Friday, December 28, 2012

How to Give a Great Speech: 4 Tips

Public speaking doesn't have to be terrifying. Here's how to capture, and keep, the crowd's attention.

It’s that time of year. Business leaders and educators everywhere are attempting to inspire graduates at high schools and colleges with a terrific commencement speech. Among the more notable attempts was one from David McCullough, a Wellesley High School English teacher, whose “You Are Not Special” speech, encouraged students to go out and make their privileged lives remarkable despite everyone-gets-a-soccer-trophy childhoods.

At my daughter’s high school graduation last week, we heard speeches from three valedictorians and one salutatorian. In a graduating class of more than 700 students, these students have crazy good grades. They are the brightest bulbs in the box. Current and future leaders. And their speeches were awful.

I’m sure they all Googled “qualities of good speeches” and learned that the hallmark of an exceptional speech is an engaging story. So they all told stories. One valedictorian shared his first goal from when he was five years old: He had wanted to be a bus driver. Then he added with a laugh, “Thankfully, my parents talked me into setting much higher goals!” His insensitive remark wafted over the caps and gowns to the parents in the bleachers, who groaned and shook their heads.

Business leaders and entrepreneurs are almost by definition passionate, driven, exceptional people. But your most brilliant idea or message can sabotage your cause if you don’t consider how to catch and keep an audience’s attention:

Appropriate. Sure, a memorable speaker can and should paint vivid stories. But did no one point out to the valedictorian that his bus driver comment was elitist and inappropriate? How many hard-working, non-white-collar parents or grandparents made his education and success—and those of his peers-- possible? As an eager college intern, I once introduced a corporate video about impending cutbacks with a breezy comment about how there wasn’t a pre-movie cartoon. I quickly regretted my poor attempt at levity. Don’t forget, a great speech should be a gift from you. It’s not all about you.