Don’t Be a Blind Guide

Courtesy of rappensuncle (flickr)

Imagine yourself as a guide, providing safe passage through dangerous surroundings, showing people the beauty and wonder around them and getting them home for dinner.

Obviously, these people who have paid you to guide them are interested in seeing the sites and living to tell about it.

But how much are they going to appreciate your expertise if you lead them all over creation and back again on the most mind-bending bass-ackwards route you could imagine?

You see, there’s an unwritten, unspoken understanding between the guide and the guided that the guide is going to know the best way to go, and the guided can be confident they’re taking that route.

As a public speaker, you’ve been asked to guide your audience to a full understanding of your topic.

If you’re speaking in front of a crowd, especially if they’ve asked you to come or they’ve paid to listen to you, they’re most likely interested in your subject.  This is good.  Makes things a lot easier on you.

But it’s not the end of the story.

You can still lose them.

How?

By being a blind guide.

Don’t be that guy.

Make sure you show them the best route:

Make sure you cover the material in full

If you’re traveling through difficult or dangerous terrain, as a guide you need to be prepared.  You need to know the area well, know its dangers, its available resources, where you can go for help, and who you can trust.  You also need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your clients so you don’t carry them in over their head.

That way, you can plan a route that accomplishes the goal in a way everyone can appreciate.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed the importance of picking your main points and covering them adequately.  This is vital to make sure you don’t overwhelm or bore your audience.

Don’t allow extraneous points to work their way into the talk just because you like talking about them.  It’s not the best route.  You’re guiding them the wrong way.

You want to cover the material in full, but you need to remember that the audience is the final judge of your success in that area.  For the topic to be covered to the audience’s satisfaction, not just your own, you need to make sure every point you highlight is necessary, and that its necessity is obvious.

Make sure those points are in the right order

Planning your route through difficult terrain requires a serious eye for efficiency.  God forbid you get 2/3 of the way through the desert, then run out of water.

In the same way, while you may be able to confidently confirm that every single point you intend to cover is necessary and beneficial.  But if they’re in the wrong order to be logically understood by your audience, you’re heading the wrong way.

Think of it this way:

When Moses led the Israelites wandering through the wilderness for 40 years, he may have been pretty sure of what he was doing, but how did his audience feel about it?

Use adequate transitional phrases

Finally, if you have all the points you need and no more, and you have all those points in the most logical (efficient) order, you just need to tie it all together to make sure your speech is coherent and easy to follow.

What are transitional phrases?

  • also,
  • in addition,
  • furthermore,
  • moreover,
  • likewise,
  • similarly,
  • hence,
  • thus,
  • for these reasons,
  • therefore,
  • in view of the foregoing,
  • so,
  • so then,
  • thereafter,
  • however,
  • on the other hand,
  • on the contrary
  • etc…

All of these words and phrases (and many more like them,) tie thoughts together in a logical way that the human brain latches onto very easily.

They serve as markers to the listener’s mind flagging down the conscious mind and letting it know we’re moving forward, and this is the way to go.

In other words, they serve as directions from an expert guide.

So, as you’re developing your speech, give thought to the depth of coverage of your point from the audience’s perspective.  Make sure all the right points are included, and nothing they don’t need.  Then, make sure those points are in the right order to logically and efficiently take them from their current state to full understanding.  Finally, make sure those points are tied together with effective transitional phrases to make sure they follow you the whole way.

Just like the expert guide you are.

What the Heck is Your Point?

Continuing our discussion from last week, we were considering how vital it is for every good speech to have a central theme that the speaker sticks to with little or no variation.

Not to say you can’t speak off-the-cuff here and there, think on your feet.  That’s actually a great thing to do, and helps lighten the mood, making you and your audience more at ease.

But you can’t allow yourself to run off onto tangents that will leave your audience wondering what in the world you’re talking about.

To keep yourself close to that central theme you’ve prepared, while not forcing yourself into reading a full manuscript or reciting a memorized speech, you simply need to keep in mind your main points.

