The phenomenal success of TED talks and the ubiquity of public speaking clips on social media has definitely raised the bar for the rest of us when it comes to presenting. But while perfect delivery, vocal charisma and confidence are key, the real secret to standing ovations is in your speech content.
In our public speaking courses, we liken planning out the content of your speech to cooking a meal. It’s an analogy that works well and one we come back to time and again...
You step onto the stage, shuffle your papers and try to relax your shoulders. The adrenalin begins to course through your veins as you look out over the sea of expectant faces. You take a deep breath and begin to speak.
This routine is the same whether you’re about to make your first presentation at work or deliver a TED talk to an audience of hundreds. The presentation nerves might be present just as much when you’re making your father-of-the-bride speech in front of family and friends as they are when you’re delivering a pitch to attract a million-pound investment.
So no matter the context, no matter the topic and no matter what’s at stake, how can you make sure you smash your speech out of the park? While delivery skills and vocal charisma are crucial to capture the imagination of your audience and maintain their interest, if the content of your speech doesn’t cut the mustard, all your effort will be in vain.
The Secret Recipe for writing a standout speech
While it’s common to start your planning by writing down all the main points you want to make along with any arguments to support them, this doesn’t always make for a memorable speech. Just like opening the fridge and tipping everything you see into a serving bowl doesn’t make for a delicious meal, it takes a little more preparation than that to write a really good speech.
Here's our recipe to create a speech or presentation deserving of a standing ovation: plan your presentation like you would your Sunday roast.
Planning your speech
Choose 'the meat' of your recipe carefully. Think about the objective; the thing you want to achieve from your presentation, the thing you want your audience to have in their head as they leave. The meat, as it were. And then choose the three to five main points that best drive this objective forward.
For example, if you’re trying to deliver the perfect wedding speech as Father-of-the-Bride, you might decide your objective is to leave everybody knowing why your daughter is a special catch, and why the groom is such a lucky guy. In order to do this, you will want to tell some stories highlighting the special qualities she embodies, probably be a bit humorous about the groom and his pursuit of her, and close with a warm welcome (or a fatherly warning) to the new family member. By sticking to these key points you’ll deliver a speech that is to the point, does exactly what it needs to and leaves plenty of time for celebrating and dancing the night away.
In a boardroom setting we can see this working in the same way. If you’re presenting to the senior management team, first set out your overall aim, i.e. To get a decision about X and Y. Then break your talk down into the key 3-5 things that your audience needs to know to make the required decision and focus on each in turn. Any more and they simply won’t have the capacity to digest what you’re saying.
When you’re speaking in public always remember you are taking up people’s valuable time, so it’s your job to do the communication work for them, making sure you get what’s in your mind, into theirs in the most succinct, pleasurable and impactful way possible. The clearer you are in terms of what you want to say and why, the more they can relax, absorb and let their minds roam around the possibilities of your offer.
Bring your values and your 'why' into your speech
To continue with our meal metaphor, it’s the vegetables in your meal that make it good for you by giving your mind and body the nutrients they need to stay healthy and strong.
Consider values in the same way. Thinking about your own values, as well as other people’s and incorporating them in your speech, will help your audience to better understand the point you are trying to make. When we are listening to someone speak and can see that they are coming from a deeper place of purpose and meaning, it’s inspiring. When we see vulnerabilities and passion, it speaks to us on a deeper level than a generic script ever could.
Simon Sinek's book Finding your why explores the necessity to focus on your ‘why’ in everything you do in order to become a great leader.
But it’s not just in leadership that this stuff is important. Making your core values clear to your listeners will get them onboard with your message and engaged in what you’re saying. Otherwise, unless they know why they should care, they'll likely be just nodding along while they doodle on their notebooks awaiting the next speaker.
Remember -The value is in the vegetables.
How values demonstrate authenticity
That father-of-the-bride speech we mentioned earlier? If it’s really going to engage on a deeper level, you are going to have to be authentic. You'll need to showing the audience why and how your daughter is special to you, and what it means to you to see her transition from daughter to wife, changing her name and status in the world. You could, if you are prepared to bare your soul a little, have the entire room reaching for their tissues, and create one of those special moments that everyone remembers long after the wedding dress is packed away.
And when presenting to the board to get that decision? Less emotional perhaps, but it doesn’t need to be less profound. If you are prepared to bring in your values, share what this opportunity means to you and why it matters on a deeper level. If you communicate the why, then the people in the room will sit up and take notice. Not only that, they will get excited and engaged. Because when someone shares what really matters to them, it makes everyone around connect with their authentic drivers too, and that’s when you get real engagement happening.
Use personal stories or anecdotes to add 'a touch of spice'
Whether it’s honey and thyme on the parsnips, rosemary and sea salt on the roasties, or red wine and a bayleaf in the gravy, any good cook knows it’s adding that touch of something a bit special that leaves guests smacking their lips and going back for second helpings. And the same is true for public speaking.
It’s adding these touches of spice that bring your presentation to life, capture your audience and allow them to hang on every word you say. So tell stories and anecdotes or tune into memories that are unique to you but may resonate with your listeners by speaking to broader themes.
For example, you might mention the moon landing to illustrate a stand out moment in your past that helped you to realise anything is possible. “I remember when I first saw man on the moon,” works fine. I mean it’s OK, isn’t it? But instead why not bring it to life with some vibrancy and colour?
Try this instead:
“I was 7 when I saw the moon landing. We discarded our toast and jostled for position around the fuzzy, 12” black and white TV as the BBC news began. I noticed my mum crying (which she never did) as she sat waiting for Neil Armstrong to take that first step. Afterwards, we ate a pineapple upside down cake, which was my mother’s classic pudding for special occasions, and to this day it was the best cake I’ve ever had.”
Doesn’t that feel more powerful? By helping you to picture the scene, I’ve taken you back there and made you part of the story. And doing the same for your audience will make them far more open to whatever you have to say next. After all, we’re programmed to listen to and respond to storytelling - that’s what makes it such a powerful tool.
Of course the content of your presentation is just one aspect of great communication. But it’s a vital one. You can be as passionate as possible and as entertaining in your delivery as you like, but if what you’re saying doesn’t have authenticity at its core, then your speech will fall flat.
As we always say:
Authenticity + Connection = Engagement
And authenticity starts with a drive to speak.
When you’re planning a presentation, treat it like a good meal. Make sure you have some meat (or alternative protein if you prefer!), plenty of veg and something to make it just that little more interesting to help it stand out from all the other offerings.
Our Effective Communication course will support you to be more confident and authentic as a public speaker through verbal and non-verbal communication techniques.
If you’d like to find out more about Effective Communication contact us on 020 3137 6323 for an informal chat. Or download our free Presentation Skills eBook.