Strictly for Speakers: How to handle the short speech

Welcome, everyone. Let’s get started right away. I know you’ve had a full conference week, and I want to make sure you walk away with all the public speaking information you need.

Officially, this session ends at 11:45. Unofficially, it goes as long as you need. Which means: If you go back to your office next week and run into a public speaking question, simply send me an email … and I’ll be glad to help. After all, it’s a tough economy, and it took a lot for you to travel here (from across the United States … and all around the world). I want to make sure you get full value from this session.

Today, I’m going to focus on all those “little speeches” you’re asked to give. You know what I mean: giving an award … getting an award … retirement remarks … dedications … fundraisers … patriotic ceremonies … memorial tributes … anniversaries … introducing a speaker … welcoming a special guest … moderating a panel. The list goes on. In short, all those times when you’re asked to “just say a few words.”

Let me give you a dozen pieces of advice to help you master “the 3-minute speech.” (By the way: There’s nothing sacred about the 3-minute length. Your remarks might run a bit shorter … or a bit longer. But that 3-minute timeframe is a realistic standard for many special occasions.)

1. Expand your definition of a speech.

Let me put it this way: It’s not just the way you talk for 3 minutes at the front of a room. It’s the way you interact with the audience before … and it’s the way you interact with the audience after.

Did you notice how I walked around this room before I started my speech—introducing myself and shaking hands and learning a little about your interests? That was my way of building audience rapport—before I said one word. And I plan to linger after my presentation ends—so you can ask questions and get individual attention.

Try doing this: Meet members of an audience before you speak … and offer to send them helpful follow-up material. They’ll appreciate your efforts to connect.

I want to emphasize: You might be limited to 3 minutes of speaking time, but you can still create unlimited opportunities for connecting.

2. Do your math.

How long is 3 minutes? Even more basic: How long is 1 minute?

Now, the easy answer is: 60 seconds. A minute is 60 seconds. But you need to know much more about “time management” if you’re going to be an effective speaker.

I need to ask a few questions about some important numbers in your life:

• How many of you (with reasonable accuracy) can tell me how much you weigh? (I don’t want to know your weight! I just want to see if you know it.) Okay … look around: It looks like every single hand is up. That’s a number you all know.

• Next question: How many of you (with reasonable accuracy) can tell me the price of gasoline in your hometown? Okay … look around again: Most hands are up.
Now: How many of you (with reasonable accuracy) can tell me the number of words you speak per minute? Please look around: 300 people in this room, and only 2 hands are up!

• It’s time for a quick lesson on the “rate of speech”. The average person in the U.S. speaks about 140 words per minute, but that varies widely.

It varies by geography. Start at Washington DC and go up the eastern seaboard. As you go north, people talk faster. New Yorkers talk fast. Folks in Boston really clip along. Listen to old speeches by President Kennedy. He’d often top 200 words per minute. But start at Washington DC and go south, and you’ll hear the opposite: As you move into the Carolinas and Georgia, speakers talk much slower. In other words: There is no national speech limit!

Rate of speech also varies by age. Young people talk much faster than older people.

And it varies by health. When we’re not feeling well, we prefer to send (and receive) information at a slower pace.

Can you see the implications for you as a presenter? A fast pace that’s terrific for an audience of college students would create a disconnect at a retiree gathering.

3. Focus your message.

As Will Durant, the US historian, put it: “One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”

As I tell my clients: When in doubt, leave it out.

4. See if you can tie your message into the date in history.

Suppose you were preparing a speech to deliver today. See if you can make any connections to this date in history. What has happened on July 24th through the years?

Well, on July 24th in:

• 1824 … A Harrisburg, PA newspaper published the results of the first public opinion poll.

• 1870 … The first trans-US rail service began operation.

• 1877 … Federal troops were used for the first time to combat strikers.

Think about the speech President Reagan gave following the Challenger disaster. It was a short speech—short, but powerful. In it, he referred to explorations by Drake on that date in history. Listen to the speech again. You’ll see how outstanding it is.

5. Make adjustments based on audience demographics.

What is the size of the group? The age range? The male/female ratio? How much do you know about their educational backgrounds? Their income levels? Their community priorities?

The more you know, the better you can connect.

And remember: In a short speech, you have to connect quickly. There’s simply no time for long prologues. And you have to connect effectively. There’s no patience for irrelevant examples.

6. Be specific.

Audiences remember specifics. They forget generalities.

This is a critical point, so I’m going to repeat it: Audiences remember specifics. They forget generalities.

Let me cite a couple of good examples.

Here’s Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo (President and CEO of Nokia) speaking to The Chief Executives’ Club of Boston:

“Context has become something of a buzzword in our business, because it is at the heart of the next wave of mobile technology….

Let’s look at an example. It’s an application we call ‘Nokia Point and Find.’

Say you are an architecture buff and you’re visiting Boston for the first time. You turn a corner and see the old Statehouse, and you want to know more about it.