What is your point anyway?

Isn’t that what we’re always thinking when someone starts taking up our time speaking to us?  We may be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but if they just keep gabbing on and on and on, eventually the needle on our BS meter starts pinging and we start asking the question above.

Your audience is no different.

Which is why when you’re preparing your speech, writing up your outline, developing your theme, it’s important to make special note of the main points that you want to cover.

Make sure these points are crystal-clear in your mind so that, even if you wing it a little bit up there, you always know where you need to come back to.

Three points to keep in mind about points

  • Don’t try to cram too many points into a speech.  If you have 30 minutes to work with, you might be able to fully develop five main points, if they’re not too complicated.  If you have more time, you’ll need to decide if you’re better off adding more points to cover, or covering less points more thoroughly.
  • Make sure each one of your main points is covered well enough to stand alone.  If you start speaking, introduce your first point, run through that point and get to the moment where you’re about to start in on your second when you suddenly keel over with a compacted colon and have to be rushed off to the hospital for a triple methylmoscocolonoscopy… at least your audience will be able to take home one solid point.
  • Prepare to highlight each main point multiple times.  Not in full, of course, but through strategic repetition.  For instance, mention them in your introduction, highlight each in turn as you go through your speech, then repeat them again in summary in your conclusion.  Repetition is the mother of retention.

Remember next time you’re speaking, whether to one person or a thousand, they’re probably going to ask themselves “what the heck is your point?”

Don’t disappoint them!

Do you have any points to share about points?  Point it out in the comments!

Walking the Tightrope: Highlighting Your Speech’s Theme

This is going to sound so elementary, I almost hesitate to write it.  But the fact is, it’s a problem some speakers have, and it’s going to totally sabotage your speech unless you get it under control.

The problem is this: you have to stay focused on your theme.

That’s it.

When you’re preparing to give a speech, think of yourself as a tightrope walker.  You’re starting at one end with the introduction, and your eyes are on the other end at your conclusion.

The rope itself is the theme of your talk.  You want your audience enthralled with what you have to say, so maybe you’ll do some tricks while you’re up there, or tell some jokes… whatever.

But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t step off the rope.  Because everyone’s going to watch you fall and it ain’t gonna be pretty.

How does it happen?  Simple.  We ramble.  We ad lib a little bit.  We have a sudden inspiration that seems like a good idea at the time…

And we step off the rope.

Now I want to clarify that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with some controlled ad libbing here and there.  It shows you’re relaxed, you’re enjoying yourself, you’re on the ball.  But it has to stay focused, or you’re going to lose them.

So how do you resolve this issue?

Again, it’s simple.

Preparation.

If you’ve prepared well for the speech, you have a well through-out outline that you’ve used to practice with plenty of times, and you’re totally comfortable with the material, you should have no trouble at all getting up there and staying on theme.

But here’s the key: you need to start with a speech that has been developed on a focused theme first.  If you prepare a talk that meanders all over the place, you can practice until the cows come home.  You’re still going to meander all over the place.  And your audience is unlikely to follow you.

So remember yourself on that tightrope.  You’re focused on the theme, moving steadily from your introduction to your conclusion with confident forward momentum.  No matter what razzle-dazzle you’re doing to entertain the crowd, your feet have to keep coming down on that rope and moving you forward.

Then, when you get to the end, you can turn and take a bow.  You’ve nailed it!

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This is just one in an ongoing series entitled Public Speaking University.  It’s a course in how to write, prepare and deliver speeches that will knock your audience’s socks off!  If you’ve missed any so far, check them all out here!  I’d love to know what you think, so comment away and tell me what you want to hear!

If You Have the Questions, They’ll Want the Answers

Now, for our fourth installment discussing effective speech introductions.

This one’s short and sweet, because it’s one of the simplest options out there.

But that doesn’t make it any less powerful, if it’s used well.

What is it?

Questions and Answers

There are a few ways you can go about incorporating questions and answers into your introduction, and the impact will change based on the way you handle it.

