The year I graduated (not saying when), my high school had the usual valedictorian speech, but they also held open try-outs for anyone who wanted to give a commencement speech. For some reason, I tried out. And somehow, my speech won. Looking back, I really can’t see why I volunteered to write a speech and then present it before a jury of my peers and all their assorted friends and relatives. Who does that?
Especially in business, public speaking and presenting are frequent and expected, and some people are just more comfortable with it than others. We watch in numbness and dread the whispered recitation of a PowerPoint we could have read ourselves in less than five minutes. We’ve also gazed in awe as confident, engaging storytellers take the stage, so engrossing us that we forget where we are. There are three key steps between the first and second scenario, and each one is critical to your time in the spotlight.
Key No. 1: Communicate an idea
Your goal on that stage (or just speaking up in a meeting) is to bestow a gift on your listeners, and that gift is an idea. Whether it takes five seconds or 15 minutes to communicate, you must show listeners the gap between their current knowledge and the new idea you are sharing. Build their curiosity, make it personal to them with clarifying stories and metaphors, and make this one idea the whole focus of your entire speech so everything connects without a second of ‘filler.’
You may have heard the phrase: “Tell them what you will tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you just told them.” Commonly attributed to Aristotle, it’s a simple but effective trick for organizing any form of speech or writing. If it doesn’t support the main idea, toss it out.
Key No. 2: Deliver a performance, not a speech
She leans wistfully against the railing, part protection part prison, gazing longingly into the night sky. “Oh Romeo.” Pause. “Romeo.” Sigh. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Her tone is yearning and your own heart aches. When Juliet stands on her balcony calling to her love, every movement, every expression, every tone is carefully calculated to absorb you in the moment. Can you imagine Ms. Capulet standing stiffly behind a wooden lectern, palms up and elbows bent for the occasional robotic gesture? Zzzz…
In the reality of everyday speeches and presentations, we’ve lost the idea that body language, posture, eye contact, pace, tone, and timing all matter. This isn’t about acting or putting on a fake show, but letting your passion and enthusiasm punctuate every hand gesture, vibrate through your voice, and infuse each motion so your audience hangs on every word.
Key No. 3: Prepare like it’s your job
The number one trick of presenters who appear effortless in front of an audience? They worked their tails off beforehand. It’s like the meme “I woke up like this.” Yes, a privileged few wake up looking glamorous and gorgeous, but the rest of us try not to look in the mirror until we’ve at least showered.
Great presenters don’t get up there and wing it. They’ve watched great speeches, exhaustively researched their topic, rehearsed until the words roll through their dreams, and practiced on any friend or family member who can’t get away fast enough. They can deliver a crystal-clear idea in a rousing performance because they know it inside out and upside down.
Now that we’re all too intimidated to ever give a speech again, consider a few things.
First, your preparation is not one-and-done—it builds over time. Every time you rehearse in the mirror, every time you assemble a clear, well-focused message, every time you make eye contact with your audience, you are improving. Each presentation, focus on doing one specific thing better until you’re ready to give TED talks.
Something else to keep in mind: if you don’t have an idea to bestow on your audience or the passion to engage listeners, then should you really be giving the speech? Think carefully about how the information should be communicated, and maybe another medium (email, post-it note) is really the better choice.
Finally, you don’t have to become a better speaker all on your own. Just like asking a friend if this suit makes you look sharp or sloppy, you can outsource tasks to ensure your speech is the best it can be. At Writing by Design, we are natural (but also experienced) writers who can help you crystallize your brilliant idea into a focused, organized presentation so you can concentrate on your preparation and performance.
Also, happy Cinco de Mayo! I’ve heard that professional singers never eat dairy before a performance, so don’t eat this before going on stage, but my favorite queso recipe is perfect for a backyard fiesta. Or Tuesdays. ¡Buen provecho!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
With a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business and more than 11 years of diverse marketing experience, Tara understands that clear communication is the key to customer satisfaction. Whether it’s consumer product goods, higher education, insurance, or healthcare, developing a solid strategy that leads to concise, targeted messaging creates a framework for successful projects and sustainable growth. Tara is experienced in writing copy, designing ads and recording radio spots, and is responsible for leading the Writing by Design team and its clients through each communications project.