I’m continuing 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.
43.A speech is a whole, not a collection of parts. Too many speakers strive for a special effect – a great open, a boffo close, a story that kills. But far more important is the effect of the entire journey you take the audience on. Strive to find a story to tell that weaves the whole together. This is a special trap for those who build their presentations out of slides, rather than first creating the presentation, then illustrating it with slides. A presentation built from slides will always reveal its origins in the static, choppy, aimless nature of the whole.
44.A great speech is fractal. I mean this in the sense that it has an overall story that is mirrored in the short stories that fill it up. If a speech takes its audience on a quest journey, for instance, then each of the brief stories within the speech, from the framing story to the close, should also be quests.
45.A great speech asks questions. Because a speech is the result of a successful conspiracy between speaker and audience, a speech should leave room for the audience to inject itself. The speaker should not do all the work for the audience. Hence, asking questions is a good way to propel the speech forward, leaving room for the audience to participate.
46.But a great speech doesn’t ask its audience for things it cannot do. It is fair for a speaker to present a set of choices to an audience and ask it to pick one, for example, but it is not fair (or wise) for the speaker to ask the audience to develop that set of choices. Or again, it’s fair for a speaker to lay out possible solutions to a problem and ask the audience to choose the best one, but it is not fair or wise for the speaker to ask the audience to solve the problem. Only ask audiences to share or judge what they know, not what they haven’t faced or discovered yet.
47.All speeches are persuasive. Aristotle famously categorized speeches as informative, persuasive, or ornamental, but all speeches at least implicitly seek to persuade their audiences of the value of the speech itself, if nothing else.
48.A great speech begins by framing a problem the audience has in a way that it hasn’t thought about before. A great speech begins specifically, with a story or a statistic or a statement or a question that wakes the audience up, shakes its status quo, and defines what the rest of the speech is about.
49.A great speech solves a profound problem the audience has. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great speech, colloquially known as the “I Have a Dream” speech is great, not because of that unforgettable line, but because it addresses a profound problem the audience was struggling with – the lack of equal rights for the blacks. In this sense, a speech can be both great and forgotten if it solves a problem that a particular audience has but doesn’t rise above that problem, that moment, and that audience.
My goal in these principles is to explore the implicit rules of public speaking, the kind people rarely bring up in lists of the 10 rules for public speaking, which almost all start with “follow your passion” and end with “always end on time.” Both are true and good bits of advice, but they don’t help speakers much beyond the absolute beginning steps.