Preparing Your Talk: Developing & Delivering Your Speech

One of the best ways to promote your product or service and expand your customer base is also one of the cheapest. Interested? It’s public speaking. I know this from first hand experience.

When I started out, I had no public speaking experience, but I studied what the professional speakers did. What I learned from watching them helped me develop and deliver my first talk. Here, short and sweet, are some of the best principles and techniques I’ve learned and developed in speaking for the last two decades, customized for all you shaking-in-your-boots, but-eager-to-enhance-your-business non-speakers.

Why should I give talks?

Talking about what you do is exciting, fun, and great publicity. Then I owned a hairstyling business. I started talking about it at local service organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Optimists, and then for businesses belonging to my clients. My talks increased my hairstyling business. How did I know?

If I spoke at a breakfast meeting, three members of that audience would make appointments for lunchtime the same day. Your results may not be quite as dramatic — you may be selling cemetery plots, construction equipment, or financial services – but, I guarantee that an effective talk is going to bring you recognition, eventual business, and add to your company’s public relations.

What do I talk about?

What do you know that other people want to know? What do you know that other people should know? What are the questions people ask you most often about your business, opinions or life experiences?

If you want the podium to be a vehicle for promoting your product or service, you have an excellent starting point. I wanted people to know how terrific my hair design salon was, but no one is eager to listen to a sales pitch. Instead, I talked about the importance of appearance and about customer service. My speeches were indirectly about my business. I had a drawing of business cards and gave away a free hairstyle to the winner; these business cards could then be added to my salon mailing list. I had at least one person go back and report to their service club about their pleasant experience at my salon.

Who is my audience?

Sometimes you have a topic and have to find the right audiences for it. Other times you’re asked to speak but don’t know what to talk about. Recently, a friend asked for my help with a talk she had been asked to present. I told her about three vital audience questions to ask yourself as you develop your speech:

  • Who will be in my audience?
  • How long will my talk be?
  • Why have they asked me to speak?

Consider your audience’s needs and desires as you develop every aspect of your speech.

Where do I get material?

This is the question I’m asked most often. You’d think that, after nearly two decades of professional speaking, I’d run out of things to say, but just the opposite is true. I am constantly discovering new material everywhere. Here’s how.

1. Review your own experiences.
When top speaker Danny Cox decided to go professional, he went to the beach with a pad and pencil. He reviewed his life, making a list of the experiences and situations that could serve as good (or bad) examples for other people — high points and low points, failures and successes.
Make a similar list. Include those sudden and stunning bits of insight that come to you in the shower or car. Or maybe you said something to a friend that was particularly funny or memorable. Relive your life and write it all down. Eventually, some of these experiences will become the original stories you use to illustrate a key point in your speech.

2. Start clipping and collecting.
While no audience wants to hear you tell other people’s recycled stories, there is one exception. When you read or hear something that makes you laugh, cry or just interests you, clip it out or write it down. File it in a folder, or your word processor. Then share it, along with your own comments and reactions.

3. Keep a journal.
If you’re going to be addressing a particular group a few weeks from now, keep a small notebook handy to jot down ideas and situations related to your topic and audience. Then, when you actually sit down to write, you’ll have plenty of material.

How do I organize my talk?

There are two basic outlines that work well for the beginning speaker.

1. The Alcoholics Anonymous format.
AA members use this when they stand up and “qualify” their experiences:

  • This is where I was.
  • This is where I am now.
  • This is how I got here.

This simple outline can help you tell the audience who you are and why you are qualified to speak on the topic you’ve chosen. Here’s how we developed my friend’s speech. She had been asked to present a 25-minute speech for the local Board of Realtors because of her great success in real estate. I suggested she use the AA outline and open like this: “Twelve years ago, when I went into the real estate business, I had never sold anything but Girl Scout cookies and hadn’t done well with that.” (This is where I was.) “Last year, I sold $15 million of real estate in a slow market, selling homes that averaged $150,000 each.” (This is where I am now.) “Today, I’ll tell you how I did that.” (This is how I got here.)