You take out your Nokia device and you point it at the building. The device then immediately provides detailed information via the Internet … when it was built, the architect, its history and architectural significance, maybe even the hours when tours are available.

Or imagine you’re walking downtown and you see a poster for a new movie. You point your phone at the poster and instantly you can watch the trailer. If you like what you see, you can find where the movie is playing, and even buy tickets for that evening’s showing … all with just a couple of clicks.

This is context. It’s the ability of your mobile device to bring who, what, where and when together. It will allow you to become more immersed in the real world around you.”

Let me give you another example. It’s from Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, speaking at the American College of Healthcare Executives, in his role as Chair-Elect of ACHE:

“San Diego alone has 650 wireless companies, and many are developing advances for health care. Estimates say 50 to 60 percent of primary care will be delivered virtually in the future.

Wireless band-aids are being developed to monitor your blood pressure, caloric intake, hydration and heart rate.

New drug delivery patches can be radio controlled … from across town, or across country.

ECG machines (no bigger than a cell phone, and one-fifth the cost of current equipment) will allow for remote exams.

Even pill bottles will include wireless transmitters. Just push a button to alert the pharmacy when you’re running low on medication.

Is our future changing? You bet.

And ACHE will be there to advance our profession – our calling – in these rapidly changing times.”

Did you hear how the use of specific details made these speeches more interesting … and more memorable?

7. Watch your pronouns

More than anything else, pronouns convey what I call “the friendliness factor.” Pronouns can help pull the audience closer.

In my Advanced Speechwriting seminars, I ask the attendees to note the various pronouns in their speeches. It’s an enlightening exercise! I encourage you to try it. Count the number of time you use “we” … “you” … “I”. That ratio tells something about you as a speaker.

For example, “we” conveys camaraderie … cooperation … teamwork. Think of Winston Churchill in 1941: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”

“You” builds direct rapport with an audience. President Kennedy knew thiswhen he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

“I” is important because it conveys the speaker’s voice … the speaker’s commitment … the speaker’s dedication. Too many speakers shy away from using “I” – and they’re missing a powerful technique. I can hear Senator Hubert Humphrey’s voice in this line: “I learned more about politics during one South Dakota dust storm than I got in seven years in the university.”

8. Give it some style.

Be visual.

When H.R. Haldeman commented on the Watergate affair, he said: “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s hard to get it back in.”

Here’s a vivid description from Gerald Ford: “A bronco is something that kicks and bucks, twists and turns, and very seldom goes in one direction. We have one of those things here in Washington – it’s called the Congress.”

There’s nothing new about using visual images to sell your point. Here’s a memorable comment from Teddy Roosevelt about his predecessor, William McKinley: “McKinley shows all the backbone of a chocolate éclair.”

Use rhetorical devices.

Listen to this from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

Hear the rhetorical power in this line from Senator Robert Kennedy: “Justice delayed is democracy denied.”

9. Use a light touch of humor.

Don’t use complex jokes. They’re too hard to tell. (Plus, they eat up too much of your limited time,)

Instead, use short one-liners. I like this one from Will Rogers: “Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing … and that was the closest our country ever was to being even.”

Who knew how to use humor better than President Ronald Reagan? He once quipped: “There were so many candidates on the platform that there weren’t enough promises to go around.”

Listen to this humor from Ann Richards, speaking at the Democratic Convention: “Twelve years ago Barbara Jordan, another Texas woman, made the keynote address to this convention, and two women in 160 years is about par for the course. But, if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

10. Fix your delivery problems.

You only have your voice, your body language and your eye contact. That’s it. Those are the only delivery tools you have to “sell” your message.

If your voice needs improvement, start improving. And start now. Ditto with your body language and your eye contact.

Read books. Take classes. Get coaching. Attend presentations. Watch C-Span. Learn from good speakers. Join Toastmasters International. Ask a colleague to critique your speeches and monitor your improvement. If you want really candid comments about your delivery skills, just ask a kid: A kid will always tell you the truth. Your staff might not venture to say that you have a most annoying way of clearing your throat whenever you start to speak … but a kid will tell you about this annoying problem flat-out.

11. Consider your A-V options.

You can reinforce a short speech with a wide range of simple audio-visual options: props … letters from constituents … music playing as the audience enters … posters made by local school kids … compelling photographs.

The simplest of things (free, or very low cost) can grab an audience’s attention and create a hook for valuable media coverage.

12. Don’t run overtime.

Remember: There are very few people who don’t become more interesting when they stop talking!

Think of speeches as “business investments” in the communities you serve. Respect your audiences by staying within their timeframe.

A good speech builds audience rapport … and leaves an audience wanting to hear you again.

Take a lesson from Mark Twain. He said: “It takes about 3 weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” So get started now: Write down 1 key message, and use these dozen guidelines to polish it.

So, the next time someone asks, “Can you speak for a few minutes?”, you’ll be prepared to make every second count.

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