you know you’ll be sitting at a panel discussion, simulate a panel environment. Practice your talk in front of a friendly but critical audience. Give your practice audience your list of top things you promise never to do and ask them to call you on them.

Assess whether you nailed it. You gave the speech for a reason. Be sure to have some guideposts in mind going in that you can use to measure how well you do. Will people come up to you at the end and ask you about a specific point? Will they offer to join you in something? Don’t set up meaningless feedback metrics. If you are a funder, expecting people to come talk to you afterward is a false benchmark for measuring the impact of your speech. You could get up and read Mary Had a Little Lamb and people would line up to talk to you. Go deeper. What will they say that will let you know you resonated with them? If you are presenting to your board of directors, what questions will they ask to let you know you informed their thinking? If you are presenting to an external audience, what immediate actions will they take to let you know you motivated them?

Tip: As soon as you finish your speech and can find a quiet place, write down specific things you could have done better. Public speaking is a process of constant improvement. Lean into your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. When you do, you’ll make every speaking opportunity a moment to create momentum.

Looking to hone your leadership communication skills further? Consider signing up for Spitfire’s year-long Executive Training Program. We’re currently seating the class of 2016. For more information, click here.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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