During the past two decades, I have worked with hundreds of C-suite executives eager to share their visions with employees, investors, stakeholders and the world.
In many cases, these executives have a pretty good idea of what they want to say, but they struggle with how best to say it.
Often, the biggest challenge is simply structure: how best to order ideas for maximum impact. What I’ve seen time and again are executives whose nuggets of wisdom or insight get lost amid an avalanche of words.
That’s where I’ve been able to help.
Having written hundreds of speeches, I’ve learned a few things about structure. What works, what doesn’t, and how to help make sure an audience is given the best possible shot at understanding what’s important.
Three things spring to mind.
First, simpler is always better. I once worked with an executive who needed to deliver a 15-minute keynote to an audience of fellow business leaders. In preparation for this opportunity, the executive – let’s call her Valerie – put together a list of essential points to communicate, and she proudly showed them to me.
Valerie’s list was 12 items long. Twelve essential points to communicate, and in just 15 minutes! I was overwhelmed, and I had the advantage of actually seeing the list in front of me. I knew her audience was going to feel even worse, trying to listen and grasp so many “essentials” in such a short span of time.
My advice to Valerie was this: By whatever means necessary, drastically reduce your number of essentials. When writing a speech, I love to keep it to three main takeaways. People can remember three things, and three things can be communicated in 15 minutes. If you absolutely have to go beyond three, five points is also acceptable, but no more than that!
Second, believe what you say. We’ve all been subjected to speakers who clearly have no idea what they are talking about, and it’s awful. There’s nothing worse than being subjected to platitudes from someone who is reading a teleprompter but does not actually understand – or believe in – the words coming out of their mouths.
A message lives or dies by its authenticity. When working on a speech, I ask myself this: Can I make a class full of skeptical and distracted fifth graders care about this topic? Would I be able to speak on this topic passionately enough to hold their attention? If so, the same speech will probably work for a room full of skeptical and distracted business leaders.
Third, know when you are done. Your audience will be a pretty good gauge on when you should wrap it up. They’ve been doing the really hard work of sitting in chairs and listening intently, which is exhausting. You test their patience by saying what you came to say, and then continuing to talk. The old adage of “know when you’ve made the sale” springs to mind here.
When delivering a speech, assume your audience is with you – and that, thanks to your excellent preparation – they have indeed grasped the three to five key points. Trust your audience. Continuing to talk will only dilute your impact.
Of course, as part of your closing, you can certainly restate your key takeaways. Intentional repetition and reinforcement are always helpful. But I’ve seen far too many speakers keep talking after their points are made. Unless you are one of those rare individuals who naturally speak in bon-mots, ad-libbing is to be avoided. Trust that you have delivered your points, that your audience has heard them, and that your work is complete.