If you want to see the face of true agony, watch a good speechwriter whose work is being delivered by a terrible speaker.
Hands locked on to the lectern, eyes buried in the script, flat delivery, missed punch lines, key messages lost in a monotone—it’s all too familiar. The audience gets restless, eyeing the door and wondering when the ordeal will end. Meanwhile, the writer is contemplating possible options: suicide, homicide or, if more restrained, just resignation.
The speaker may even feel good about the performance. After all, all of the words were there and were delivered in a clear voice. The job is done.
But, the audience will walk out without remembering the speaker’s key points or identifying with the speaker’s positions or objectives, and precious time is wasted by all involved.
What happened here? The executive overlooked the most basic rule of communication. Communication is not what the speaker says; it’s what the audience takes away. Similarly, education is not what the professor knows; it’s what the student learns. Speakers are both communicators and educators.
The speaker needs to convey enthusiasm, and more. Warmth, power, conviction and sincerity must also come through if an audience is to be persuaded and moved to action.
What are the keys to success at the lectern, aside from having a good speech?
Energy is clearly number one. Most people think they are putting out more energy than they really are. That’s why, early in our training sessions, we put speakers on camera and play back the results. They generally see that they can “let it out more” without looking foolish.
Interpretation is also critical to success. Words have meanings and, with too many speakers, most words come out sounding alike. A word like “outstanding” should be delivered with power and increased volume, accompanied by a strong gesture. But, when saying “sadly,” we should hear a tinge of pain in the speaker’s voice. Here, the volume should be much lower and the gesture, if any, should be subdued. We use word exercises to hone this skill.
Gestures are essential to success at the lectern. Good gestures help shape and punctuate key words and make the speaker look more natural and confident. Video playback shows what gestures are good and which ones aren’t right.
Good eye contact is a must. The speaker should direct his or her remarks directly to individual members of the audience, staying with each for a sentence or two before moving on to someone else. The eyes must be “up” on key points and, as much as possible, at the beginning and end of each sentence. Again, video recording and playback tell the tale.
There is an important role for the writer here. Success requires not only words and phrases that flow easily off the tongue but also short sentences and phrases. Long sentences are hard for a speaker to deliver and an audience to follow.
The best speakers vary pace, pitch and volume, just as we do in everyday conversation. A good speech feels like an energetic conversation, not a monologue.
Silence, in the form of pauses, is also an effective speaking tool. A pause after a key word punctuates and underlines that word. Longer pauses between thoughts or topics signal a transition and offer a change of pace.
Executives who become the best speakers aren’t generally “born with it,” as many think. They tend to be the people who work hardest to get better.
In his book Doing What Matters, renowned CEO James M. Kilts talks about how he and I would spend as much as two or three days polishing a single speech as he was leading the remarkable turnaround of The Gillette Company. Still, he notes in the book, “my only regret about communications is that I didn’t spend even more time thinking about what should be said and working on how to say it with enthusiasm, conviction, and impact. It really does matter.”
A C-level speaker needs to project enthusiasm, power and authority. Expectations are high. But executives at all levels need to master the techniques cited above.