I’ve just come from three speeches in three days. Before that, it had been just over a month. Speeches seem to go in clumps sometimes.

So I was feeling a bit rusty going into this three-day stretch. I’d provided a lot of coaching, and done a couple of slots on CNN commenting on the debates – but I don’t fool myself that coaching, TV and speaking are the same thing – they’re not. Different muscles, different sorts of attention.

The result beforehand was a species of low-level anxiety that came from unproductively fearing that things would go poorly or at least not wonderfully, because I was out of practice, and not doing anything about that fear.

To paraphrase Frank Herbert, that kind of fear is the speech killer. Because if you encode that anxiety into your muscle memory over a few days, it will affect your energy, your emotions, your posture, your gestures – everything that goes into the second conversation that you’re always having with an audience – the body language conversation. The fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The first conversation is, of course, the content and it is the one that you think about consciously when preparing a speech. But, as I often ask audiences, why do we spend roughly 99% of our time, when preparing a speech, thinking about content, and 1% thinking about body language, when the body language will always trump the content?

I was falling into precisely the trap I ask audiences about. I was thinking about the content, mentally preparing that, and only vaguely thinking – at rare intervals – in mildly fearful terms about the body language.

By the time my wife noticed I was moping, I figured it was time to do something about it. So I asked myself, if I were coaching me, what would I advise? And I came up with the following five steps to prepare for speeches (especially when you don’t give them every day).

1. First, focus on the audience. The most important way to ensure that you connect successfully with the audience in front of you with the material you’re passionate about is to know what that audience needs. So I called up the several people who were bringing me in to speak, and went over who would be in the audience, what was on their minds, and what to expect in the room.

2. Second, ask yourself why you’re speaking to that audience. The only reason to give a speech is to change the world. Ask yourself, what is the way, specifically, that I want to change the world with this speech, and this audience? What is it I want them to do differently? And find a simple clear answer to that question. Mine: I want to convince the audience(s) to be intentional in their communications, rather than leaving them to chance, and specifically making their body language intentional. That’s clear, and it gives me a reason to speak that I can get behind.

3. Third, rehearse. My wife consented to be my audience, and I rehearsed the speeches carefully, focusing on summoning up the necessary energy for the various groups I would be talking to, and keeping my content as stripped-down as possible. A group of 400 sleep-deprived undergraduates demands more energy and simplicity than a much smaller group of faculty who can be presumed to have an inherent interest in the topic, since they’re applying it to their own lectures and students every day.

4. Fourth, jettison the extraneous. One of the great traps of speaking is to keep adding more material because it’s interesting, or new, or you think this particular audience might be eager to learn it – and failing to jettison a corresponding amount of old material. Speeches tend to accrete in this way, and that tendency has to be fought. See #2 – only that which supports that main reason should be included. Everything else should be relentlessly excluded. So I pared down, and made sure that I’d finish in the time allotted.

5. Fifth, focus. A speech is an opportunity, and a gift, to share something you’re passionate about with an audience. Focusing on that magical chance to commune with the audience on something you think is important – you can only be enthusiastic about that. So before I go on, I spend 5 minutes focusing on the emotional enthusiasm I need to bring to the occasion. Once I’ve got my focus, and I’m feeling thankful, I know I’m ready to go.

So what happened? The three speeches each went well, and I had long lines of people afterwards greeting me and asking follow up questions. That’s the simple test of success for a speech – does the audience want to continue the conversation? If they do, then the presentation was heard, and the audience reached – the only reason to give a speech, after all.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Nick! I’m so glad your sessions turned out well. I love your transparency and insights–it benefits us all.

    I’m speaking to groups nearly every day, but every once in a while there’s a setting or presentation that is outside the normal repertoire. What I particularly appreciate about your post is your first two points: put our focus on the audience and why we’re there for them. You continually challenge us to remember it’s not about us–it’s about them.

    Thank you!

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