Excellence in Speaking

As I step into the next chapter of my career, I find myself increasingly more on stage. I’ve listened to thousands of speeches from hundreds of speakers in my life. The amazing ones are standouts.

My goal as a speaker has always been to be excellent. Sometimes I deliver to that standard and sometimes I do not. I want my talks to be a highly memorable experience with excellent information and practical takeaways. I don’t want to be just another guy that blathers on about the mundane.

Recently, I began to study the techniques used by the best speakers in the world. From my first paper in elementary school to my speech class in high school to my time at Toastmasters, the structure on how to communicate remains the same, (introduction, hypothesis/main point, supporting points, repeat hypothesis/main point, conclusion) but what does differentiates is how it’s done.

After reading books, listening to podcasts and hearing tons of speakers on the topic, there are three differentiators of great speakers that stand out to me.

The first is the use of stories. Nothing captures and connects with an audience better than a story. All great speakers are master storytellers. They weave in personal or researched anecdotes that capture the essence of what point they’re trying to make, often without the audience consciously realizing it.

As a child, I constantly created worlds that didn’t exist. It didn’t matter if I was avoiding giant robots in space, flying with superheroes, or freediving to the bottomless depths of the ocean. My creativity and imagination had no bounds. As I aged, the education system told me those things were silly and a waste of time. They taught me to focus on numbers, charts, and regurgitation. Employers pushed me to use facts alone to convince others. But those are boring unless jazzed up.

Today, I feel strongly about having actual data and interpreting them. I love numbers, their power and predictability. However, I find they are meaningless to most people unless they are wrapped in a story that must be told. Incorporating hard facts with the personal is what separate good speakers from great ones. Stories must be told.

Secondly, you must have stage presence.

“Your audience will reflect you” is a common theme with experts regarding giving speeches. If you’re anxious, the audience will be. If you’re relaxed, they will be too. Their default is that you deserve to be up there. Keep them feeling that way. Don’t open the door to let them think otherwise. Confidence is the foundation to build from.

I can’t tell you how many board rooms, classrooms or auditoriums I’ve stood waiting to speak in fearing I have nothing valuable to share despite my robust preparation process. However, I can never display that negativity to those sitting in the seats staring up at me. Instead, I reach deep for being passionate and conversational.

It’s the passion of great speakers that raises and lowers their volume and changes their pace while inspiring listeners.

Simultaneously, a conversational approach draws the audience in. People aren’t being talked at, they feel talked with.

An audience wants something who truly believes in what they’re sharing and isn’t talking down at them from a superior (or inferior) position.

Lastly, length & pacing are critical. According to research, there is an ideal pace for live presentations and an ideal length. That length is a [continuous] maximum of 18 minutes. Shorter is ok, but speeches over 20 minutes can cause a condition known as cognitive overload. According to the British Council, “Cognitive overload is a situation where the teacher gives too much information or too many tasks to learners simultaneously, resulting in the learner being unable to process this information.”

Subjectively, I have known this but I hadn’t quantified it. After reading this description, I went to see how that factor impacted me. I compared the length of corporate speeches to speeches I listen to on the weekend to speeches I listen to as podcasts.

My top three speakers require less than 20 minutes of my time for each speech. On the other end, the ones that I painfully endure are ones that require 40 minutes of my time (listening to a podcast at 1.5x speed means these are actually an hour in length).

18 minutes becomes a creative box. If appropriate live pacing is 190 words per minute, I have less than 3500 words to share. Each word, every sentence is critical. There is no room for waste.

Conclusion

Standing out as a great speaker requires the same basic structure taught to us since grade school but becoming a great speaker requires mastery of three other skills.

In this next stage of my career, I commit to excellence via stories, stage presence, and twenty minutes. The result should be a gorgeous, compact communication that succinctly takes my listeners on a impactful journey, locked into memory for future application. Every. Single. Time.

Time is our most precious commodity and as a speaker, I want everyone to feel as if they have invested wisely in listening to me.

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