A reader reasonably asks about this:
How to give a great speech/presentation, or at least a damn good one?
That usually means thinking hard about what this audience needs and wants and expects – and then doing something else.
The underlying idea here is the central importance of Surprise in public speaking. Surprise does lots of things at once. Thus (examples from my book Speeches for Leaders):
First and foremost, it keeps people on their toes, listening carefully – whatever is s/he going to say next?
Second, it helps with humour – you let the audience think you’re going here, but then you take them there! They smile as they realise they’ve been gently or not-so-gently tricked. Or you might use outlandish surprising language, Boris-style:
Again, we call in our public speaking best friend: surprise. Humour is not just about jokes with punch lines and clever one-liners. Humour flows naturally from incongruity and the unexpected. What is this audience expecting? Let’s think of how to give the exact opposite. A speech that ends up with the audience smiling at different places from strange juxtapositions or wildly exaggerated turns of phrase for dramatic effect has done a good job.
The British politician Boris Johnson shows how to do this: he deliberately plays with language, peppering his articles and speeches with provocative or outlandish words, constructions, and images:
The Victorians were so vain as to believe that because they had managed to extend their dominions so far, and because the map was pink from east to west, that this must somehow reflect the reality of divine providence: that God saw a special virtue in the British people, and appointed them to rule the waves.
And because they had grown up reading such tosh the post-war establishment drew the logical but equally absurd conclusion that the shrinking of Britain must also represent a moral verdict on them all, but in this case the opposite. That we were now decadent, and that decline had set in with all the ineluctability of death watch beetle in the church tower.
Thatcher changed all that. She put a stop to the talk of decline and she made it possible for people to speak without complete embarrassment of putting the “great” back into Britain.
And she gave us a new idea—or revived an old one. That Britain was or could be an enterprising and free-booting sort of culture, with the salt breeze ruffling our hair. A buccaneering environment where there was no shame—quite the reverse—in getting rich.
Third, it helps establish ‘thought-leader’ credentials: audiences want to hear something new and ‘different.
A good speech in the thought leader category enhances the leader’s brand and company’s brand alike by doing two things: answering the company’s strategic questions, and addressing customers’ strategic questions. A thought leader need not have—and can’t have—all the answers. Asking different questions in a different way to get people thinking is often enough to show big-scale confidence and authority. Less is more.
Frank and personal examples of challenges and mistakes that might seem banal to a specialist audience go down well here. Different ways to structure the speech to surprise and intrigue the audience can be tried; for example, by taking unexpected cases and drawing wider conclusions from them. Small to big. Big to small. Small to big to small. What I did and what I learned. Knowledge to wisdom. And so on.
It helps give a speech Structure. Again, from Speeches for Leaders:
Another way to give a speech unusual structure is to play with time and sequence (again using surprise). No doubt many readers have seen Pulp Fiction. That trailblazing movie plays imaginatively with structure: several stories intertwine, but episodes from them are presented out of sequence, albeit in a way that comes together and makes sense at the end.
Speeches can do that too, within limits. During a masterclass a diplomat gave a short speech describing his most difficult professional decision. He explained his theme through a gripping story. He had been sitting minding his own business in the embassy when a call came from the police. One of his country’s citizens was high on a building-site roof, threatening to commit suicide by jumping off. He was in despair because his girlfriend had left him. Help! The diplomat described how he had raced to the roof and eventually talked this person into coming down safely. He concluded by saying what he had learned from this drastic episode in his life.
His speech had two great themes that open the way to success: Love and Death. It also had a logical structure: What I did –> What I learned. Story –> Moral.
We talked about how he might have lifted this speech from good to superb. Why start the speech at the beginning of the story? That’s what everyone else does. Instead plunge in right at the moment of crisis! Thus:
It’s a Friday afternoon in January.
Getting dark. It’s freezing cold. Minus 6. Snow’s starting to fall.
I’m on a high roof, eight stories up, near the ledge. Almost within touching distance is a young man from my country. He’s screaming. Crying. Ranting and shouting that he’s about to jump.
His girlfriend has left him. He has nothing to live for.
How did I get here?
The advantage of a start like this is that the audience is taken straight into the action at its tensest moment. His first version had a smooth if steep take-off for the speech, like a modern airliner leaving the runway. In this second version the speech shots upwards like a rocket to a high point of tension, right at the start. Having grasped the audience’s attention, the speaker can then play with other parts of the speech in novel ways.
He then might even tease the audience by describing how he ended up on the roof, before sharing the general lessons he learned from this harrowing experience and sitting down.
But … but … you haven’t told us! Did he jump?!
Oh. Sorry. Of course not!
One of my own best examples came when I helped Anna Baker give a long keynote conference speech. She started on a rightful sombre note, recalling that some close colleagues had died since their last professional conference. That set a thoughtful, respectful tone. Anna then played a short video-clip of a singing dog to make a point about the shared objectives of the gathering. This had the effect of creating a completely unexpected emotional contrast almost from Sad –> Crazy, unlike anything seen before at such events. Anna quickly won and then maintained complete control of the large occasion. As she later said, throughout her long speech she ‘could hear the audience listening to her’.
Think about that. It’s a wonderful insight into the public speaking process. They listened to her. She listened to them listening. Public speaking bliss for everyone. All down in good part to clever uses of Surprise.
For a maybe more familiar example, look at this masterpiece:
If you carefully analyse the structure of this stupendous speech, you see that Hopper ruthlessly plays with Surprise by establishing a dynamic unexpected contrast between Food and Control. He dupes his stupid followers into thinking that they need not go back to Ant Island as they have enough food, before (literally) crushing them into seeing that issue is not about Food, even though he said it was. The rhetorical and motivating effect is all the more overwhelming.
Surprise? Maybe the mightiest weapon in the speechwriter’s armoury.
Anyone wanting a signed copy of Speeches for Leaders? The ideal Christmas or New Year present for all the family. Just get in touch.