As a speech coach in New York City, I am frequently called to help people who are preparing to moderate a panel. I often see the same two mistakes made as clients prepare; the first is making the panel discussion too long, and the second is making it too complex. Here is what you can do to avoid these critical errors.
First, make sure that you’re panel discussion is ONE HOUR, and ONE HOUR ONLY. Even the most lively panel discussion will begin to drag after an hour. Science has shown that our attention span is worse than that of a goldfish, so be sure to keep things moving!
Second, don’t muddy the water by having presentations woven into the event. If you find dynamic enough panelists, and you are careful to be sure they represent opposing viewpoints (conflict and controversy are good!), your panel should be interesting enough.
If you want to moderate a successful panel discussion, keep it simple; dynamic panelists with opposing views, great curated stories (you do the curating), and a single, simple powerpoint slide to display your event information.
Every once in a blue moon, a speaker does everything right. Such is the case with Rita Pierson’s gem of a speech on the need for school reform. She has a powerful, expressive voice and an actress’ touch with language. She utilizes gesture effectively, effortlessly timing her movements with her content. But what works best in this speech are the stories. Well told stories are the lifeblood of any good speech.
I’d like to call attention to the way she builds her stories. Her initial stories are about her students, and the way she interacts with them, but the most powerful story, the story of her mother’s impact on the lives of her students, comes at the end of her speech, just before her call to action. With each story, she takes us deeper into both her thesis, and her own emotional life. The speech builds both intellectually and emotionally. Just beautiful.
I recently poised the question, “is it possible to speak too slow while presenting“? My answer was “no”, but Brian Little’s pace of speaking would challenge that assumption. I think he picks up the pace adequately around the middle of his TED Talk, but I found my mind wandering off at the beginning. This is because he is speaking just a bit too slowly, and because he doesn’t have a good story up front in order to attract the audience’s attention.
This changes dramatically half way through the speech. At about the ten minute mark, we get a series of wonderful, hilarious stories, starting with this gem, and the speech really comes to life. Its amazing how a few small changes can lift a speech from good to great. When it comes to presenting, the devil is in the details.
One of the trickiest parts of crafting a speech is figuring out how to start it. Some recommend launching into a story, others recommend letting the audience know where you are heading with the speech, and others suggest using a startling statistic or fact. I don’t think there is a “right” way to start a speech, but there are a few things that matter. An opener should be short, and create an immediate impact on the audience; a laugh, a giggle, a sigh, a gasp, etc. Here are a few great speech openers from some recent TED Talks:
1) Monica Lewinsky – Ms. Lewinsky is one of my favorite speakers. I really love this TED Talk. It’s chock full of courage, wit, pathos, and great storytelling. She starts the speech with a hilarious, BRIEF story about a young man who tries to pick her up at a bar. Check it out to hear his pick up line…
Needless to say, humor is one of the best ways to open a speech. If you can get the audience laughing at the top, they will be more receptive to your ideas. What makes this opener so brilliant is the way Mrs. Lewinsky manages to get a laugh out of a terribly painful and embarrassing moment in her life.
2) David Miliband – One powerful way to open a speech is to tell a story, but the type of story you tell matters. In an opener, you need to keep things brief, and personal. Watch the way Mr. Miliband uses his family heritage to make a startling point about immigration:
3) Anne Lamott – I think this opener is both subtle and startling. What’s subtle about it is Ms. Lamott’s delivery, which is pleasing, but subdued. What’s somewhat startling about it is the way she talks about her grandson’s nightmares. Openers can incorporate paradox:
So what are your favorite openers? Post here or at my twitter.
I really identify with the struggle ESL executives face when putting together a speech. It’s difficult to give a solid presentation without struggling with the language, let alone trying to manage phrasing and articulation while presenting. That’s a lot to juggle. During my years as a speech coach in New York City and New Jersey I’ve seen a lot of ESL executives give a lot of different types of speeches. Here are three mistakes I see most often:
- Focusing too much on the articulation of individual sounds, and not enough on the musicality of the language – It’s important to circle trouble words within your speech outline, and work on their pronunciation, but it’s equally important to make sure you circle the focus words within a phrase, and lift your intonation on them. The rhythm and intonation patterns of the language are more important to master than individual sounds.
- Going too fast! – If you are an ESL executive, here is the best piece of advice I can give you about presenting… YOU CANNOT SPEAK TOO SLOW! I know, I know, you feel like you are boring the room. But would you rather take the risk of being a little too boring, or not being understood? Pausing is powerful. Take your time. Focus on your articulation.
- Using complex words when simple ones will do – I recently had an executive who was giving a major speech at a conference and he was throwing out a number of four and five syllable words like “instrumentation”. Naturally, he was stumbling quite a bit. There’s no need to use complex words, in fact the worlds greatest speakers (including Winston Churchill) generally advocated using simple words while presenting.If you want to make improvement on your articulation, join me for an upcoming online accent reduction course.