Here are the different methods, along with a few suggestions as to application:

Introduce the Question, Answer it Later

In other words, your introduction starts the speech by asking a question that really gets your audience thinking.  Or, a series of questions.  Then, let them know the answer is coming… but don’t give it to them yet!

If you develop your speech properly, the audience is going to be hanging on every word because they don’t want to miss the answer you’ve promised them.

The only real warning here is make sure you know your audience well enough to know what question or series of questions will really resonate with them.

If you ask them a lame question they don’t care about, you’ve shot yourself in the foot from the starting line.

Create a Dialogue

This method is a modified form of the method described above, mixed with a fair amount of story telling It could take the form of a real or fictional conversation between two people, with you serving as narrator.

The key is to take the conversation far enough that people are getting into it, then put one of the speakers in a quandary: they don’t know how to answer the question raised, or they don’t know what to say next.  And your speech fills in the blank.

This kind of introduction works really well for educational programs.  For instance, for a speech to a room full of salespeople, starting off with a fictional dialogue between salesperson and customer that stumps the salesperson could really intrigue the audience to want to know how you’re going to get their fellow salesperson out of that mess.

Rhetorical Questions

Another very powerful method you could employ is rhetorical questions.

These are questions intended to make the audience think about themselves and their viewpoints, but not with a specific answer expected.

For example, to start a speech about the increase of crime in the neighborhood, perhaps you could start with these powerful rhetorical questions:

“Do you lock your car doors while you’re sitting at the traffic light at 3rd and Main?  Do you tense up when one of our local teenagers walks up to you on the sidewalk?  Now, really think: did you used to do those things ten years ago?  It’s obvious that crime is on the increase…”

If your audience has lived in that neighborhood for more than ten years, like you have, they’re right with you.

However you choose to use the question and answer method, remember the keys to using it successfully:

  • Know what questions will resonate with your audience.
  • Set up your speech to tease them with unanswered questions or…
  • Set up your speech to make them think about questions that don’t need an answer.

Next week, we’ll pull this all together with a review of the Introductions mini-course!

What’s Your Problem?

In my last PSU post, we discussed one powerful means of introducing your speech that will grab your listeners’ attention: telling a story. This method will not, however, work in every case. Depending on your audience, and the purpose of your speech, you may choose instead to engage your listeners with a problem.

Basically, this involves laying out a real or fictional conundrum, and involving your audience in the solution. The problem may be as simple as a frightening statistic that impacts your audience personally. For example:

“127,000 people died last year from lung cancer because they couldn’t quit smoking.”

This is a powerful introductory statement because many in the audience are likely smokers, or at least know and love someone who is. So this problem automatically involves your audience. They realize something is wrong, and they can be part of the solution, as long as they listen to what you have to say next.

Or, the problem you use to introduce your speech may contain more mystery. Perhaps:

“127,000 people died last year who didn’t have to.  Any idea why?”

This way, you’re not only engaging the audience by letting them know a problem exists, you’re also engaging them by asking a question that requires them to consider an answer.

If you’re speaking to a group with a lot in common, such as at an employee meeting or a convention for members of a particular club, you may be able to bring it even closer to home:

“Last quarter, XYZ Industries lost over $14 million to shoplifters and other illegal loss.  We need to discuss security matters…”

In this instance, you have (hopefully) grabbed your audience’s interest with a problem amplified by a statistic, then engaged them directly in discussing the solution.

These examples are only a few of the many ways you can work a problem into your introduction.  No matter how you do it, though, there are a few points to keep in mind:

  • If your problem has an established solution, (i.e. we have already given our store managers permission to shoot shoplifters on sight,) it is best to communicate this early so the audience is not distracted by considering their own possible solutions as you continue to speak.
  • If the problem you choose to present has no recognizable or realistic solution, (i.e. 437 planes have been lost in the Bermuda Triangle since 1935) be sure you explain the reason you presented it.  There’s nothing wrong with using an unsolvable problem to introduce your talk as long as the audience understands why that problem, or the fact that it’s unsolvable, matters to them.
  • If you are seeking a solution to the problem from your audience, be sure to have some means of obtaining their feedback.  Perhaps passing out a comment sheet will suffice, or supplying them with your contact information to discuss the matter later.  If you plan to entertain a panel discussion or Q&A after the speech, let them know early on so they can begin to prepare their questions and comments.

