Writing Effective Talks, Presentations, and Speeches

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Very few people can stand up on the spot and deliver an effective speech without any preparation or planning. Many people will tell you they can, or at least prove that they can, when they either fool themselves or bore their listeners to tears.

Many public speakers appear to wing their presentations without any preparation at all. These are the proper authorities, who put in as much, if not more, preparation time as the people who talk for 10 minutes once a year at the Golf Club dinner dance, despite having years of public speaking experience under their belts.

So, how’s that planning coming along? In reality, all successful business writing can be boiled down to observing the following golden rules:

1. Rather than focusing on the content of your speech, define the outcome you hope to achieve by asking yourself, “What do I want the audience to be thinking as I come to the end of my speech?”

2. Learn as much as possible about your target market to effectively cater your material to them.

3. Blend your comfortable speaking style with terminology and tone of voice that your listeners will recognize and like.

4. Use jargon and “in” phrases with caution; it’s OK to use them if your audience understands them, but you shouldn’t assume that everyone does.

The only thing I’d add is to remember that your audience can’t press “rewind” or “replay” on your words or re-read your mind. That means they won’t be able to retain as much knowledge as they would if it were written down in a document or on a CD-ROM, where they could go back and review it as frequently as they wanted.

Knowing your audience is especially crucial; if you misjudge them, it will show in their expressions and gestures almost immediately.

Remove the excess

Details, additions, etc., can be included in delegate packets or some other kind of permanent record of your material, depending on your presentation. But whether you do this or not, everything you say needs to be simple.

The success of a live speech depends almost entirely on how well the audience remembers what you said. People’s memories are already poor, so if an address is dull, complex, or both, they won’t remember much of the material but will remember how awful it was.

Speeches are a standard method of communication in organizations, and senior managers are often asked to deliver them, typically to internal audiences. These speeches may include anything from an overview of the company’s performance over the past year to announcing new developments. These talks can take up to an hour and a half, during which the presenter may try to cover more ground than a thick Sunday newspaper. By the end, everyone in the room had forgotten most of what was said since they were too distracted by the monotone of the boss’s voice and their growing need to use the restroom.

The top brass, however, insists that we must relay all this data to our conference attendees. What is it? Divide a talk that typically lasts an hour into four words, each lasting 15 minutes, then scatter them across the day or half-day session. (Or if that’s impossible, have four different presenters take turns talking for an hour.) Fifteen minutes is far more manageable for the audience’s attention span. And, to completely misquote an adage, the fact that there are more, shorter presentations offers diversity, which is the spice of live communication.

To get started, jot down a bulleted list of principles that serves as a framework. This should encompass the standard three-act structure of a story: setup, climax, and resolution. However, the old soap-box idea of “tell ’em what you’re going to say, say it, then tell ’em what you just said” is a bit redundant. No matter how long your presentation is, it would be best if you aimed to have no more than five primary points. If you can’t string it together in the form of a plot, at least make sure that the various sections flow into one another sensibly and effectively.

Correct sequence

Presenters skilled at using their body language, eye contact, and the ever-powerful element of silence can successfully execute sudden shifts in the topic. When people anticipate a constant flow of speech, even a brief period of stillness is guaranteed to grab their attention. But if this is done by someone inexperienced with public speaking and therefore fails to pick up on the subtleties, the results can be disastrous.

Although they may seem rude at first, links are rather helpful because they serve as a sort of punctuation for your writing. They also signal to the viewer that we are changing gears. Your connections can be as short as a few words (e.g., “Now that we’re all familiar with the financial background of the new project, let’s see how its implementation will affect the company’s turnover in the next 12 months.”) or as long as several sentences (e.g., “now that we’re all familiar with the financial background of the new project, let’s see how its implementation will affect the company’s turnover in the next 12 months.”).

Initiators and denouement

You may say whatever you want between your speech’s beginning and closing if you make those two parts strong. To some extent, I disagree. A simple, often gently hilarious opening is always more accessible – and more effective – than a speaker spending sleepless nights agonizing over starting their speech with a massive boom at the company sales conference.

Here, it helps to revisit the original justification for the value of openers and closers. To put it kindly, they aid in locating the audience and signal that you are either about to begin talking about or have done talking about something of interest.

If the previous speaker has put the audience to sleep, the opener may need to function as an alarm clock to jolt them awake or as an air-raid siren to tell them to quiet down, stop talking, and pay attention.

You don’t have to walk out there with a top hat and false nose while riding a unicycle and playing the trombone if the speaker before you was bland and had the whole audience moving from one numb seat bone to the other for 45 minutes. The best way to get the crowd’s attention is to be yourself.

