The first two minutes of any presentation can be murder. These are “make it or break it” moments, with a huge opportunity for failure hanging in the balance. Every speaker faces the same test – to engage the audience fast or become the latest version of dead man walking. But you can pass it. Here’s how to write a great presentation or speech with impact and engagement, thanks to input from one of the nation’s top corporate speechwriters.
Danger at 30,000 Feet
Few things strike more terror in the hearts of producers and content experts than the words, “I’ll work on my presentation on the plane.” Suddenly what should be a carefully planned, researched, honed and rehearsed speech becomes a Forrest Gump scene. You never know what you’re going to get, and usually it isn’t chocolates.
So let me boldly state something you may not want to hear. Any speech patched together in an hour or two, at 30,000 feet or on the ground, isn’t going to be very effective and will ultimately waste the audience’s time.
Why? Because a speech or a presentation is so personal. Forget the topic: Any person who stands up in front of a group of people is waiting to be evaluated, analyzed and judged. It’s no wonder public speaking is the business equivalent of a root canal. And because it is so personal, most people think they can write it themselves. Hey, they know the subject, have all the information from last year, and there are several old presentations they can chop up and repurpose.
Fatal mistake. You’ll crash and burn!
Audiences Love Great Speech Writing
Great speech writing makes the most of an invaluable opportunity. The question you have to ask yourself is, “What is the cost of doing a bad job and wasting the opportunity?”
Holding On for a Hero
It simply doesn’t have to be that way. I have a speechwriting hero, Lea Agnew. Lea has a 30-year track record of clarity, humor, impact and humanity in her work. Some people write excellent speeches. Lea Agnew’s work glows in the dark. So I asked Lea to pitch in on this article.
1. What makes a great speech?
According to Lea, every great speech begins with the speaker. “Far and away, the most important thing is an engaged speaker who embraces the moment as an opportunity to give the audience something of value AND make himself/herself look good. This assures there will be serious planning and preparation.”
- Have a clear point and theme.
Get engaged! Speeches are emotional and not just factual or logical. Open with your point – the big theme. It should be simple enough that you can express it in one sentence. If the audience only remembers one idea – make sure this is it. BTW, this shouldn’t be something like “customer focus” or “innovation.” Make it exact, clear and specific, and actionable. Tell them what they need to know, understand and do.
2. What are the things that most people don’t know?
“Most people don’t think of a speech as a storyline. Among the evils of PowerPoint is the idea that a speech equals discrete blocks of content, like slides, chunked out one at a time.” That’s Lea’s big suggestion. “The ideal speech has one bull’s-eye story that sells the main idea and readily connects to sub-points.”
- So Tell a Story with a Minimum of Facts.
Forget delivering a lecture or doctoral thesis. People want impact and engagement. Do what Lea suggests and tell stories, give examples and stay with your big theme. The audience is more interested in you and how they feel about your comments. Make it a simple story. Take out everything the audience already knows. Be relentless and cut the facts and details to the absolute minimum. Lea calls it “Clarity with brevity. Make the point and move on. My favorite saying is that nobody ever threw a tomato because a speech was too short.”
- Write to Be Heard, not Read.
Years ago Bill Copeland of Popeyes restaurants taught me the biggest lesson I ever learned about speechwriting. He asked for “simple, declarative sentences.” I love English majors who are zealous in punctuation, but that’s not how to write a speech or presentation. Use words that are interesting and create a mental image when spoken. It’s okay to change a couple of verb tenses and end a sentence or two with a preposition. No one knows how to pronounce a semicolon.
A Quick Story Before The Final Point
Let me add a quick story here. The executive was the president and CEO of a major U. S. corporation. He was widely known for his enjoyable and “off the cuff” speeches. He was never perfect or polished but seemed to radiate such confidence that people instantly felt comfortable, paid attention and identified with his message.
The truth is he never spoke unprepared. Every “spontaneous” speech was written for him, and he rehearsed relentlessly. He had such a respect for the audience that he felt he owed them his best efforts, whether it was a group of global financial analysts or the Rotary Club.
The thing to realize is the audience is putting out more effort than the presenter. They have to constantly listen, understand, personalize, process and value every piece of content. And then they decide what they think of the speaker and if they believe him or her. You want to make their job as easy as possible.
3. If a speaker would do just one thing to improve a presentation, what would it be?
“Practice diligently over time. Not only the night before,” Agnew says. “It should be obvious, but many people just don’t do it. With an investment in real practice, logic gaps, tedious passages, awkward phrasings and other problems will be revealed and can be corrected in advance. Plus, the speaker will face the audience with confidence and enthusiasm.” Lea was very clear on this suggestion.
- Make Rehearsal Part of Your Job Description.
Somehow ego has gotten tangled up in the idea of rehearsing. It’s an odd point of honor today not to practice. The presenter just punches through the PowerPoint and that’s it. Just remember the story I just shared and don’t support this approach yourself or with your colleagues. Rehearsal is how you show respect for the audience. It’s how you repay them for their time and attention. I agree with Lea. Make rehearsal part of your job description, and it will pay off big time. It’s not an option if you just happen to have some spare time at the conference. It’s a requirement.
Lea’s Rules Rule!
If it’s your presentation or if you are a producer or content expert, Lea’s Rules Rule! A great speech or presentation requires:
- An engaged speaker who embraces the moment as an opportunity
- A clear point and theme
- A story and not blocks of content
- Clarity and brevity
- Content written to be heard, and
- Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal.
“Nothing beats the impact of one courageous person alone on a stage, with something interesting to say, who has worked hard on how to say it well.”
A Final Thought
Don’t try to create a great presentation on the fly. Unless you have the time and experience to prepare a great speech, work smart and hire a pro. You wouldn’t fill your own teeth, would you? Remember the CEO in the story I shared. Audiences love great speech writing. They don’t care who wrote the presentation. The speaker gets all the credit.
Plus, the world will be safer at 30,000 feet.
A Big “Thank You”
I want to thank Lea Agnew for her help and expertise. In case you need some assistance for your next event or presentation, here’s her email: Write2Pnt@aol.com.
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