I’m developing a series of public speaking principles in the next few blog posts that are a summation of what I’ve learned about this fiendishly difficult art and science over three decades of practice, coaching, learning from others, and research, especially neuroscience. Here are the next seven.
15.A speech is performance art – and science. It’s performance art because it must be delivered every time with the same level of intensity and quality. Unlike, say, a painting, which can be hung on the wall for many people to see at many times, a speech must be delivered every time it is experienced. A speech is performance science because many principles of neuroscience – communications, perception, mental processing – affect both its the delivery and reception.
16.The more immediately relevant a speech is, the more likely it is to be well-received. A speech can be relevant to an audience, of, say, advertising agency heads, because it deals with matter concerning how to run an agency and motivate its workers. It may be relevant to an audience because it draws examples from the audience itself. It may be even more relevant to that audience if it develops ideas in the moment that relate to specific concerns the audience has. It may also draw upon events of the day, or the conference, or previous and following speakers, to increase its relevance.
17.A speech should offer connection to the audience in a minimum of two ways. See Principle #16. If a speech only covers a subject the audience has interest in, but fails to establish temporal or particular connections to the audience itself, then it will lack presence. A speech that lacks presence may succeed, but it will create inevitable distance between the speaker and the audience.
18.A great speech presents hierarchical thinking. In order for an audience to take in a speech successfully, the speaker must offer it a number of ways to categorize, organize, and file away the information presented. Because it’s so difficult to take in and remember information that’s presented orally, speakers must assist the audience by giving them information about the relative importance of the ideas presented, and ways to sort out the order in which they’re presented.
19.A great speech is fully human. Of course a great speech must have stories, but it should also indicate its limitations. A great speech is humble, and a really great speech includes ways to evaluate it on its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than hiding its flaws, a great speech embraces them and acknowledges them.
20.A speaker is a fox; a speech is a hedgehog. A fox knows many things and can do a variety of things if called upon, reacting in the moment to changes in circumstances. That’s the model for a good speaker. A speech, on the other hand, should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. It should make one main point and every supporting point should clearly fit into the overall rubric created by the main point. As such, a speech is like the proverbial hedgehog.
21.A great speech strives for objectivity but acknowledges its particular subjectivity. A speech is a public occasion. It’s not a conversation in the sense of a private chat between friends, though it should strive to sound like that kind of authentic communication if possible. Being a public occasion, a speech should have public support and underpinnings in the sense of some commonly agreed-upon ideas and facts. But it should also freely embrace an individual perspective on those shared ideas and be forthcoming about its biases as a result.
More next week. Don’t forget to weigh in with your experiences.