How to give a great speech (Hint: be authentic)

Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Here’s a great post recently featured on Freshly Pressed, from Nancy Duarte:

The number one thing, I think, is to be audience-centric…Develop all your material from a place of empathy toward them. You’re asking them to adopt your idea, which means they may have to abandon a belief they hold as true — and that’s hard. So, know your audience — take a walk in their shoes. What keeps them up at night? How are they wired to resist your message?

Understand your role in the presentation…that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way. You have to defer to your audience. When you put your idea out there for an audience to contend with — if they reject your idea, your idea will die. You have to think of it as, “The speaker needs the audience more than the audience needs the speaker.”

And then the third thing — wrap your content in story.

I recently gave a speech to 200 people, the largest I’ve had so far, students of retail at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and about 20 retailers. It went very well, and I stayed an additional 90 minutes to talk to students, sign books and answer more questions. They were folding up the tables and chairs by the time we were done.

If you’re curious, here’s the link; I’m not suggesting I was great! It’s 1 hour and 22 minutes, the final 22 minutes are Q and A.

In the past two years since Malled was published, I’ve done a lot of public speaking: at public libraries, to college students, to retailers at conferences.

Do I get nervous? Speaking to a group of regular folks at a local library? No. To a room filled with fairly senior executives from major retailers, (some of whom I hope will hire me to address their own companies or conferences), who have paid me well to be there, yes.

Especially if it’s being videotaped!

Writers write.

But if you really want to sell books, you also have to be consistently public, visible, audible and articulate, even if we don’t know how to structure a speech or presentation. We may not own the right clothes or haircut or haircolor or glasses or manicure. We may have a horrible voice or stutter or pure stage fright. We often earn a small fraction of the incomes of those listening to us, who assume (wrongly) we must be making good money because (hah!) we have been interviewed on NPR or CBS and our books are in stores.

In 2011, I hired a speaking coach, DC-based Christine Clapp, who taught me how to structure a speech and get calm before delivering it; I did this the day before I did an hour, live, with call-ins, on The Diane Rehm Show, which has two million listeners and is NPR’s largest show. This is a link to the audio.

“Be emotionally naked,” Clapp advised.

I’ve watched many experienced speakers at conferences and some are awful, no matter how much they got paid. They use PowerPoint (zzzzzzz), they use slides and video (unless their content is visual, why?), they drone onandonandon, they say really boring shit  and some wear all black in some tired attempt to look edgy and cool.

One, who is very famous and should know better, strode onto a Manhattan stage in 2010 carrying a rubber chicken and wearing an overcoat.

I stand still. I use some notes and no visual aids.

(Obviously, some of these tips are not useful if your presentation is purely academic, scientific or technical.)


— Are the references you’re making going to be familiar with your audience? I learned this the hard way when I referred to an airline, (an example of amazing customer service, Open Skies) to an audience of American business executives, forgetting that an airline with only one route (NY-Paris) wasn’t something many of them would know.

— Remember how differently others feel about some issues. I learned this the hard way with the same audience, telling them, proudly, how a former customer had asked me for referral to a therapist (everyone goes to therapists in NY!), which provoked guffaws from brawny macho Midwesterners. In Minnesota, knowing this is a NY thing, I prefaced that same story with a local reference, and it worked fine.

— Read the news, up until minutes or hours before you speak, to allow for including something timely and relevant to your subject.

— Humor is tough. If it’s safe enough to not offend anyone, it’s probably really dull.

— Dress stylishly. If you’re sitting behind a table or standing at a podium, people only see you from the waist or chest up. If you’re female, get a blow-out so your hair looks fab and you feel fully confident. No jewelry that clanks or might flash distractingly under bright lights.

— Make sure you have a watch or cellphone with you on the podium. Some podiums have a built-in timer, others do not. Do not lose track of time!

— Chill out, alone, for at least an hour before your presentation. Don’t waste your time and energy on anything but your sole reason for being there. Presenting well requires a lot of emotional, physical and intellectual energy.

— Always make sure you have 20-30 minutes for audience comments and questions.

— Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.

— Write out your remarks. Practice! Time it carefully so you don’t run out of time, or run out of things to say.

— Smile!

— If someone asks you a really tough or challenging question, stay cool. Take a breath, smile, say: “I’m glad you asked that question.” It shows you’re confident, not rattled, ready to answer thoughtfully. The audience is watching you handle yourself and your questioners.

