Presentations: Punching Up A Speech You Didn’t Write: Speaking
Let’s talk technique for punching up your delivery of a quickly prepared speech – especially one you didn’t write. While I prefer discussing my favorite keys to good speeches (good storytelling + audience-centered content + passionate delivery + well-rehearsed from an outline), many professionals don’t have – or don’t want to invest – the time. They are busy executives/entrepreneurs/politicians disinclined to write and practice presentations. Unless they are gifted communicators like CEO John Allison of BB&T and former CEO Bob Ingram of Glaxo Wellcome, or speaking aficionados like Lowes’ now retired Bob Tillman, many executives approach speeches pragmatically. They step up to the podium with a packet of pages of bold typeface print written rapidly by them or by staff members/consultants. They read their remarks without flourish and return to their preferred work – strategizing and decision-making. Powerful speaking is a luxury they won’t indulge.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can still inject life into written presentations even if you can’t devote much attention to speaking. You can elevate sentences that would otherwise drone undifferentiated from one page to next.
The following suggestions helped a political client present a speech written for her. She improved her delivery dramatically with just a few minutes of work. These recommendations are based on what I used to do nightly when I anchored television newscasts. As you would expect, TV news deadlines demand that you familiarize yourself with scripts quickly. You must know the meaning of what you will say. (An old anchor axiom is “You can’t tell what you don’t know!”) Your audience has to “get it” immediately. In broadcasting as in speeches, they don’t have a second chance to understand what you said. If they lose your meaning, you lose them.
So, for all of you busy professionals; try these steps before a presentation:
Read once for overall meaning. This gives you the total picture, the concept.
On second reading, underline key messages. In TV news when we had to learn many stories in little time, we would underline critical words and phrases. That tells you at a glance what to emphasize. It reminds you of the thrust of the overall message.
Insert pauses and silences. Draw a hash mark or vertical line at the end of an important sentence or phrase to remind you to stop and let your comment register impactfully with the audience. Pauses are powerful. Use them both before and after key statements. Since listening consumes the energy of an audience, short silences by you conserve their energy, and make it easier for them to stay with you.
Mark changes in thought. Draw a horizontal line across the page between paragraphs to signal a change in the direction in your speech.
All of this script marking provides a visual roadmap for how to drive home your speech. Instead of pages full of words, sentences, and paragraphs that look alike and run together, you have distinctively labeled sections with multiple visual cues. You can see where to accentuate, where to back off, where to talk quietly, where to turn up the volume, and where to simply shut up.
Rehearse aloud. It helps you spot disjointed ideas and bad grammar. More importantly, it accustoms you to the sound of your voice saying these particular words. You will find this makes you more comfortable during the actual presentation.
Insert personal comments where possible. Sprinkle brief annotations here and there to prompt you to ad-lib comments from personal experience.
During the presentation, try these measures:
Unleash your upper body. Let go of the podium. Free your hands and arms to gesture naturally as you speak.
Make eye contact. Many speakers let their gaze drift across the sea of faces without ever stopping on any individuals. Instead, single out a listener for several seconds while you deliver a line, and then move on to another listener for another comment. This takes some practice, but can be potent.
Take questions before delivering your concluding thought or story. Questions and answers after speeches can suck the air out of presentations. So delay your last persuasive point or story until after the Q&A.
Finally, you can make all of this easier by adding these touches during the speechwriting phase:
a) Include personal stories you can ad-lib rather than read to liberate you from the script.
b) Write for the ear not the eye. Read it aloud to see if it “sounds” good.
c) Use short powerful sentences with strong verbs to enable you to make forceful statements.
d) Include dots (like this…..) in lieu of commas to cue you to pause for effect.
e) Write with active rather than passive voice to give your remarks a linear quality that is easier for an audience to follow.
Sharp writing lubricates delivery. Long meandering sentences and paragraphs bog down presentations.
While these techniques can enhance a humdrum speech, please remember that are not a substitute for a well-rehearsed intuitive presentation layered with story-telling and passion. Use them as you must, but strive for the best.