As PSU continues, we’ll come back to “problem introductions” again, approaching them from a different angle.  Before that, however, we need to consider another introduction option: Questions and Answers.  Stay tuned!

Telling Them a Story

In the last post – Starting Off With a Bang – I began an overview discussion of presentation introductions by telling a story, and cutting it off just at the point where you NEEDED to know what was going to happen next.

Maybe you hated me for it.

But you read the whole article.

And that’s exactly the point of this technique! When you stand up in front of a group of people, especially strangers, you need to grab their attention first and foremost. They need a reason to listen to you, and a reason to keep listening even if the topic itself is less than engaging.

Class One briefly mentioned three methods of creating an introduction that does just that, and Telling a Story is one of those methods.

Why does this method work? Put simply, we have all grown up with an inborn desire to hear a storyteller spin his yarn. As children, we loved to have our parents read to us from exciting picture books that brought a simple story to life in vivid color and word. As we got older, we slowly traded that in for more complex storylines and our own imaginations, or the faster-paced sensory assault of the television and movies.

Either way, our desire to experience – and become absorbed in – stories has always been nurtured. Not only do we enjoy the act of putting our own “story” on hold for a while to experience another’s, once we do so, we NEED to know how it turns out. We need to feel some sort of closure at the end, so that we can put the story to rest.

Think for a moment about the last time you were watching a television episode, and just as the story struck a vital crossroads, those fateful words “To Be Continued” flashed across the screen? Did you sigh in frustration? Probably. Did you watch it the next week. Almost definitely.

You needed to know how it turned out. A lot of modern series depend on that element without even notifying you that the story is continuing. Consider the hit show “Lost.” If you miss a week or two, you’re the one that’s lost! They have manufactured a viciously loyal fan base by exploiting every human being’s inborn desire to see how it all turns out.

So, spiraling back to the subject at hand, how can YOU exploit this same desire and use it to grab your audience’s attention and keep it through the end of your talk?

The first step is in your preparation or writing of the speech. (If you have a professional speechwriter writing for you, you may want to mention this concept to them so they know this is the direction you want to take.)

You will want to give some thought to the general themes you will be developing in your talk, and consider what sort of mental images appear when you consider those themes. For example, in Class One, the general themes I was considering involved either succeeding or failing at quickly grabbing your audience’s attention, and how important the introduction was to your success.

The analogy of a batter in the tension-filled last moments of a baseball game popped into my mind because the success or failure of his team rested on what happened in the course of the few seconds he was swinging the bat.

The story you choose may be a direct retelling of an actual event, a reworking of a standard story everyone may recognize (such as a fairy tale or fable), or a work of fiction you create solely for this purpose.

The decision is yours, and if handled correctly, will not change the effectiveness of this method.

The focus in all cases must be on three qualities of the story:

Brevity – Don’t make this a long, drawn out tome. You can lose your audience just as quickly as you grab them. The best introductory stories take less than a minute to establish, reach a crux, then apply to your talk’s general themes.

Relevance – Don’t choose a story and try to shoehorn it into your talk with questionable connections or application. Start with your themes, and allow your mind to make the most logical connections. Then, build your story from there.

Engagement – You want to build your story in such a way that your audience cares about the outcome. Don’t focus on a character no one can relate to or an event that will bore them. Try to infuse some sort of tension, excitement, even mystery into the story so that your audience NEEDS to know what happens next!

To effectively use this powerful story, you should begin your talk with it directly, not watering it down with other unnecessary introductory comments or apologies. Get right into the story.

But don’t finish it!

Bring the story to a crux, then stop!