— Always have water at hand, in a glass or cup, with no ice. Slugging from a water bottle looks tacky, and ice will slide into your face and make you look like a wet fool. I once completely lost the ability to speak, in front of a room full of people paying to be there. I had to wait for someone to run and bring me a cup of tea. Not good!

— No dairy products (milk, cheese) or hot/cold drinks beforehand. They’ll screw up your speaking voice.

— No matter how nervous you are, eat a small high-protein meal beforehand to fuel you through.

Do you do public speaking?

How’s it working for you?

Who’s the best — or worst — public speaker you’ve ever heard?

11 thoughts on “How to give a great speech (Hint: be authentic)

  1. You are brave! All those faces to speak to! I have to be one of the worst public speakers around. In my personal/ writing life I feel completely confident and extroverted. Something about all those eyes watching me makes my voice catch and my hands shake!

  2. Well, getting paid helps! 🙂

    I did another speaking event last night in NYC, with only about 30 people in a very small room, mostly young, mostly fellow journalists. The more you do it, the more confident and comfortable you get. I’ve also had a few FROSTY crowds and they really rattle me. Usually a few people are with you, nodding and smiling, and that helps a lot.

    You have to believe strongly in your message — and people generally respond to warmth and passion. I know many people have signed up for Toastmasters and rave about how helpful it is as a way to get better at this.

  3. Lucky you! I speak to such a variety of people that I really have to be aware of their pre-conceptions. I’m addressing an audience of women in a super-wealthy community in two weeks…will they care about low-wage labor? Not sure.

  4. You never know. Any audience, even one with a higher-than-average household income, might include people who are both aware of l and politically active on behalf of tow-wage labor. Acting on altruistic concern is not the same as having had actual low-wage working experience, but I suspect that most successful social movements receive at least some assistance along the way from people who do not fit the dominant demographic profile. Thus, for example, straight people join LGBT people in voting for marriage equality, legal citizens (by birth or by swearing-in ceremony) support immigration reform or amnesty, and people who are themselves well set for health care support the Affordable Health Care legislation.

  5. Interesting post. I’m not sure whether I’m a good public-speaker or not, but I do enjoy doing it (how often do we have a room full of people waiting on your every word?), but the enjoyment comes after I’ve finished – the build-up is nerve-wracking.

    I agree that it’s about being as emotional naked – or authentic – as possible. Everyone knows how horrible public-speaking can be, so the vast majority of people are tolerant and generous. I reckon the worst mistake is going on and on and on. Just be brief; have two or three key points you want to say, say them, and then get off the stage. However, being off-hand and/or disrespectful to the organisers or audience is just as bad as going on and on. As with everything, I just tell myself to be no one but myself, be prepared, research well, be brief, be clear, and then that’s it.

    (Amazingly enough, I have to speak to a group on Thursday, so this post has got me thinking about how I’m going to approach it.)

  6. I agree with you — but for the “be brief” bit. Some people do ask for and want 40 to 60 minutes of speech/presentation — but that usually includes Q and A.Offhand would be weird, and wrong.

    People are often quite thrilled to meet a professional author so be prepared for that.

  7. I used to become nervous and sometime freeze when speaking in front of an audience.
    The cure turned out to be to realize that to the people in the audience I am not a person, I am just a potential source of information. They are there for reasons related to them, and are completely uninterested in me on a personal level (unless they are friends or family). So I focus on them and their goals, and not on me. This works every time. It probably also improves the contents of the talk.

  8. I meant to come back before now to tell you how much I enjoyed your talk. You tell a good story on ‘paper’ and orally. I’ve had to talk to loads of physicians in my previous profession and I’m not sure anything could be as scary to me as a roomful of Emory trained HIV docs were in the beginning. I think after a time I became fairly adept at holding their attention while getting my message across, but I still learned a few tips from watching your delivery.

    1. Thanks so much for making time to do that! Those remarks are ones I’ve given now at four conferences so I feel a little more at ease. My first audience was very tough indeed and it shook my confidence badly. One of the challenges is who you’re addressing — and a roomful of MDs would be difficult indeed, as they are so competitive and hierarchical. Good for you!

      One of the lessons I’ve learned is that people listen for, and are and persuaded by, different things — some love facts and figures, some love anecdote, some love proof of your authority, so mixing it up helps.

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