You should probably avoid making any negative comments about the previous speaker. However, it will be tempting, but an in-company joke if it’s an in-company audience or even a relevant quote by a famous person (there are many books and websites where you can find quotes) will instantly signal a significant change and have the audience looking forward to what you have to say.

The opening and closing statements need not be groundbreaking but genuine to you and your content. Even if other people think you’re capable of it, you shouldn’t force yourself to deliver an emotional, passionate conclusion to your speech if you’re more of a reserved, private type of person. If you don’t think anything will work for you when you give the address, you’re correct; it won’t. Don’t let someone convince you to keep something you’re unsure about because what seems like a little problem during practice will become significant on performance day.

The performer’s nerves accentuate any hiccups that occur on stage. Even if your speechwriter advises you otherwise (and some of my colleagues would), you should only close your speech with a few self-effacing words of “thanks for listening” if that is all you believe you would feel comfortable with.

Words articulated

The most straightforward approach to ensure your structure sounds natural once you’ve constructed it and decided how to open and end your speech is to turn on an audio recorder, talk through the system to yourself, and transcribe the recording. Edit and clean up that transcript (it’s hard but worth it), but don’t remove the commas and periods. It’s easy to get winded and confused by lengthy presentations. And don’t embellish with words you wouldn’t use in conversation.

What we say with our lips is precisely what we mean. A monologue or dialogue is a way of communicating something orally rather than in writing. You can think it through or say it out loud instead of having to type up your speech material (or your theatrical dialogue or narration). Then, write or type those words down individually or in short phrases and sentences.

It doesn’t matter how correct something looks on paper on a computer screen if it doesn’t sound properly.
Even the most accomplished playwrights consistently apply the same straightforward meaning to dialogue. Their simple technique for capturing the individuality of the persons and situations they invent is where their immense talent and creative creativity genuinely shine. Writers like Molire, Chekov, Ibsen, Williams, Rosenthal, Bennett, and Rosenthal come to mind. The discourse these characters use may sound strange, but they’re dealing with a surreal, unusual persona; in that context, it makes perfect sense.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a speech (not one I wrote) that didn’t reflect the speaker’s personality. Many people make this mistake because they consider delivering a business presentation an art form in which they will win over their audience by using flowery language and coming across as more important and influential than they are. Another reason this occurs is that poorly written speeches sound exactly like poorly written brochure copy, website material, or any other form of inflated corporate babble.

Neither option is acceptable. You will come off as one-dimensional, superficial, and dishonest if the things you write for yourself to say sound like they were written for a pontificating old codger or, even worse, for formal brochure material. Add “incompetent” to the list in the previous sentence since you will make yourself uncomfortable and fumble over the words and phrases.

The same spicy tone you employ to tell jokes to your buddies in the locker room at the gym or the 19th hole at the golf club is probably inappropriate for a formal speech. But it would be best if you always were true to who you are and who you write for. If you want to make an impression without professional acting training, you must be at ease when delivering your lines. You won’t achieve this by using flowery language that is difficult to pronounce in writing.

The conversational tone is always appropriate. The most influential public presenters constantly adopt the style of a casual conversation with a buddy over coffee. The days of always using a lengthy-term when a short one will suffice in a business setting are over. Today, only attorneys and doctors engage in this practice, and each profession has its unique language that prevents others from understanding them. (Is there a shorter way to express “anti trypanosomiasis?” Perhaps “drugs to cure sleeping sickness,” but even that is a mouthful.)

To what end would a whole script be necessary?

Notice that I insist you write your speech, even though I fully expect you to deliver it from memory or bullet points. Highly skilled orators frequently wing it publicly, from a memorized introduction and conclusion. If you have a lot of experience giving speeches in public, this is fine. It’s not worth the danger if you’re not.

There are many benefits to having a complete script:
If you’re a public speaker with little experience, this book will serve as a helpful guide.
It simplifies the process of creating and balancing material.
This means that there will be no need for you to “wing it.”
It provides a fallback if you try to talk from memory but inevitably forget something.
Dividing the total number of words in your prepared speech by 120 will give you a general estimate of how long your presentation will last in minutes. This will also help others appropriately cue your visual accompaniment (if applicable).

If others in your company learn that a complete script exists, they may try to change it. However, this is a little price to pay for the peace of mind and assurance of having a complete script. Even while you may be able to wing it from bullet points or notes as you gain public speaking experience, I still recommend writing it all out first.

