If you speak in business, you're a 'professional speaker.' Here's how to use that power to persuade and move stakeholders.
I recently gave a talk to a state bar association on "Effective Speaking Skills for Lawyers." Replace the last word in that title, and what I had to say applies to your industry or profession as well. Yes, I referenced how juries, judges, and attorneys at continuing legal education seminars process information. But the principles of being a dynamic and effective speaker are the same.
In preparing for this particular talk, however, I came across an article by Jim McElhaney, former Litigation columnist for the ABA Journal. I used his story as the grabber in my presentation because, again, the point was universal concerning the importance of public speaking chops.
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The Most Important Lesson About Public Speaking
The story involves a young attorney who had a novel theory about a product safety act, and wanted to use it in an upcoming case on behalf of their manufacturer client. He was asked to present his case to the client's chief counsel for consideration. That presentation didn't go well, because the young lawyer wasn't prepared in the way he needed to be.
On the drive back to the law firm, the attorney's mentor asked what the young man had learned from the experience. Then the mentor provided the answer himself: "Every time you say something as a lawyer, you are making a professional presentation."
And so are you, when you speak in your profession. Each of us gives performances day in and day out, as we play the roles expected of us. When it comes to talking about topics that matter in your company, organization, or industry, you need to speak at your best. Mr. McElhaney in his article gave some "rules" for doing so. And—no surprise—some of these are exactly the same things I tell my speech coaching clients. (I also worked for six years at Boston law firms.) My advice to my clients is the same, whether they're speaking at an annual meeting, a convention, in a TEDx talk, or whatever the occasion.
9 Ways to Be a Memorable and Exciting Speaker
So here is the gist of my talk concerning my own advice for performing at your best. These rules may not be foolproof . . . Well, actually, I think they are foolproof when it comes to being an exciting and memorable speaker. That's true whether you're speaking in the law, business, healthcare, finance, for a nonprofit or government agency, or in any other situation.
Here they are: my nine ways you can be a successful 'professional' speaker:
1. Connect with Your Audience
It may seem self-evident that reaching an audience is your job when speaking publicly. But this is a rule that, as Hamlet said, is more honored in the breach than the observance. That is, it's too often not accomplished, or even aimed at.
Too many speakers believe that their job is to deliver information. Instead, your task as a speaker is always to influence listeners positively. Yes, you use information to accomplish that task. But the greatest influencer in your toolbox is you. Make eye contact, be conversational, don't try to 'perform' in any way . . . and notice people's reactions and respond!
2. Tell Your Story
The most powerful arguments or propositions are delivered as part of a story. Stories place data and other information into a human context. And since they involve people's struggles and successes, they are inherently interesting. Raw data seldom is seldom engaging in that way (though its implications can certainly be).
Equally important, a story "lights up" different areas of the brain—and the more sensory details you include in your tale, the more this will happen. Analyzing pure information involves only the prefrontal or "CEO" part of the brain, leaving out all sorts of visceral responses. Don't get hung up on being a dazzling storyteller. Just consider how people are affected by what you're saying. That will put you into a more narrative frame of mind. In a way, you'll be teaching yourself how to tell great stories.
3. Don't Be Such an Expert!
There's a book I like by Randy Olson titled Don't Be Such a Scientist. In it, he tells the story of how he was hounded out of an acting class in Hollywood because, in the teacher's mind, he "thought too much." Where was the emotion? the teacher wondered. This was acting, after all!
I began this article by saying you are always a professional when you speak in your job. But that doesn't mean you give up the need to be human, as apparently many speakers do. What I mean by this rule, then, is that it's the person-to-person connection that will make you interesting on stage. "Sure, I know you're an expert," the audience member says. "Now, empower me somehow." Solution? Learn how to move an audience in public speaking.
4. Know What You're Trying to Say
Ever agonize over what the agenda of your talk or meeting should be? One reason that's happening, is that you're focusing too much on your topic, and too little on your purpose.
Speakers make this mistake all the time. I'll say to a client, "What are you trying to accomplish in this talk?" And they'll respond, "Well, I'm going to talk about . . . " That, of course, is their topic, not what they're trying to accomplish. Instead, you need to be as clear as possible as to what your specific purpose is in a presentation, or even casual remarks. A clear, specific purpose makes content easy, since the information you need to make it all happen will suggest itself. That is, you'll find yourself bringing in only information that will help you accomplish that purpose, leaving out the rest.
5. Show Don't Tell
If you have something important to say, you need to make it come to life with an important image or illustration, rather than just explaining it. That means an analogy, a metaphor, a case study, a client experience, a personal anecdote, or anything else that crystallizes the idea and allows listeners to "see" it.
For example, a client of mine said this: "We knew these changes in our business model would take some time . . . but we didn't realize it would be like walking in quicksand." Simple, clear, and evocative of what he was trying to say, right?
6. Keep It Simple
Speaking of simplicity: The bigger your ideas, the smaller your words need to be. Think of any great speech in business or history or politics, and you'll find that the speaker used simple language to get their points across. Short sentences with good Anglo-Saxon words (instead of flowery Latin) do the trick.
Perhaps you have a favorite speaker who does this. Mine is Winston Churchill. and I especially like the "We shall fight on the beaches" speech of June 1940. As speechwriter Richard Dowis reminds us: Of the eighty-one words at the core of that speech, only nine have more than one syllable. Only four have more than two syllables! Look up the speech and you'll see how remarkable this is. So learn what I call "The Churchill Method of Great Public Speaking."
7. Commit Yourself
Thinking about your speech and wanting desperately to do well at it, can create a too-high barrier for you to clear. As in acting, serving the truth of the moment and the needs of the audience instead, rather than trying to look good, is your surest path to the finish line. But often, even knowing that doesn't stop us from focusing on our inadequacies.
Consider this, then. When it comes to public speaking, passion forgives a multitude of sins. If your audience can see and hear how committed you are to your ideas, they will listen to you and take what you're saying to heart. Think of the scenes in movies you consider the most moving and powerful, and you'll understand the level of commitment I'm talking about. Commitment equals persuasion. Remember it.
8. Develop Your Voice
Your voice is your most powerful and flexible tool in spoken performance. Nothing equals your voice in its ability to express both the subtleties and the power of your ideas. Words constitute the verbal part of what you say. But the way you say it—the vocal component—is where audiences hear your passion, the importance of the idea, the urgency to act, and many other essentials component of your speech.
Truly, the way you say something can change its very meaning. Learn to use all the colors of vocal expressiveness to make that happen, not just the blacks and grays of the palette.
9. Give a Clear Call to Action
As you close your remarks, discover how to end a speech vividly and memorably. Remember, what you say here is what is going to stay with the listener, informing his or her thoughts and actions concerning your topic from that day on.
Few things are more potent in a speech's conclusion than a call to action. It may be something physical, like signing a petition or writing a check. But planting a thought that can lead to a future change in behavior can be equally valuable. In any case, come to a clear and definite conclusion. Know when to stop, and make it sound that way. Repeating yourself, recapping in a tedious way or—worst of all—saying, "That's all I have" will mar what may otherwise be a fine speech. After all, this is the last impression people will have of you and your effort.
 Jim McElhaney, “More Than Just Words: This Is What It Really Means to Talk Like a Lawyer,” ABA Journal, January 1, 2012.
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