Special Effects: Eleven Keys to Great Speeches and Presentations

  1. Follow Aristotle. The art of rhetoric has advanced a lot since Aristotle’s time, but most of the new stuff is purely academic. Aristotle wrote a manual, The Rhetoric, that has served generations of speakers well, particularly in terms of organizing presentations. Each presentation, he argued, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The best way to start is by telling your audience what you are going to cover (“tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em”). The middle is the heart of the matter and conveys your message and the reasons behind it (this is where you “tell ’em”). The end reiterates what you said and, if appropriate, urges action in response to your message (“tell ’em what you told ’em” and ask for the order).
  2. Don’t let your appearance or behavior get in the way of your message. Be clean, dress appropriately for your audience (better to be overdressed than underdressed), polish those shoes, and make sure your hair’s combed. Sounds basic, but it’s surprising how often we have heard a good speaker make a great presentation and then overheard folks in the lobby chuckling about the spot on his tie. Of course, it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
  3. Show up on time. Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis once described an ideal speaker as anyone “who showed up ten minutes early and sober.” ‘Nuf said. When you show up late, you wind up in apologetic mode and that impedes your ability to get fired up. The audience and program chairman have already started focusing on whether you’ll arrive instead of how great your remarks will be. Showing up at least ten minutes early also gives you a chance to adjust to the room, to make sure your equipment is properly set up, and to answer any last-minute questions from the person who will introduce you.
  4. Never count on visual aids. More than one presentation has been spoiled because the speaker’s slides got spilled or mangled, or because a computer connection failed, a projector bulb blew, or a computer wouldn’t power up. We’ve seen American speakers arrive in foreign countries with VHS tapes, only to find the country has no VHS players. Always have a back-up plan if your visual aids fail. Sometimes presentations are canceled on the spot because the speaker was planning to ad lib around the notes on her lost/damaged slides. Have printed copies of your slides with you, as well as a set of transparencies for use with overhead projectors.
  5. Use humor sparingly and appropriately. One person’s humor is another person’s faux pas. Humor is especially dangerous in international speaking where your favorite joke may not make sense, may be mistranslated, or may lose its timing-dependent impact due to delays in translation. One of the most frightening moments in international speaking comes when you tell a joke, hit the punch line and look befuddled when the audience doesn’t laugh. A moment later, just as you are starting to resume your speech, the translation is completed and you are interrupted by delayed laughter from the audience! This “laugh gap” is always a problem in sequential translation, where you speak and then wait for the translation; but even simultaneous interpretation can wreck your timing. Best bet: avoid humor when abroad and use it sparingly when you’re stateside.
  6. Keep within your allotted time. Don’t overstay your welcome. If you’ve agreed to speak for 20 minutes, don’t speak for more than that. There’s only one way to do this. Practice and time your speech until you’ve edited it to fit the allotted time. Don’t expect an audience to understand that you are rambling on because you didn’t respect their time enough to go over your remarks in advance. It’s rude and it’s a killer for your speaking career.
  7. Keep slides simple. A good slide is like a good billboard: it features a great graphic and has fewer than ten words. If you’re doing a series of thoughts, display them in sequence, adding and highlighting a line at a time as you “build” the series. Keep each line short and to the point.
  8. Have a strong close. Always write out the last three sentences of your presentation and commit them to memory. Great presentations are often destroyed when the speaker’s thoughts trail off and end in a weak “thank you.” Close with a bang! (By the way, it’s okay to say “thank you,” but your close needs to first bring things home in a way that invites applause.) Never leave the audience wondering if you are finished. Writing out your close in advance makes sure you have a close.
  9. Project energy. If you seem tired or bored, your audience will be, too. Speakers use a variety of techniques to pump themselves up before a presentation. One speaker we know listens to a favorite Vivaldi tape. When appropriate, she asks that it be played as background music at luncheons before she takes the podium. Another insists upon taking a vigorous 15–minute walk just before meeting the audience. Another excuses himself from the podium for five minutes just before he’s introduced. (He implies that he’s going to the restroom, but he actually finds a quiet corner in a lobby and gives himself a pep talk!) Another speaker parks a picture of his beloved wife on the podium next to his notes and speaks to please her, his best critic. These or other techniques may work for you. Whatever you do, don’t be boring. Speak as if you give a damn!
  10. It’s better to read than to ramble. If you’re not a professional speaker, it’s okay to read your speech (as long as you’re not reading it for the first time). Reading a speech has several advantages: first, if you can read it, it means you (or someone) had to write it. Consequently, the speech can be structured and timed. Second, if you’re reading the speech, you have a record of what you said. Third, if you’re reading a speech, you are less likely to flub a quotation or a number. There are, of course, pitfalls to reading speeches. You can’t just sight read. You need to read through your remarks a couple of times before you deliver them. That will enable you to look up from your remarks occasionally and maintain eye contact with the audience. It also means the audience will know you’ve read it before and thought about what you were going to say. That’s a sign of respect and audiences like it.
  11. Collect examples of great speeches from the movies. The movies are filled with examples of great motivational speeches. Watch the awards scene in The Wizard of Oz. Pay attention to how the Wizard presents the diploma, watch and medal. Listen to the way he structures the presentation. Watch Executive Suite and note how Donald Walling secures the presidency of Tredway company with a speech that would do any CEO proud. Listen to Coach Dale outline his thoughts on how teams work in Hoosiers. Listen to Sigourney Weaver explain her work rules to Tess McGill in Working Girl. These are just a few examples from movies that can help you be a more articulate speaker.