There are plenty of resources that provide advice on delivering a speech and which focus on organizing the material, providing visuals, selecting a topic and being a commanding presence.
My advice is more ambitious: What keys make a speech something that changes people, in meaningful ways, within the scope of 20 or 30 or 60 minutes?
Provided you can choose the topic of your speech, I think there are five such keys. If you create a speech that embraces them, there’s a real chance people will leave the room and not forget what they heard—and not forget that you were the messenger. That’s a tall order, in an age of sound bites, Tweets and Instagram posts, but powerful ideas, powerfully presented will always have a place.
So, here are my five keys to giving the best speech of your life:
• Choose a topic that can change lives: The topic doesn’t have to revolutionize the entire philosophical, spiritual or professional underpinnings of a listener’s life, but it should have the potential to fundamentally impact some aspect of the listener’s life. You might refine the topic, for instance, from “Forging Relationships that Work,” to “One Message that People You Connect with Deserve to Hear.” In other words, get right down to a core deliverable that can reach the core of an audience member.
• Choose a topic that has meaning in your own life: Human beings have radar for messages “from the heart.” They can tell when you’re speaking about something you care deeply about and when you’re at a distance from your topic (and, then, inevitably, from them). For example, if you were speaking about “Why People Keep Cars for Decades,” don’t forget to share memories of a car that you still think about (and regret having sold) or one that your grandfather kept, long after it made financial sense to keep repairing it (and how you recall the pride he took in maintaining it).
• Go the extra mile in being self-revelatory: Too many people believe that there is a risk in self-revelation—that they will be making themselves too vulnerable. In fact, the opposite is true; revealing parts of oneself that seem quite personal is a powerful way to connect with others. For example, if you were to share the story about your grandfather keeping his car longer than it made economic sense, why not dig a little deeper and share a story of when he stood in the rain to watch you play Little League baseball, too?
• Help your listeners access deeper parts of themselves: Feel free to ask/instruct audience members to connect with the messages you are delivering. You can literally facilitate them personalizing and internalizing what you are sharing, if you develop the confidence to guide them. Here’s an example: “So, I want you to close your eyes, just for fifteen seconds. Don’t worry, I’ll watch the clock. And I want you to imagine one possession someone you loved kept close at hand, that they treasured. Okay, now close your eyes.” After 15 seconds, you could ask a few members of the audience to share their memories.
• Conclude by reminding the audience what has just happened, because (with a little planning and follow-through), it really should have. Highlighting the magic that unfolded will reinforce its power, over time. You might say, “Okay, we’ve spent thirty minutes together. That doesn’t seem like a very long time, right? But I would say we’re no longer strangers. We reached a different level, together, if only for half an hour. Think about that during some other times you spend with co-workers or friends or family. And make the most of as many half-hours of your life as you can.”
That last point could really be seen as summarizing my message here. When you have the good fortune to have the attention of a group and the opportunity to speak from the heart, directly to their hearts, command that attention and take that opportunity—all the way to real connection. Your audience might well never forget having heard from you.
Keith Ablow, MD