There’s little doubt that at some point someone is going to ask you to teach a class or make a few remarks at a ceremony or gathering. Don’t panic. It’s not rocket science (unless you’re talking about rocket science). Just like writing well is accessible once you embrace the fact that good writing takes work, to speak well and memorably is accessible, too. It just takes a little work. Here are seven tips to help you get ready for your fifteen minutes of fame.
1. Know your audience.
If you’re asked to teach a class, clearly the audience are students of your topic. If you’re asked to open a professional conference with remarks, you have a general idea of the audience’s discipline or reason for being there. While those generalities are obviously important, the more you know about your audience the better you can tailor your pitch so it resonates. With as much detail as possible, know who’s out there, and start at the top. Any dignitaries? Members of Congress? Organizational leadership? Think geographically—are they all local or from across the nation? Top of the field or a mixture? Depending on the occasion, there are all sorts of ways to analyze the audience. Just remember, the more you know about them, the better you’ll be able to gauge your remarks or presentation. And it shows you’re professional when you begin by thanking specific people for specific things—like inviting you, giving you the opportunity to speak, organizing the event, and so forth.
2. Know the context.
The audience didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They, like you, live in the world. And the gathering is part of their experience. Both before the meeting and after, things are happening in their world. So think for a while about current events, announcements or policy changes relevant to the group. Are things looking up at the business or across the discipline, or are there challenges ahead? Are you opening the meeting or the last speaker of the day, or the speaker right before or right after lunch? All of these sorts of questions are about context. And as with audience, if you really know the context, the full context of the moment, then you can make smart decisions about how to approach the occasion.
3. Know what’s expected.
Audience and context inform expectations. But the host has expectations, as well. Most simply, how long are you expected to speak or present? When you’re making decisions about your approach, there’s a big, big difference between speaking for 10 minutes or 60 minutes. Speaking for only ten minutes doesn’t mean you can’t dive deeply into a point. Speaking for 60 minutes doesn’t necessarily mean you can dive deeply into a topic. It all depends. Ideally, the host has a vision of how the larger event unfolds, whether it’s a day-long or week-long schedule. Unless it is an isolated speaking requirement—that is, the audience comes in, you speak, they leave—then the host has a larger purpose for the series. The host should know what the larger objectives of the event are and exactly how you should contribute to those larger objectives—that’s why you, specifically, were asked to speak. That’s why, theoretically, you are going first, last, right before, or right after lunch.
4. Know the venue.
Where will you stand? On a stage? How will the audience be arranged? Is it auditorium speaking or a large ballroom? Will people be sitting in chairs in row after row or standing around tables with drinks in hand? What about audio? Are you tied to a podium with a microphone, or do you have a cordless microphone, a lavalier mic, or one of those really cool-looking minimalist headphone mics (if you do, have one of those really cool-looking minimalist headphone mics you’d better be really, really good, and there should be a really good reason for it). Is there visual support? Big screens to the left and right of the stage, or one of those clumsy portable screens in the center of the stage? If you’re speaking at a large meeting at a high-end conference center, you can expect some high-end Audio-Visual (AV) support, but make sure you ask. With the right support, you might choose to get beyond prepared remarks at a podium and walk the stage, or even walk the audience.
5. Know your message.
You have something to say. You. What’s your message? Your message is important. You have a profession. You have experience in that profession. You have your opinions and conclusions about that profession. Know what they are, your messages. Know right now. The host may have an idea of what your messages are—for instance, if you’re a leader who has published lessons on leadership, those lessons may very well be exactly what the host is hoping you’ll deliver, or at least one or two of them particularly relevant to the audience and the event. Don’t wait until you’re asked to figure out what your message is. But if you don’t know, think about it, talk about it with friends and colleagues you trust. The longer you’re in your career, the longer you live life, the more refined and, generally, stable your messages become. You should be comfortable with them and ready to share them.
6. Keep it simple.
The most effective, memorable public speaking is simple. Think about the difference between a 50 slide presentation that runs an hour and a Ted Talk. Which one is most memorable? Powerful? Usually, the Ted-Talk style pitch. Even if you’re speaking for 20-30 minutes, you’re doing well if the audience walks away with two to three powerful lessons or impressions. If you have more time, that’s just more time to set-up and deliver those two or three important points; it doesn’t mean you attempt 20-30 points. And while less is often, very often, more, don’t miss the opportunity to enliven your time on stage with one, maybe two, well-crafted visual aids (slides, usually).
We speak and communicate routinely. It shouldn’t be too tough to get up in front of a group of people and read a speech. It is. The more you’re reading, the more difficult it is. You have to train your mind and mouth to string that particular series of words together with the right emphasis in the right places, slowing down or speeding up in the right places. Even if you’re speaking from a series of key points you’d like to make, rehearse them: know how each point leads to the next, and know what the transition is. “Ok, let’s move on,” works, but not well, and it’s not memorable for the right reasons. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.