2. The Q & A format.
List the questions your prospects, clients, and friends ask you most often about your business. Then open your talk with, “The five questions I am most frequently asked about investments (or engineering or whatever your field is) are…”

Pose the first question to the audience, and answer it for them in a conversational manner, just as you would to a potential customer or someone you meet at a party. You may never have given a speech before, but you certainly have a lot of practice answering these questions.

How do I write my speech?

1. Open with a bang.
The first and last thirty seconds of your speech have the most impact, so give them extra thought, time, and effort. If you haven’t hooked your audience’s interest, their minds are going to wander off. Whatever you do, don’t waste any of your precious seconds with “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here tonight.” Open with an intriguing or startling statement: “Half the people in this room are going to,” “As a young man, my father gave me this valuable advice…,” “Of all the questions I am most frequently asked…”

2. Use humor cautiously.
Opening a speech with a joke or funny story is the conventional wisdom, but nothing falls flatter than inappropriate humor. A friend who works at AT&T was convinced a joke was the only way to start a speech. He called me late one night, frantic to find the perfect joke for his boss to use the next day. First, I quizzed him about the theme and purpose of the meeting, then regaled him every related joke I knew. Nothing sounded right to him.

Finally, I asked if his boss was funny. “No!” he answered emphatically. Then, I said, “you’re going to make your boss look like an idiot in front of the troops.” I suggested opening with an inspirational quote instead. We chose one, and the speech was a great success.

Before you use humor to open your talk, test each possibility by asking:

  • Is it appropriate to the occasion and for the audience?
  • Is it in good taste?
  • Does it relate to me, my product or service, the event, or the group?
  • Does it support my topic or its key points?

If you can’t answer yes to these questions, choose a different opening. It’s safer and more effective to tell the audience what they most want to know from you. For example, I helped a neighbor, Mike Powell, with a speech he was putting together for the Continental Breakfast Club in San Francisco. Mike was a senior scientist with Genentech at the time. I suggested that since most of us don’t know what scientists are like or what they do, he should tell the audience what it was like to be a scientist. Mike captured everyone’s attention by saying, “Being a scientist is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in a snowstorm at night…you don’t have all the pieces…and you don’t have the picture you are trying to create.”

You can say more with less. Think about your audience. What is the information they want the most from you? If you know your business, you’ll be able to predict what their questions will be simply by experience. If you’re not sure what a particular audience might want to hear, talk to the program chair ahead of time and get that information.

3. Develop strong supporting stories.
If you’re using the Alcoholics Anonymous outline format, the middle of your talk is where you expand on your key points and develop personal stories that support where you were and where you are now. In the Q&A format, develop one or two strong anecdotes to support each answer. Personal anecdotes are best, but you can also insert some of the ideas and examples you’ve been gathering in your journal or computer.

4. Close on a high note.
Your close should be the high point of your speech. First, summarize the key elements of the investment process (or whatever your topic is). If you’re planning to take questions from the audience, say, “Before my closing remarks, are there any questions.” Answer them then.

The last thirty seconds of your speech must send people out energized and fulfilled. Finish your talk with something inspirational that supports your theme. My scientist friend Mike talked of the frustrations of being a scientist, and he closed by saying, “People often ask, Why should anyone want to be a scientist?” Then Mike told them about a particularly information-intensive medical conference he had attended. The final speaker rose and said, “I am a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother of two. I have AIDS. Please work fast.”

Mike got a standing ovation for his speech. He was telling his audience what they needed to know.

How do I polish it?

Your next step is to make a written draft of your speech. You can assemble your notes, or you may prefer to talk your ideas into a tape recorder and transcribe the words. You’ve still got more work to do. Read your draft over to confirm that it is:

After every point you make, ask yourself, “Who cares?” If no one does, edit it out.

On track
Did you go off on a tangent that doesn’t relate to your main theme? Edit it out.

Are you redundant, saying the same thing three ways? Are there cliches like “Without further ado,” “that’s a tough act to follow,” etcetera? Edit out all non-essential words and phrases.

