7 Steps to a Great Speech

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Organizations in Flux

How you deliver a speech or presentation can shape how well those you lead will navigate change.

Internal and external factors influence communication: downsizing, economic up-turns and down-turns, emerging technologies, business landscape shifts, generational viewpoints, political and cultural forces. All of things impact what we think and how we communicate on any given day. They also impact how other’s hear us.

Stellar communication - the kind that breaks through the cacophany of ideas and sounds - requires us to hear ourselves think. And then, to hear others think. Hearing others means being aware of the things that are going to make them resistant to hearing what we have to say, what we must say. Hearing ourselves means making room for our process in getting to a speech, a presentation, a keynote.

It’s not that you don’t already have breakthrough-ideas in your area of expertise - it’s just that communicating those ideas in ways that transcend resistance (your own and others) is likely to take work. Let’s look at your process and their’s; because overcoming our own resistance to breakthrough preceeds leading breakthrough.

As a professional, you need to begin by trusting your process. You’re at a place where you know what works for you. It’s okay not to write, create or shape your speech-writing process according to someone else’s plan. In fact, it’s time to silence the high school or undergrad instructor who demanded that everyone do it “like this.” After twenty-years of writing and coaching grad-students and professionals, there’s one thing that I’m sure of - and that’s that there’s not one right way to get a speech in order - other than to allow yourself time to write and rewrite. But, before you start writing or rewriting, make room for your process.

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We resist change. Naturally.

Because the brain’s natural default is to resist change, know that it’s natural for you to want to resist changing your work, your words, your speech or presentation. We resist because change costs. And we resist because resistance is the brains way to save us from disruption, unpredicatability and danger. Even those with daring personalities, have a brain that defaults to the familiar.

As you prepare your speech or presentation, bear in mind that the body’s default is to conserve energy (in case there’s a fight-or-flight emergency). The brain’s default is to go with known responses. And, learning new things takes a boat-load of energy. One study shows that we burn as much glucose when learnning a new cognitive behavior as going for a jog.

We don’t learn or do new things without immense effort. Consider the statis evidenced by people who’d undergone traumatic heart bypass surgery. When told that they’d die if they didn’t change their lifestyle, less than 1 in 10 made any changes (Deutschman, A | 2005 | "Change or Die." Fast Company 53-59, 94). With some certainty, you can suppose that anything you say in your presentation has a less impressive imperative than being told you’re going to die if you don’t change


Most great business ideas even those driven by sound data & analytics - fail

In fact 3 out of 4 new initiatives fail, found a study done by Mount Eliza Business School. Why? Because those of us excited about the prospect of moving forward have failed to take those on other rungs of the organization with us.

When people feel threatened (due to a new program, merger of restructure, for instance), there is a self-preservation instinct that kicks in, making resistance and stasis the norm. We conserve energy. We breath shallow and think shallow. Our pre-fontal cortext becomes oxygen and glucose deprived making good decisions unlikely, and new ideas appear unreasonable. The opposite happens when we feel safe, included, secure. Now our brains release dopamine , that feel-good chemical that makes us want to know more about the new idea, learn the new skill, persist to breakthrough.

Likely you’re planning to give the speech or presentation you’re about to give because somewhere someone has told you that you can do this, that you’re capable, that you’ve got something others need. Dopamine.

And so you’re here, willing to learn more. It’s an experience we know first-hand. Rather than just act on our motivation, we can catch a passing glimpse of how we might motivate others. Taking our listener’s need for safety, affirmation and stasis into account is wise, as we proceed with our writing.

If you’re going to communicate so effectively that others get to actionable breakthrough, we necessarily begin with our ways of understanding, our unique process. So, how do you write? How do you get from blank page to a great speech?


7 Steps to a Great Speech

  1. Prime your audience to engage the struggle - being careful not to lock in resistance, but to open them to possibility. Rather than say, “I was so frustrated with…” frame your speech with, “I wondered if…” inviting your listeners to wonder with you. About possibility. About outcomes. About their role in getting there. Now, state “why” you’re talking about this today. Be clear about the purpose of your speech; “because we need to solve ___.”

  2. Listen to your own internal resistance. And listen to others’ apprehension. In a good storyarch, the main character tries a handful of easier solutions that fail. Share those. Share things you or others have tried and tried. Let your listeners travel with you.

  3. Share an emotional aspect of this story. Let people feel the pain involved in the struggle. Because of the brain’s natural desire is to return to stasis (evenness), people will naturally begin formulating a plan to escape from the discomfort and pain. They too will be looking for a solution, trying to solve the problem. And this is beautiful. This is engagement that’s primed for inclusion, contribution, resolution, solution.

  4. Now, be disciplined and transparent. Share data. Share the challenge. And share hope. Bring your emotional-intelligence to the table. Keep listeners wanting to solve the problem with you. Don’t be too quick to offer your solution. Leave space for people to think; be silent for a moment. Give it time. Then, wonder with your listeners about the solution. “What if…?”

