March 5, 2008

What is the essence of your message?



A speech can be more complicated to write and deliver than a presentation - not because it's inherently a more difficult kind of public speaking, but because the speaker perceives it differently.

A speech is usually given at a more formal occasion: a wedding, a banquet, a retirement dinner, a conference keynote. So the speaker starts to think the speech must be very proper and stuffy and eloquent. He starts to add lots of big words and flowery language so the speech sounds appropriately fancy for the occasion.

Then he starts memorizing it, because he doesn't want anything to go wrong at this special occasion. Once he gets into the memorization trap, he starts panicking to think he might lose his place, and in a memorized speech, the only way to prevent that is to read from a piece of paper.

And insidiously, this heartfelt congratulatory message of praise, respect, or love becomes a boring, robotic, trite expression of platitudes.

How do you avoid writing and delivering the same hackneyed speech you've heard at every other similar event?

Find the essence of what you want to say


Ask yourself these questions:

1. Is this how I normally talk to people in conversation?

2. Are these words that I would normally use in conversation?

3. What's the essence of what I want to say?

As a client of mine discovered this past week, it's much less stressful to give a speech that comes from the heart than one that comes from the head.

There were several places in the speech for her son's wedding where she had padded out the words with language like "truly wonderful," "sadly missed," and "will be in our hearts forever."

Her delivery was stilted, because she had memorized her entire speech. She doubted herself and felt uncomfortable with what she had written.

Strip away the excess

I asked her to rewrite each section as a bullet with a few notes to help her remember the chronology, and for each bullet, to tell me just the essence of what she wanted to say.

As we went through this exercise, her words became more simple. I asked, "Would you normally say 'truly wonderful' in conversation?" She said no. I asked her to insert what she would say instead.

For every part of the speech that was wordy, flowery, or trite, I would ask, "Is this how you normally talk?" We stripped away the excess until she was 100% comfortable with the words that were left, all from the heart.

As she practiced the speech, her body relaxed, her voice became strong, she started to smile, and the words flowed naturally. The easy-to-follow bullet-point format remained as her safety net, but now if she loses her place, it won't be hard to find.

Always ask yourself the three questions when you're writing a speech, especially, "What is the essence of what I want to say?"

Your speech doesn't need to be fancy, formal, wordy, or showy. Distill it down to the essence of your meaning. Speak from the heart, not from the head.

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5 comments. Please add yours! :

Cam Beck said...

This is *incredibly useful* advice. I wish I had it 5 years ago. :)

I saw a lot of myself in your description. Great job bringing it home.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I'm glad you found it helpful, Cam. I think a lot of us can see our current or former selves in this description.

It's one of my main goals to get speakers to drop unnecessary formalities and unnatural behaviors, and just be sincere and straightforward.

Matthew Cornell said...

I'll be honest - getting it down to the essence is *hard*. It's like writing well - it takes serious thought. Also, I hate to throw out good ideas. But it's a compromise, of course...

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Well, you can always save your good ideas for another presentation!

John Windsor said...

Great post, Lisa. Thanks for directing me to it!

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