From the ancient classical cultures of Greece and Rome to modern live events simulcast all over the earth, effective orators command respect by persuading the masses. Even on a smaller scale, public speaking lends itself to all kinds of enterprises: sales and marketing; government and politics; education and the arts. Effective speaking is an exceptional–though not unattainable–skill. Fortunately, there is an ample number of keynoters working meetings, conventions and banquets whose successful practices are open to emulation. Those who command the highest fees and honorariums, who are in the greatest demand from event planners, employ three powerful approaches in common.
Not Just for Bedtime: the Power of Storytelling
Facts and logic may be indisputable but they rarely hold audience attention. What the argument looks like in real life always eclipses its reasonableness in the abstract. Popular communicator and preacher Joel Osteen routinely utilizes stories about himself, his family, friends and acquaintances to make a point more vivid and understandable. For sure, there is a difference between a lecture and a keynote. Whereas the lecture conveys information, the keynote moves the heart. Or should.
The heart of compelling storytelling is what neuroscientist Paul Zak dubs “narrative transportation,” i.e. sympathetic characters and and their trials actually transporting audience members into another realm by appealing to imagination. This is accomplished by some of the best keynoters and TED talkers like tech leader Sheryl Sandberg and attorney Bryan Stevenson. Stories are “the hook” that get hearers to identify with the speaker up front.
Not Just for Carnegie Hall: Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practice is not about daily drudgery or rote learning. Yes, at times, the repetition of rehearsal might seem monotonous. Still something is happening when a speaker goes through the talk at home for the 36th time — the content is internalized. Going over notes again and again — and delivering the address with equal frequency — goes far to allay nervousness and fear of failure.
Vary the rehearsal venues to optimize practice time. In front of the mirror is good; videotape is better. Finding an empty auditorium is an excellent place to prepare the speech delivery; getting to use the actual hall where the event will take place is best of all. Central to knocking the speech out of the park is to know the material so well that the familiar cues at home or the office are no longer necessary for the speaker to remain confident and at ease.
Not Just for Tired Eyes: Ditch the Slides
Well, maybe not entirely, but severely limit them at any rate. Anyone who has ever been bored by a friend showing picture after picture from a vacation to Fiji knows the deadening consequences of the marathon slide show. The best speakers create word pictures for their listeners. Worst than anything is presenting a textual slide…and then reading it out loud. Although technology tempts speakers to employ it maximally, a minimalist approach is best. This is because too many visuals rob the speaker of stage presence.
Of course, stage presence has many components, not the least of which is body language and gesturing. Yet no matter how well you master the art of presence, all that hard work can be sabotaged by a multimedia circus on the screens. The main character of every speech should always be the person speaking. Slides are a competitor. If visual images are few and far between, keep their formatting consistent and modest so as not to make them centers of attention.
The three keys highlighted here are sound advice when a keynote address looms in the future. Certainly other tools are well-advised for maintaining the interest of listeners. Humor (in the right amount), brevity, spontaneity and vocal intonation all work together to keep an audience focused. And yes, good content is paramount. Those means acknowledged, however, the three elements noted above can make all the difference between excellence and mediocrity in keynote addresses.