Now, of course, you’re going to need to give some serious thought to the transition, but the basic technique is to reach a point in the story where a decision needs to be made or the character is “hanging from a cliff”, then swing your audience back into your themes with a series of questions or a powerful statement of comparison.

Make sure you let them know that you’ll be coming back to the story later in the talk, but don’t tell them where, and don’t let them know how it’s going to turn out.

This hooks them into listening to what you have to say, making the same mental connections you made when you came up with the story yourself.

In other words, they are listening intently what you have to say, following your lead.

A captive audience.

If you can successfully develop a story that contains the three vital qualities of brevity, relevance and engagement, and you can incorporate the cliff-hanger into your presentation, you have created an attention-grabbing introduction that will hook your listeners and make them listen closely to your presentation so they don’t miss a word of it!

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This is just one in an ongoing series entitled Public Speaking University.  It’s a course in how to write, prepare and deliver speeches that will knock your audience’s socks off!  If you’ve missed any so far, check them all out here!  I’d love to know what you think, so comment away and tell me what you want to hear!

Starting Off With a Bang!

He stepped to the plate, watching his team mate shuffling dejectedly toward the dugout. He had hit into a lightening-fast double play, and the team now stood one out away from defeat. The pitcher nodded, lifted his leg, and fired a blistering fastball into the catcher’s glove.

Strike one.

He adjusted his cap, gripped the bat again and waited, eyeing the pitcher intently. The wind-up started again and he swung hard at the hurtling ball. There was a crack. . . But the ball flew foul.

Strike two.

The pitcher grinned slightly as he nodded and started his wind up. He hurled the ball with every ounce of energy he had left, and it shot toward the strike zone at 98 mph. The crowd seemed to fade away, and the ball seemed to grow very large. Not hearing a sound, he swung his bat and. . .

And you’re hooked.

You need to know what happens, and you’re probably disappointed that I’ve switched gears so quickly! Why?

Because that was an example of a truly effective introduction.

Whether you are writing a speech for someone else or speaking yourself, professionally or casually, a powerful introduction that captures your audience’s attention is vital to reaching your objective. If you fail to grab their attention within the first few seconds, the chances of their being fully engaged in the message you’re presenting are slim to none.

To keep the analogy alive, you could strike out before you even get to the plate!

So what goes into creating an attention-grabbing introduction?

The answer to that question depends to a large extent on two factors:

Your audience — who are you speaking to? What connection do they have to your message? What do they already know about the subject? What do they stand to gain by hearing you out?

Your objective — are you looking to simply inform or entertain them, or do you need to persuade, perhaps even overturn erroneous or contradictory beliefs?

Your answers to these questions will go a long way in determining what kind of introduction will be most effective in your circumstance.

By giving serious thought to these questions, you can choose one or more of the following basic introductions to grab the attention of your audience and keep it throughout your presentation.

Interestingly, although this article is written with public speaking in mind, the same principles apply to writing as well, although the effects may need to be honed a little differently.

The Story — Like the beginning of this article demonstrated, we all love a good story. The more absorbing, the better. By telling a compelling story at the start of your talk, you hook your audience’s innate need to know what happens next! They continue to listen to find out!

The Problem — You lay out a clearly-defined problem at the audience’s feet. Preferably one that involves them personally. Then, you go on to explain how you are going to solve it. If the problem is serious enough, and if the audience realizes the solution will benefit them, they’re hooked!

Q & A — Starting with a series of well-planned questions that peak your audience’s curiosity, you then lay out exactly how you plan to answer those questions, and what the answers will mean to those in attendance. By skillfully seeding the rest of your talk with answers to these questions, you keep your audience holding on to the satisfying end!

Each of these tried and true methods will be broken down in further detail in a future article!

So what happened to our nervous batter?

Of course, he hit the ball out of the park, and his team went on to win the game! And you can do the same from the public-speaking standpoint, if you learn how to start your presentations off with a bang!

