For years I have shared with my clients and students that the best way to know what you need to say in your speech is to understand what your audience needs to hear. Switch sides of the podium. Put yourself in your audience members’ seats and consider their perspective. What do you see that they don’t? How can they hear, absorb and digest your message comfortably? Through the years, I have realized that with just a bit of tweaking, you can use my format for reaching an audience for making a point in a meeting as well as in an interview. Let’s begin by reviewing my fail-safe method for making each key point in a presentation.
1. Affirm your point succinctly. Be bold. Make them think, “Gee, I never thought of it that way.” Be confident that your assessment will be new to them as they did not do all the research and reflection on the topic as you did. Nor do they have your angle on the material. Hence, you are going to see something in the subject matter that they do not. Key points naturally “wow” the audience.
2. Clarify or nuance your point. Spell out what you mean.
3. Illustrate your point. Give listeners a simple example to which they can easily relate.
4. Elaborate on the point. Tell them more. From your clarification and illustration they’re getting it and are poised to hear and absorb more.
5. Substantiate your point. There comes a time when a thoughtful listener will wonder, “How do you know this?” A skilled speaker is prepared to support his or her thoughts with data from dependable sources.
6. Reiterate your point. Realize that when folks are listening they do not have the opportunity to reread, review or rewind the message as with a book, DVD or recording. Effective speaking requires the repetition of key points.
Affirmation. Clarification. Illustration. Elaboration. Substantiation. Reiteration.
The following is a sample of the above employed as a sales pitch by a wholesale footwear representative in a meeting with the buyer of women’s shoes in a major department store.
Affirmation: This shoe collection is the magnet of the group.
Clarification: It will naturally pull in pedestrian traffic from the mall. Why? It’s rich in detail. This group is colorful and offers so much to look at and to touch.
Illustration: Buttons, buckles, bows, fabrics and flowers – this collection yells, “Try me on!”
Elaboration: Ladies ready-to-wear is simple this year and in these dreary economic times women are looking to perk up outfits with affordable novelties. My own sister shared that she is buying just a few solid-colored moderately priced dresses for work this season and spending most of her wardrobe budget on fun and flirty accessories. Footwear is first in spring accessories.
Substantiation: It’s like basketball Hall of Famer, John Wooden once said, “It’s the little details that are vital; little things make big things happen.”
Reiteration: Let this stylish collection be a magnet for new customers and one you can call your regulars about as well.
The following is a sample of my fail-safe format applied in the body of a lengthier speech.
Affirmation: While no longer our main means of transport in civilian or military life, horses are still very much present in American society, culture and industry.
Clarification: We may not recognize their influence, acknowledge their contributions, or protest their exploitation, but horses are indeed still among us and imbedded in the fabric of American life in ordinary, profound, and even intimate ways.
Illustration: Take for example, our common language, American English. Idiomatic English abounds with expressions from our relationship with horses as our partners in settling the American West. Ever describe yourself as “saddled” with responsibility? This derives from the heavy leather saddles we fashioned to hold us and our gear when traveling long distances, ranching and herding cattle while on horseback. Has a colleague try to “curry” favor with you? This derives from the use of the curry, a soft rubber or plastic comb with tiny teeth that loosens the dirt out of a horse’s coat and feels to them like a massage. Surely you’ve been told, “Don’t jerk me around!” If horses could talk they might exclaim that as well if we pull sharply on one rein; the horse will turn but that sudden jerky motion doesn’t fee l very good on its mouth and neck and there is a less aggravating and more productive way to get the horse to come around.
Elaboration: Horses are with us in our daily lives in other more tangible ways as well. The average day in my own life reminds me of this. Soft, water-resistant hair from the horse’s mane is what makes up the make-up brush I use to apply my cosmetics and certainly the paintbrush used to apply the color on the walls in my home and office. When I hear the violins playing in a number of songs on my iPod during my morning run, I am reminded of and grateful for the bows that are strung with the coarse hair of horse tails. As I select an outfit for the day I can’t help but see the Polo ponies that have inspired an entire style of clothing and mark mine as designed by fashion icon Ralph Lauren. At that same moment I chuckle that horses are even on Madison Avenue – not just literally pulling the Hansom Cabs in New York City but in the advertising industry. You see, often as I am dressing for the day I look at my TV screen and see two horses pull a trailer out of the mud in a commercial for Viagra. This gets me thinking about all the horses who are actors in film as well as on television. Hollywood horses have appeared in small roles in movies as diverse as Animal House and The Godfather, worked as extras in Dances with Wolves and other epics and some even star in major motion pictures like Black Velvet, Sea Biscuit and My Friend Flicka.