  5. Return to the “Why” that you set up at the outset; “because we need to solve ___.” You’ve overcome resistance to being part of the solution by getting people to journey with you into the problem. Now, invite them to journey with you into the solution. Wonder with them about their part. Help them to envision their role. Again, leave space for them to think. If your audience can imagine the part they will play in solving the challenge at hand, their engagement has just hit the rafters. They’re in.

  6. So, step back. Get out of the way. Let your listeners be the hero in this story, the one’s who slay the dragon. It’s at this point that many a leader has trouble resisting becoming the focal-point, the hero of the story. Do that and your listeners are reminded that they have no power, no role in this unfolding drama. Since you’ve come this far, be clear about what your audience CAN DO. Deliver a clear “call to action” and give them the means to get it done; whether it’s training, new software, access to tools, or access to leadership. Make a way for people to engage. Make sure your words open not just minds, but doors to action-oriented breakthrough.

  7. Follow-up: reward those who are getting it done. Ask permission and then tell their stories publically. That’ll help not only the mid and late-adopters, but it’ll raise morale as change is implemented. Tell dragon-slaying stories often, because everyone loves a hero. Especially when they discover that the hero in this story - is them.


Your Process

Do you talk it out? Getting out of their own head is key for the abstract-sequential, verbal processor.


If you’re someone who gets to solutions by talking-it-out, you may develop your best speaking ideas by hitting “record” on your cell-phone and just speaking your thoughts. Later, you can transcribe and sort; or use voice-to-text software that can do it for you (like Dragon). People with this style detest tedious and repetitive work (making a voice—to-text converter a sanity-saver). Your speaking-time is how external-processors work through complexity. While having a friend who will listen to your ideas may be helpful, sometimes just listening to your own ideas is how you see what’s still missing and what you still need to work through to get to a stellar presentation.

Do you pick up a notepad and pen? The best work happens on paper for the abstract-random, doodler.

If you’re someone who thinks best on paper, write or draw with abandon.Then use Google’s OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, available in Google Drive, to convert an image of a physical page of text into an editable Google Doc. (Here’s a how-to Youtube from BetterCloud.) People with this thinking style are often internal-processors who need time to figure out the relationship between things, people, ideas. Given time to doodle, you figure out what others may miss. Your doodle-time is the subtext for your breakthrough speech.

Do you research and write on your iPad or laptop? Writing isn’t so much method as process for the concrete-random, note-taker.

If you’re an intuitive problem-solver who likes to gather data and experiement with possibilites in order to get to an answer, you need to be close to the internet for research. Be uninhibited as you follow the thought-bunny-trails down this path and the other; though a self-imposed time-limit will force you back to the writing-table where random bits will coalesce. Your process requires you to clip data into a document (copy & paste are your friends). Frustrated by boundaries, you’re tempted to tell yourself to stay on task. But you’ll be best served if, before you write, you give yourself time to collect pieces of information that will, down the road, reveal a whole that others might miss. Explore connections, it’s your means to transformative speeches.

Do you open a document and make a plan?
Outline is the friend of the concrete-sequential, order-maker.

Ordered thinking and research is your strong-suit so open a document and utilize the outline-format (activated by using tabs in the numbered-list function); but now I’m telling you what you already know. This is your wheel-house. You thrive on structure and will do best with a plan that allows you to research details that fill in the outline. Your challenge is to allow mental-space to refine your plan, if in the course of research you learn something new. A revision isn’t undermining, it’s simply your plan maturing. Keep working the plan. Your gift for structure can bring clarity not only to your presentation but to a world often in need of order and clear thinking.


Other’s Process

Because our brains are wired for stability, for stasis. That makes change a threat. And it makes changed thinking costly. People don’t change because we tell them to. They don’t hear our great goals and desired business outcomes because we state them clearly. They hear what we’re saying when they feel safe. And, that so entirely goes against the thinking of most leaders who default to high-challenge positions. The bigger the challenge, the more invested we are. But, not so with everyone.


Big challenges can often cause others to resist or disengage in order to get the brain back to a place of balance, of stasis.

Great speeches not only contain great ideas, backed by our amazing process, but great speeches are able to overcome the natural stasis of listeners by engaging them in solving the problem with us.

Because I’m a concrete-random writer, providing an outline for how to get this done goes against every braincell in my head. So, instead, here are a few tips that might help as you work your own process - and go from listener-resistance, to audience-engagement, to team-participation.


Once we arrive at an idea, it’s easy to forget what it cost us to get there. And, going back to the beginning to help others with what we’ve already moved-on from can be a challenge. But do it anyway. Start at the beginning. Every great speech sets forth a challenge, embraces the difficulties, and proposes how others might join a breakthrough outcome. One of the best ways to engage an audience is to share some of your struggle (your process) in wrestling with the challenge at hand. This needs to sound not like an instrospective-monologue, but like an opportunity for building relational trust. Say, “this is hard.” And share why it’s hard for you. This engages listeners in facing the problem with you.

Build trust by sharing various solutions that have been tried, the data, the outcomes. Then, return people to the problem at hand. There’s a chemistry to storytelling that helps people engage and become part of the solution. Part of that is that, as you write your speech, you make sure there’s a storyarch that takes them down a path of discovering the solution.