Public Speaking University – How to Prepare a Speech Well

Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve got some time before you’ll be giving a speech, and it’s already written.  That’s a lot to assume, I know, because this is only the fifth day of this series, but stick with me.  It will all become clearer as time goes on.

Obviously, the following tips are very general in nature, because every speech is different and therefore, every speech requires a different preparation.  But, generally, here is what you need to do to prepare well for an upcoming speech:

  • Brain Dump: Whether you actually wrote the speech yourself or not, there’s bound to be volumes of information floating around in your brain regarding the subject of your speech.  This fact can either help you or hurt you, depending on how you handle it.  To harness the power of this pile of potentially powerful information, you must take some time before your speech to just sit down and think about it.  Not, practicing the speech, that’s not what I mean.  I mean just sitting down, preferably with pencil or keyboard in hand, jotting down every stray item that’s floating around your brain regarding your subject.  Why is this important?  Because if you leave all that clutter in there, it’s going to be dying to get out while you’re speaking.  Interrupting your train of thought, throwing random words in the way of what you’re trying to get across.  Bad news.  Plus, if you get it all out there where you can see it, you might just find a few real gems that will fit in perfectly during your speech!  Bonus!
  • Picture Your Optimum Audience Member: Remember that the audience is not this THING, like a huge amoeba just sitting out there pulsing and vibrating and occasionally yawning or walking out to the rest rooms.  The audience is a group of individuals, each of which is going to be listening to you with various levels of interest and enthusiasm.  They can only be controlled to a certain extent, and to a large degree you’re putting yourself in their hands.  So, when you’re preparing, picture that perfect audience member, whomever it may be.  One, totally enthused and enthralled person who is hanging on your every word.  Now, imagine you’re in their living room, sitting on their couch, with a cup of tea (or coffee, if you’re tired right now,) in your hand, just conversing.  Can you see it?  Now, the big question is, how do you speak to this person? That’s how you want to prepare to speak to everyone.
  • Embrace Your Nerves:  If you weren’t nervous at all, you’d have reason to be nervous.  While you’re preparing, especially as the speech draws closer, it’s only natural to start getting some butterflies.  But if you prepare with the idea of harnessing the power of those nerves and turning it into energy that will be infused into your speech, you’ll actually start to look forward to that butterfly feeling.  It’s a sign that your whole body is getting geared up to give this speech your absolute best.  I’ve never managed to “get into the zone” without that butterfly feeling being present and accounted for.
  • Don’t Under-Prepare: I don’t want to generalize this too horribly, because I know how it sounds.  It’s ridiculously simplistic to say that, if you want to do well giving a speech, you need to be prepared.  So, you need to do as much preparation as is necessary to allow you to do well.  But, (and I say this with all sincerity,)…
  • Don’t Over-Prepare, Either: I’ve found that most people, when facing this “worst of all fears” tend to attack preparation like they’re Rocky getting ready to take on the huge Russian!  They go crazy with their preparations and they practice the speech over and over and over again until they’re absolutely burnt out on it.  And when it finally comes time to give it, one of two things happens: they suck, or they’re too good.  And neither one is really any good at all.  If you’re over-prepared, and you suck, the speech comes out all muddled because basically your brain is so fried on the topic, it can’t keep one main point straight, let alone five or six, and it has no idea anymore where the introduction ends or the conclusion begins.  If you’re over-prepared, and you’re too darn good, the speech comes out just a step above this.  Robotic, dull, boring as heck.

Now, we both realize there’s a lot more involved in preparing well for a speech, but if you take some time to really think about the above points, you’ll probably find that they cover the mental conditioning you need to do to prepare well.  The rest is just practice.  Smart practice, of course, and we’ll hit that in a later article.

For now, get your head on straight.  The rest will follow.

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This is just one in an ongoing series entitled Public Speaking University.  It’s a course in how to write, prepare and deliver speeches that will knock your audience’s socks off!  If you’ve missed any so far, check them all out here!  I’d love to know what you think, so comment away and tell me what you want to hear!