Substantiation: Over four million Americans are involved through work or ownership with the more than nine million horses in the United States today. Ironically, it is the large industries of horse racing and pharmaceuticals that may offer our most personal connection to equines. Jobs and livelihoods are reliant on the horse racing business through the associated enterprises of breeding, training, insurance and gambling. These account for multi-billion dollar contributions to the economies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to name a few. But perhaps the most telling example of the intimate connection between equines and the well being of humans is the manufacture and use of PREMARIN, a popular hormone replacement medication available in topical and oral form to post-menopausal women. On the market in the U.S. since 1942, the conjugated estrogens that make up the preparation are collected from pregnant mares’ urine. Today, an estimated two thousand mares in Canada are, for life, stalled and remain pregnant and producing estrogen-concentrated urine as the main ingredient in PREMARIN.
Reiteration : Because we travel in automobiles these days we don’t have contact with horse grooming equipment, saddles, bits or bridles so we use the lexicon without experiencing the deep horse-human partnership from which it stems. Because horses don’t get invited to Fashion Week or nominated for Academy Awards we don’t celebrate their contributions to the arts, style and entertainment. And because we wager, win or lose money, and fill our prescriptions in a matter of minutes, little if any time is devoted to considering the lifetime of involuntary sacrifice that horses as athletes and industrial recruits make to these ends. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a horse or two contributing each and every day to the quality of modern life you know. They’re still our capable and dependable partners quietly helping move us along in our human journey.
A local journalist asked me the question, “How is it that you went from a career as a Russian-speaking Sovietologist with degrees in Comparative Communist Studies and International Security Affairs to a communications coach?” I giggled watching him eye my diplomas on the wall with a genuinely baffled look on his face. I responded as follows.
Affirmation: It was actually an organic career shift.
Clarification: As a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs I met many experts on foreign affairs—including my professors and noticed they traveled quite a bit to give speeches to audiences of all types. In 1988, I started my first company, a speakers bureau, by offering representation to them. I cultivated a large clientele in academe and did a lot of program development for social science departments using my expertise in Russian and international affairs. My briefings to my speakers were very much a product of listening to my clients—their audiences—describe their needs and expectations.
Illustration: I loved learning from my speakers as they spoke expertly on cutting-edge issues in foreign affairs and to keep them successful, I began analyzing the most effective presentations for common elements. The patterns for success at the microphone were vivid and clear and I shared them accordingly.
Elaboration: Then one day a magazine called me to write an article on public speaking and presentation skills based on my experiences running my speakers bureau. I did and that article produced an invitation for me to give a workshop on effective communication. From there, individuals who attended sought me out privately for coaching. By that point it was 1991 and interest in global affairs was waning with the end of the Cold War. But, my oral communications business was percolating. I read every textbook on communication, closed my agency and devoted myself full-time to what brings you here today.
Substantiation: Speech-writing is my forte because in graduate school I took two to three courses each in economics, history, political science, etc. and we did a lot computer war-gaming. My studies not only gave me the discipline to learn a subject quickly, but the ability to turn out a substantive briefing or report in as little as twenty-four hours. Now I can ghost-write speeches for CEOs and executives on topics from real estate to cyber-security because I can learn the lexicon, get a handle on the issues and organize the message for a lay or expert audience. That’s what I was trained to do as a policy analyst.
Reiteration: In fact, my careers are so related that when I started writing workbooks on communication the series title was “Notes from the Podium,” a play on the title of the Russian novel, Notes from (the) Underground. It really wasn’t a leap from one career to the next but a nicely paced marathon.
This method of presenting one’s thoughts has served me, my clients and my students well for two decades. It is not only fail-safe insofar as it provides something for every listener, but it is also self-checking. As you organize your thoughts for your next meeting, prepare responses for your next interview or script your next speech, realize that you can check your own words for the necessary ingredients. Did you assert your point boldly? Did you explain it? Did you support your assertion? Did you provide a listener-friendly example? Did you elaborate on it with a memorable vignette or enlightening anecdote? I share this all with you in hopes you will not shy away from making a speech, giving that interview or participating confidently and effectively in your next meeting.