Stories and jokes

To better explain your arguments, include a few anecdotes (ideally personal ones) unless your presentation is a heavy informational financial report or other entirely factual speech. Especially in England, where the successful are expected to do the penance of self-deprecation and excessive modesty, listeners enjoy speakers who tell stories about themselves in a negative light. That’s probably because they feel more connected to you and trust you due to your admittance of being human.

Another reason is that people enjoy the illusion of being let in on a secret and seeing the real you perform. However, anecdotes are compelling so long as they are brief, to the point, and pertinent to the rest of your content.
Use humor with caution, but know that it will work wonderfully when you do. Even if your speech is for “after-dinner” or any other social occasion, you should refrain from delivering jokes unless you are a first-rate raconteur.

If you’re not a “funny” person in everyday life, being in front of an audience won’t magically change that. That usually makes you less amusing, not more. If telling jokes is something you would never do casually at a social event, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Unless you are the “best man” at a wedding or the entertainment following a social event, making jokes nonstop is generally inappropriate. Use humor sparingly as punctuation if you feel comfortable doing so. Speech humor must always be appropriate for the listeners and the discussed topic. If you’re interested in learning the craft of gag writing, several excellent books are available on comic paper.

Joke books (including one or two written by yours me…) and the usual significant sites (try searching for +JOKES+(YOUR SUBJECT)) on the internet are good places to start looking for material to adapt. Jokes related to a particular topic can also be found on websites specialized in that topic, which can be found by searching for the same thing.

Copyright is something to remember; telling a joke precisely as it appears in a book or online may not give you the legal right to do so, primarily if your speech will be broadcast publicly. I can’t be more detailed because the details are different in every country. You should consult your legal counsel if you have concerns about the copyright consequences of employing jokes in your speeches.

Get in some practice time.

I hate to be a downer, but after you put in the time and effort to research, outline, draft, and finalize your speech (and, if necessary, your visual aids), you still have to put in the time and effort to practice! You can’t stress enough the need for regular practice.

Not too close to the big day, or you’ll be bored to death with the same old speech. However, it would be best if you didn’t put it off until the last minute, either. Make an effort to memorize the speech, but don’t stress if you forget a “and” or “but” every once in a while; in fact, saying “er” and pausing slightly at random intervals will help your delivery appear more natural. You need to commit both the material and the sequence to memory.

On the big day, your script or bullet points will be a helpful reminder but not a lifeline you can’t do without. The time spent practicing in the shower, the car, in front of your family, and (if they don’t like your oratory) in front of the dog will pay off when you feel assured that (a) your subject is good and (b) you know it very well.

If you’re presenting at a huge conference, you could have to deal with a show crew, a high-tech set, and equipment. While all this may seem overwhelming to a first-time speaker, remember that its purpose is to facilitate communication, not hinder it.

I can’t tell you how many times a speaker has clung fearfully to my elbow after seeing a teleprompting gadget for the first time, only to utilize it the next day and wonder how they ever got by without it. I won’t go into detail on how to use a teleprompter here because it’s a bit difficult, and one of the show crew will show you the ropes when you rehearse your presentation.

I’ll say that teleprompters are great because they allow you to give your performance without worrying about where to put your words or how to organize your points in your speech because the teleprompter does it all for you. Your visual aids will also be cued by another person, so long as you don’t go “off script” and begin improvising without prior notice. Nothing but the center stage for you.

Any other suggestions? Cue cards, you nailed it.

Yes, they’re antiquated, but you never know where you’ll end up giving a speech, and not every venue will have state-of-the-art theater equipment. Two points to keep in mind that is crucial. As a first piece of advice, never settle for just one set. Ensure you always have a spare set by keeping them in several locations, such as your pocket and vehicle.

Second, using a securing device looped through a hole in one corner of each card, ensure that both sets are connected in the correct order. That way, you may use both sides of the deck and avoid re-arranging the cards if you lose them. The locking mechanism doesn’t need to be high-tech if it accomplishes its job well.

When I showed the CEO of a big European Telecoms business (who, luckily for me, was also an engineer) the high-tech fasteners I’d used on his cue cards, he was utterly baffled. He remarked, “This thing is excellent and does the job well.

I said, “They’re wiring loom clips from your local car dealer’s workshop.”

Author of 30+ books in the nonfiction/business genre, best-seller Suzan St. Maur instructs you on how to hone your writing skills for any audience. Including original writing and editing and a library of books and digital books with more than 400 freely accessible articles. Excellent preparation for the English of the blogosphere or the boardroom… Conjure up a fantastic wedding speech, please… improve your Twitter with… Energize your LinkedIn updates by… Additionally, there is a lot more to it. Come on by at this minute…

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