The Way We Talk

Communication fascinates me. Speaking well delivers advantages to the speaker. Good to great speakers are often in demand.

We are living during a time when the speed of communication has accelerated exponentially. We’re awash in information. Most people are struggling to render heads or tails from the onslaught. Speaking (and writing) clearly about your subject can help diminish confusion.

For the past decade, I’ve been actively engaged in helping to create messaging about a diverse array of topics, from workforce and economic development, to aging in place, and of course, my own publishing ventures. I’ve learned to be intentional about the information I’ve been tasked to develop and disseminate. My experience regularly reminds me about the power of words, and how they’re arranged in order to make points.

Interestingly, just this week, I stumbled across an older article that I remember reading when it initially ran in The New Yorker, back in 2001, 14 years ago. It was about PowerPoint, as a communications tool.

PowerPoint corrupts, and absolute PowerPoint corrupts, absolutely.

PowerPoint corrupts, and absolute PowerPoint corrupts, absolutely.

I have no interest arguing pro or con about PowerPoint. PowerPoint is another technology-based app that speakers have been utilizing since it was developed in 1990. Like all apps and tools, it’s incumbent upon the presenter/speaker just how much they want to lean on it. Sometimes it becomes a crutch for speakers that lack confidence in their ability to communicate. That’s not to say that anyone who uses PowerPoint is a sub-par speaker, or lacks the requisite communication skills—although it might.

Then there are the how-to articles about PowerPoint that are ubiquitous. Of course, less experienced speakers incorporate these tips into their presentations. Is it any wonder that it often feels like “seen one, seen them all” when it comes to most PowerPoint presentations?

So what makes someone an engaging speaker?

  •  Having something to say, helps

That might seem obvious, but it’s not. Reading off a sheet isn’t speaking. Notes are fine, but be able to riff off them. Learn how to speak off-the-cuff. This doesn’t mean talking out of your ass, either.

Start with a one-minute elevator pitch, and expand it. Personally, I find it tougher to get a 10-minute talk down to one, than I do starting with less and accelerating to more.

  • Present your subject with passion

Maybe because I cut my public speaking teeth on the breakfast circuit, I learned to add some “juice” to whatever I was talking about. It takes some get-up-and-go to energize a roomful of Chamber members over lukewarm buffet-style eggs and bacon, while your audience is still pounding their first cup of coffee, and they’re shooting daggers at you in Farmington, Maine.

  • Work a joke or two in, before going for the jugular

If you read Tuesday’s post, the cat’s out of the bag about my fundamentalist pedigree. One benefit from that period in my life is that I learned from attending morning chapel at Hyles-Anderson College that a good preacher has an assortment of jokes that he’s auditioned before. Some of the best speakers I’ve ever sat listening to were southern preachers.

  • Plan and prepare to speak for twice the allotted time

I’m a nut for over-preparing for any important talk I’m asked to give. What constitutes important? I’d say anytime you are presenting to an audience, whether we’re talking 5 people, or 5,000. I always walk up to the rostrum with several pages of notes. And then, I rarely even look at them. But that’s just me.

When you first get started, your notes keep you on topic and as an outline, help bring you back, should you go off on a tangent.

Here’s one I’ve added over the last year, or so.

  • Don’t ever speak for longer than 20-25 minutes

This one might seem arbitrary. Over the past decade of public speaking, I’ve learned that most audiences will give you 10-15 minutes, even if you totally suck. People are generally polite, so even if you are bad, they’ll feel sorry and if you can wrap up in 20 minutes, they’ll think you are having an off day (if they’re not repeat customers).

If you have two good jokes, get some belly laughs, and have fun and a little bit of personality, at 20 minutes, they’re like putty in your hand. Then, use the last five minutes of speaking capital to start your wrap-up and then hit the Q & A for 10 to 15 minutes, and collect your check.

Chances are, they’ll have you back in the future, and appreciate getting to the office a bit earlier, or back home at a decent hour, if you’re running the dinner circuit.

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