Thought Leader: Making the Most of Your Next Speaking Engagement
So you’ve accepted a speaking invitation. Your biography is up on the conference website, accompanied by your best glamour shot. Now there’s nothing left to do — except figure out how exactly you are going to effectively get your message across.
The most famous speeches tend to involve political figures or social activists. “Fourscore and seven years ago." “I have a dream.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Such great heights can seem removed when you’re invited to speak about your business at a conference or industry gathering. Leave the lofty rhetoric to the orators in Congress — the private sector is about action, not words!
The truth is that you’re far better off speaking as yourself than stretching to emulate a soaring inaugural address. But be forewarned — you discount the value of preparation at your peril. As a busy executive, you may have grown accustomed to “winging it” when your days are always jam-packed with meetings and discussions, but a major speaking engagement is not something you should handle at the last minute. (And yes, that includes figuring out what you’re going to talk about at midnight the night before in a strange hotel room.)
So why are public presentations and keynotes regarded as afterthoughts at so many organizations? It may be because great speakers make it look so easy. Effective speakers have a disarming way of cutting through the jargon that pervades corporate life. As a result, giving a great TED talk appears to involve little more than showing up in a black turtleneck armed with a few great stories. The trick is that not everyone is a natural storyteller on the spot — not without investing a little time and effort upfront to prepare.
It may seem frivolous to pour time into preparing for public remarks when, as a busy leader, you have an array of pressing issues on your plate. But don’t forget how valuable these events can be. A speech is not just a public relations exercise or an act of self-aggrandizement; it’s an opportunity to build crucial connections with audiences and stakeholders that you might otherwise not find a chance to reach. There’s a reason why even the most savvy of leaders tend to hit a ceiling in their career trajectory if they don’t develop their presentation and public speaking abilities. The ability to move a crowd to action and put a human face on the work of your organization can be a game-changer for your company — what to speak of your own ability to brand yourself as a thought leader. Steve Jobs might have not possessed technical abilities vastly superior to his contemporaries, but his brand continues to loom large in business culture, in part because of the stage persona that he developed and spent enormous amounts of time cultivating. (It paid off for Apple shareholders, as well.)
While it certainly requires some effort upfront to maximize the potential of your presentation, the truth is that just about anyone can write and deliver a compelling message by finding their own distinct voice. Don’t worry about shooting for the history books or going viral — just try to connect with your audience, one person at a time. A few suggestions you might consider as you plan your speech:
- Tell stories. This one is emphasized enough to have become tiresome advice, but it truly is the key. Far too many speakers retreat into blizzards of acronyms and recitations of programs under their purview — without explaining how exactly these initiatives have helped anyone. Take a step back and think about your organization as though you had never heard of it. What examples or personal testimonials would break through to you? What name can you put on the abstract idea of the customer you serve? This is one instance in life where anecdote will almost always trump statistics (though it won’t hurt to have a few data points up your sleeve as well to support your case).
- Maintain authenticity. Don’t worry about being funny if you’re a bit of a stick in the mud. Don’t try to conjure up some makeshift gravitas if you’re a goofball. Speakers are more likely to succeed by embracing their authentic selves and conveying their real personalities. (The exception is for fast talkers. You will have to make sure that your authentic personality is also speaking slowly enough for the room to understand you.)
- Strive for simplicity. These are precious moments of life that you have asked the audience to give you — time they will never get back! Make it worthwhile by simplifying your message to its core elements. This can be painful or challenging when you work in a very complex subject area, but it will help bring your audience along painlessly. One tool to simplify your pitch is to use the rule of three. Instead of rattling off nine big successes that your business saw this year, condense the highlights into three overall themes. You’ll find that the exercise helps you to enact greater discipline in your talking points — and your audience will appreciate the respect for their time.
And that makes three tips!
If you’re still seeking more best practices — or assistance on finding the right words — our team at Prose is ready to step in. When time is limited and you’re juggling competing priorities, consulting with communications experts can make a world of difference in capturing your message with a fresh perspective. We bring extensive experience in helping senior leaders to knock their speaking engagements out of the park. Sign up today and let us know how we can help you prepare for your moment at the podium.