Speaking From the Heart: Give Your Best Speech Ever

January 9, 2012

by Joseph M. Slye

The following is a preview of a Leadership Training Institute seminar that will be conducted during NLC's 2012 Congressional City Conference. Joe Slye will lead "Speaking from the Heart: Giving Your Best Speech Ever" on Sunday, March 11, from 9:00 a.m. to noon.

Leaders are powerless without excellent communication skills. You are much too busy to take the time to make a presentation or give a speech that falls flat, or doesn't move your audience to action. And public speaking isn't limited to large crowds and formal presentations - some of the same skills are used in small groups and one-on-one conversations. Most people decide in the first eight seconds whether a particular speaker is worth listening to. Your credibility is at stake.

Every day, we receive an average of 1,000 messages, from media news to texts, to tweets, even signs on T-shirts. Everybody is trying to sell us their ideas, their opinions, their thoughts. We are bombarded with data. How can you be sure that your message gets the attention it deserves? The secret is in the preparation.

Let's say you have been asked to give a speech in two weeks to an important public audience in your community. You've got a lot of work to do to make this your best speech ever.

First, learn about the event. Who is the audience? How much do they know about the subject? What do they want to know? What do you want them to know? Respect your audience enough to do your homework.

Pick a timely topic, one that you're passionate about. Think about this: if you're not excited about your topic, how can you expect your audience to be? If you're lukewarm, your audience will know it, and they will tune you out immediately. What are your feelings about this issue? What is your investment in this topic? Why do you want to share this information? What is at stake? You'll find that when you answer these questions and find strength in your topic, your nervousness subsides and your energy level increases. 

The purpose of your speech is to achieve results, move people to action, change opinions, and leave the audience better informed. You should be able to cover important topics completely in less than ten minutes. Actually, a good speech could be done in half that time! In general, if you budget double the time you will need for your speech, you will have enough time for your delivery and for the question-and-answer session.

Open your speech with a startling fact or statistic. Say something outrageous. Ask a rhetorical or challenging question. Grab your audience. They're busy people, just like you. You need to convince them immediately that what you're about to say is very important.

The Book of Lists reports that public speaking is the number one fear among adults, while death comes in fourth. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld concluded from this that, at a funeral, most people would rather be lying in the coffin than giving the eulogy. So let's conquer the fear.

Often, speakers are nervous when sharing information that they are not familiar or comfortable with. They end up reading from a script, with their face buried down in the text, losing the audience. 

Instead of just listing data, often without real meaning, tell a story about what the facts really mean. When you tell stories, stories from your own personal experiences, you don't need notes. You don't need to memorize anything or fake your enthusiasm.

Put a face on your key points. When telling a story, your voice inflection changes, your breathing gets easier, your gestures appear natural and your eye contact is greatly improved. Your audience can then better identify with the key points of the speech. When you're talking about your kids, or how a young student excelled in learning, or how a life was changed using a new medical procedure, people listen, and they identify with you.

Now, write the first draft of your speech. The best outline for a speech looks like this:

  • Strong opening. Always use the active voice. It puts you out in front of the story.
  • Your first point, followed by an example, or a story that comes from your personal experience.
  • A second point, followed by another example, or another story that comes from your personal experience.
  • A third point, followed by another example or story.
  • Question and answer session used to clarify the key points of your presentation.
  • Memorable closing.
To fix a flat speech, make it shorter. Start by cutting it in half. Organize your thoughts, using the outline above. Then set your notes aside. Look into a mirror and start talking. Present your case in three minutes. Don't go even one minute over.

Now start shaving time off your presentation. Present the same information in two minutes. Then, in one minute. Then get it down to 30 seconds; then, down to 20; then down to 10, until you are finally getting your main point across in eight seconds. Now you have captured the essence of your presentation. Write that speech on the back of your business card. This is your theme, your message, so build your stories around it. Give it some life. Personalize it. Practice, practice, practice. You'll be amazed at the results.

Joe Slye specializes in assisting leaders with implementing organizational change aimed at improving customer service, streamlining systems and changing organizational culture. 

An expert communicator with a strong public affairs background, he also works with senior executives in the public and private sectors to develop internal and external communication strategies that work. He has taught thousands of corporate and federal leaders how to give a great speech and how to give winning media interviews.