Are your supporting examples strong and on target? If not, replace them.

Does it have a high I-You Factor? Be sure you’ve connected yourself with your audience by putting them into your speech. If your subject were financial planning, a low I-You Factor would be: “I always pay myself first. Not the recommended 10 percent. I save 20 percent of my gross income.” Your audience would probably be rolling their eyes and thinking, “Yeah, right…” But if, instead, you said: “We’re all hurting in this economy. That’s why saving money is more important than ever. Your goal is to get something — anything! — out of each check. Sometimes I can manage to squeeze out up to 10 percent, but I know that even 1 percent is essential if I’m going to maintain the habit of paying myself first. That 1 percent is the difference between winning and losing.” You’ve put your audience in your speech. Instead of scoffing, they are more likely to identify with what you’re saying.

Politically correct
“PC” is sometimes overdone, but it is essential. Consider the opening of an address by cartoonist Gary Trudeau at Yale: “…Distinguished faculty, graduating seniors, people of color, colorful people, people of height, the vertically challenged, people of hair, the differently coifed, the optically challenged, the temporarily sighted, the insightful, the out of sight, the homeless, the home boys…” Trudeau was poking fun at political correctness, but if you don’t use inclusive language, you may offend and lose part of your audience. The safest (and politest) thing is to call people what they want to be called. Refer to adult females as women. Say “physically challenged” rather than “disabled.” Whether you’re talking about managing employees, or selling cars, your stories need to reflect a balance of male and female. Remember not all doctors are “he’s”, not all nurses are “she’s.” Ask the program chair if there are any terms and phrases you should avoid or include.

Vigorous polishing makes your talk tighter, more powerful, and less likely to bore or irritate your audience.

How do I rehearse?

You’ve edited and fine-tuned a written version of your talk. Now you’re going to practice it. (You may think this is too much trouble, but you’ll be glad you did.)

1. Read your talk out loud.
Read your written talk into a tape recorder to get some idea of timing and emphasis. When you are happy with it, go on to step 2.

2. Prepare outline notes.
Even though you’ve just gone to a great deal of trouble to prepare a written speech, you’re NOT going to read it! Nothing puts an audience to sleep faster. Instead, you’re going to speak directly and spontaneously to the audience, maintaining essential eye contact. The secret is to prepare easy-to-read notes. Write your key points on a pad or card that you’ll keep on the lectern or table. Use a bold felt-tip pen or a large typeface on your laser printer. As you speak, you’ll follow your road map with quick glances. An easy-to-read wristwatch or small clock on the lectern lets you keep track of the time so you can speed up or slow down, cut or add material, and you finish on time.

3. Tape your “impromptu” talk.
Again, check for timing. As you play back your tape, notice repetitive phrases and non-words like “er” and “ah.” Try again, minus these distracting irritants, until you are speaking smoothly and confidently.

4. Practice in front of an audience.
Ask one or two perceptive people for their feedback. Make it clear that you want constructive criticism, not just praise. Did they understand the points you were making? Was there a lack of logic or continuity? Did they think you spoke too quickly or slowly? Use their feedback to polish your presentation.

Now you’re nearly ready to do your talk. You have one more task. Am I done writing now? No. Write your own introduction and bring a printed copy to your talk. Even if you’re speaking for free, you want the emcee to pronounce your name right, mention your company’s name, and tell people how to get in touch with you. You want all attention on you, so you don’t need an introducer who rambles on or tells tired jokes.

If you’re not sure what to say about yourself, use your resume as a guide, customized to fit your topic. If you’ve earned or been honored with impressive designations or awards, let the introducer say so. But don’t include your job as a lifeguard in your intro, unless it directly relates to your subject. Don’t leave anything to chance. If you’re working on a stage, explain to the introducer that you’ll come on stage from the wings before they leave the lectern. They need to get off the stage before the audience stops applauding.

This way, the audience looks at you instead of the emcee. You’ve taken center stage — now take it away!