This post is the fourth in a series of the basic building blocks of a great speech. 

You’ve researched your audience, asked the right questions, and learned the particulars of the occasion.  You’ve created the opening frame of the talk with an engaging story that hints at the glories to come.  You’ve plunged the audience deep into the issue that animates your topic.

Now, the audience is finally ready to reap the benefits of your expertise.  It’s time to tell ‘em what’s what.

But here’s the thing:  you need to wear your learning lightly.  In other words, you have to control your passion to the extent that you don’t tell the audience everything you know – just the handful of most important insights that will help your audience most powerfully and immediately.

The great temptation for knowledgeable people is to get down in the details of their knowledge – the weeds of expertise.  But an audience is unable to process lots of detail in the form of a speech.  So resist it.  Just give them the high points, the key ideas.  The rules of thumb that will empower that audience and help it feel like it has got the inside track and is a little more expert than it was before.

If you can make explicit the implicit knowledge you have about your topic, that will be most useful for people who are trying to get the gist of something new.

You won’t be surprised to read that stories are great ways to pass on this implicit knowledge – but stories with a point or moral.  “I worked with a guide dog who had the strange habit of ….. From this I learned that dogs respond best to ……  So whenever you’re getting ready to train your dog, always ……”

Think of yourself as an artisan passing on the mysteries of her craft to an entranced group of apprentices.  What are the implicit organizing principles you use to think about your deep knowledge?  What are the rules of thumb you use to quickly analyze a new problem and what to do about it?  That’s the kind of high-level thinking you want to talk about.

Of course, there are many different kinds of speeches, topics, and approaches that will work with an audience.  But you should begin with the mindset of passing on a few insights rather than an encyclopedia of information.  Data dumps work well with connected computers, but not with humans.  We humans prefer stories – and we remember them better.  Ask yourself, what can I tell this audience in person that is less compelling to convey in written form?

A good example of an expert wearing his learning lightly comes in this TEDx talk from Dr. Brian Goldman on the subject of medical errors.  In the course of discussing this difficult and emotional topic, Goldman tells us just enough medicine to get on with – he doesn’t bury us in medical jargon or ideas.  He doesn’t dumb down the topic either.  The result is a strong, persuasive speech.  (I would have coached him to begin differently, but hang in there; the speech gets better and better.)

Dr. Brian Goldman



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.