It was the Final of the annual Anglo-Irish public speaking contest. A long-standing Toastmaster with a good record in these contests took to the stage, and the largely Irish audience pulsed expectantly.
It was a brilliant text, full of clever linguistic jokes, puns and even verbal pictures. But one minute into the speech, the audience’s expectations had been replaced by a sympathetic tolerance, as they disconnected from the speaker and waited politely for him to finish.
What went wrong?
Two things: first, it was a written text, not a spoken one. The text that’s written to be read is not the same as the text that’s written to be said.
Secondly, it was a recitation from memory. The speaker spoke AT the audience, not TO them. They sensed it and reacted accordingly.
The language was too clever to be received and understood on the run, at 150 words a minute. Some of the vocabulary was unfamiliar, the sentences were long, and the meaning of some sentences was obscured by subordinate clauses. It’s like telling a story, and breaking off in the middle to give some background material that adds nothing to the story, but gets in the way.
The speaker had written the text, and on the stage he was focused on recalling all 900 words (or thereabouts) in the right order. You could see it in his eyes. That’s one of the biggest dangers of delivering a speech from memory.
The next speaker started by throwing fortune cookies into the audience, which engaged their attention immediately. He then related his message to the message in his own fortune cookie, speaking to the audience in terms that they readily understood and could relate to. So of course he won.
To help you avoid a misconnection with your next speech or presentation, when you are preparing your material just imagine a member of your audience asking you these three questions:
1. What exactly do you want me to understand and remember?
2. Why should I care about that?
3. Why do I need to hear that from you (and not someone else)?
When you are delivering your speech, imagine that same person sitting somewhere near the front, waiting for you to answer those 3 questions.
As you address that person, you will ‘feel’ a connection with the audience. It will make a huge difference to the outcome.
What’s the point you’re making?
Get to the point.
All within 3 seconds. That’s all the time you have to grab or lose your listener’s attention. Let me help you understand why it happens and what you can do about it.
First, let’s consider why.
Every day, each of us is assailed by thousands of messages – in print, in sound, in pictures, and even in person. It’s a deluge that overwhelms the senses, closing off those private moments of reflection that once we knew, forcing us to react to the demands of the moment.
Result: we have been trained to switch off.
As fast as we respond to those demands of the moment, we tend to lose interest and turn our minds to some other pressing matter. Attention Deficit has reached epidemic proportions.
It is therefore vital to be able to make your point in just a minute, because two of the dominant characteristics of advanced nations in the 21st century are a short attention span and instant gratification.
In the early ’90s, Steven Silbiger wrote a best-selling business book called “The 10-Day MBA”. He wrote that his aim was “to cut to the heart of the top MBA programs’ subject matter clearly and concisely – the way only an MBA can, and the way academics would not dare.”
An MBA in only ten days?! It struck a chord with thousands of people who rushed to buy the book. I know many of them. I’ve seen the book on their shelves, and heard them confess that they had not actually read all 348 pages.
The book is excellent. It offers what many people want: a step-by-step guide to mastering the skills taught in top business schools. In a hurry. Yet it is not “instant” enough for those who cannot, or will not, spare the time to sit and read the book, digest its information and decide how to apply it.
So how is that relevant to spoken communication and making your point in just a minute?
The relevance lies in the time pressures that govern our lives in the western world, and the need to decide quickly what is useful and discard what is not. We live in an age of Information Overload.
The important consequence is that we are being conditioned to tune out and switch off the information we do not want. It has become a universal conditioned reflex. It means that most people cannot concentrate for very long. Our brains can think several times faster than people speak, so even while we are listening to someone else, our brains are dealing with something else, especially if what’s being said is less than riveting.
In conversations, speeches and presentations, people drift away. That’s why we need to develop the skill of commanding and retaining the attention of our listeners. That’s why we need to be able to make our point in just a minute.
Why contain your message in just a minute?
The most important reason for being succinct is that it makes you and your message more acceptable. “Get to the point!” is the anguished cry in everyone’s head (including our own) when others launch into a long-winded account of an event or a proposal. A common variation is, “What’s the point you are making?”
In contrast, it is truly refreshing when we receive a communication that is brief and to the point. Even our language has changed. In the previous paragraph I first wrote “discursive account”, but changed it to “long-winded” – not shorter, this time, but it reaches your understanding quicker.
The same principles apply to face-to-face meetings. As you know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That first impression may be created in a fraction of a second. It’s part of the process of communication.
Think back to the last time you met someone you instantly liked or disliked. Why? What did they say or do? And are you letting others make similar snap judgements about you?
So what can you do about it all?
In a business context it is important to think through your positions and your propositions. Know what you believe and why, and be clear about the benefits of your offerings. Practise making your point, using simple structures such as Problem, Cause, Solution, as though a resistant business prospect has said, “You have 60 seconds to tell me why I should listen to you.”
At the 2009 meeting of world leaders, Gaddafi was given 15 minutes to speak, and rambled on for an hour and a half. Most of us don’t have that luxury.
When you know how to make your point in just a minute, you create a communication style that projects a sense of purpose. You’ll connect better at networking meetings. Your opinions will be better received. Strangely enough, you’ll even learn to listen more.
And that’s what wins friends and influences people.
You are a communicator — that’s why you are on this page. So you can have fun thinking about the real meaning of the statements below.
These are just a few examples of the double-speak that we all engage in. But I wonder if we always hear the sub-text when someone says:
I hear what you say
I see where you are coming from
I hope you like strong tea
I’ll get back to you on that
Here, let me get you a coaster
No, no, I’m not offended. I can take a joke.
The conference covered a lot of ground and there was a full and frank exchange of views
You look really young
Please don’t mind me
It’s not that I don’t believe you â€¦
Q. How do you like him?
A. Actually, I hardly know him
A. He’s very good at his job
A. He means well
A. I’ve got nothing against him
Q. How do you like my house?
A. It has that lived-in look
A. It makes you feel at home
A. What an interesting colour scheme
A. I hate a home where everything is neatly put away
Q. You’ve heard my complaint. Will you put it right?
A. I have listened with interest and made a note of your views
A. I’ll make these points clear to all concerned
A. I assure you I will keep it top-of-mind
A. I’ll look into it, first chance I get
I hope I’m not interrupting
Forgive me, but â€¦
You must come over for dinner some time
We’re all in this together
Now, how about some of your own?