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 lifebloodof 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, andher 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 bittoo 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.
Intellectuals like professors, students, scientists, etc, tend to give great speeches. They have a firm grasp of their topic and they are used to thinking about an issue from a creative perspective. This is certainly the case with Mr. Flynn’s TED talk on society’s upward I.Q. progression, but there’s a key component missing.
But what is missing from this speech is body awareness. You can tell the good professor has spent a lot of time in his head! His voice is booming, stentorian even, but he puts his hands in his pocket, shuffles about on stage without clear direction, avoids eye contact, and muddles his gestures. Not so good. It’s a statistic that has been trotted out quite a bit, but it bears repeating; 80% of our impression of a speaker is non-verbal.
The first step toward improving the way you present, is to be aware of what your body is doing while you present. I don’t mean being self conscious. I mean simply being aware. Do I saw the air when I present? Do I fold my arms across my chest? What is my body saying about me? When you fidget on stage, make a mental note, and write it down later. Build awareness, first, and build power and nuance later. One step at a time!