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, about some structural issues of speechmaking.
50.In public speaking, as in architecture, form should follow function. The form a speech takes should be a derivative of its function, and since all speeches are at least to some extent persuasive, then, speeches should be shaped to best create a persuasive moment. In other words, a speech should start with the known, the familiar, and the agreed-upon when possible, before proceeding to the debate. When speaking about highly contentious subjects, the various opposing points of view should be reviewed sympathetically and respectfully before the desired alternative is presented.
51.Speeches should be just long enough to persuade the audience, no longer. There is no merit in length for its own sake; the fact that keynote speeches have tended to be an hour long is an artifact of scheduling, not anything inherent. The success of TED has indeed started a trend toward shorter speeches. Presumably shrinking attention spans also have something to do with it. Some research suggests that attention spans have shortened to 11 minutes from 22, but it is difficult to tell how pervasive this lessening is, because different human activities seem to encompass different attention spans. A century or so ago, it was considered usual for speeches to last several hours, even after dinner. Today, that would be considered hardship no matter how eloquent the speaker.
52.Most great speeches follow a problem-solution format. If the only reason to give a speech is to change the world, and if to change the world you have to change the minds of the audience in front of you, then it follows that you need to change the audience’s thinking about something that represents an important problem to them. To do so, therefore, it’s usually best to start by explicating that problem and then solving it.
53.But if you vary from this classic speech structure, then do so for a reason. The occasion, the audience, and the topic of a speech should always dictate its structure. In other words, rather than thinking a priori about structure it should follow from the conditions of the speech.
54.There are two ways to deal with the structure of the speech during the speech itself: to reveal it or conceal it. The more complicated the structure, the more the audience needs to have it revealed. The most elegant speeches simply flow; they don’t need to reveal their structure as they go. But the more complicated a speech is the more useful it is for the audience to have the structure made clear.
55.The structure of a speech itself can influence the act of persuasion. In other words, if your argument has many reasons to recommend it, then it will seem more persuasive to the audience than if it has few. This is not logical, but piling on has always been a way to persuade people of dubious or shaky assertions.
56.Structure your speech to have a strong overall flow, but learn it in sections. A speaker who knows her speech can give any section of it in any order. This desideratum of course should only be attempted in rehearsal, but it is a valuable way to test one’s knowledge of a speech.
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.