“Speak when you are angry—and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
– Laurence J. Peter
A speech is like a kiss in the dark; you can never be absolutely certain of your performance until it’s over. And, like that kiss, it’s unrealistic to expect that every time the bedside lamp flickers back into life you’ll be met with lovestruck eyes and a declaration of your breathtaking aptitude.
Just as many a celebrity heartthrob has flunked a first kiss, innumerable politicians, managers and chief executives have spoilt an important speech and, with it, their chances of advancement in their chosen field.
It is an unassailable fact that one’s speech-making abilities reflect hugely in one’s occupational success. During a press conference on 11th October 2001, President George W. Bush was asked why, as part of the effort to secure victory in the war on terror, he had not called for sacrifices on the part of the American people. His response and the stark lack of empathy follows:
“Well, you know, I think the American people are sacrificing now… they’re waiting in airport lines longer than they ever have before.”
The American Premier had an unenviable knack of underestimating the empathy of his citizens throughout his presidency. And, unfortunately for him, the President was never able to recognise, correct or recover from the constant stream of “Bushisms” which flowed from his mouth.
But there are steps that you can take to counteract the effects of a disappointing speech and to ensure that, next time round, your addressees are won around to your cause. The first step is called “self-evaluation”.
Evaluate your technique
If possible, seek out a recording of your presentation and watch or listen to it as objectively and honestly as you can. If this is not possible, ask a trusted colleague who witnessed your presentation to give a frank and open review of your performance.
Was your body language and vocal tone too energetic for your audience of pension-age life insurance clients? Or, conversely, was your audience bored to tears with your board-stiff posture and monotone dialogue?
Did you emphasise words of importance or remember to expand on points of particular significance? Instead of stating “Our company has two million customers,” could you not have expanded this statistic to your benefit? “We now have two million trusting customers – that’s twice as many as our competitor!” might have engaged your audience more effectively and put your otherwise meaningless statistics into perspective.
Be enthusiastic but not insensitive
Practise your presentation technique by rehearsing in front of a mirror, and rate your enthusiasm on a scale of one to ten. Try to balance your gusto to suit your listeners, and, if necessary, find common ground with your audience by engaging them in your discussion. This can be done by giving rhetorical questions to individual members of the audience, or by sharing a joke.
Remember, though, that humour is not always appropriate in a speech. If you are planning to add a joke or two into the mix, be sure that your gag cannot possibly be perceived as being offensive. A joke about the plight of the native Aborigines may not go down well among a group of Australian trainee sailors.
Memorising does not always work
A widespread problem that plagues the common speechmaker is the incessant temptation to memorise their presentation, word-for-word, beforehand. This approach is counter-productive, whether you are able to memorise your speech or not.
If you do somehow manage to learn your presentation by rote, the likelihood is that you will be too preoccupied with remembering the words to deliver them with any kind of conviction. And, if you are not able to remember your words, then your audience will not, either.
Instead of this, break the crucial message of your speech into just three or four points, and use topics that interest you personally to jog your memory – “Market research shows that, unfortunately, 62% of our customers are ardent Manchester United supporters”.
As well as serving as a memory aid, this technique will persuade your audience that you are genuinely enthusiastic about what you are saying. Remember, lack of interest in your subject is easy to spot; adjust your topic so that it is of genuine interest to you and your speech will become infinitely more effective.
Get a good coach
A great way to recover from a disastrous speech is to seek out a good coach. This can be any close friend or relative, as long as they are honest, open and unbiased towards you. A good coach will review your technique and provide positive feedback, point out the silver linings of your disappointing speech, and show you how to use them to enhance your technique.
If nerves cause you to speak too quickly, your coach will help you to transfer this habit to convey excitement rather than nerves; if you tend to speak in a monotone, your coach will train you to use this in such a way as to give your audience the impression that you are thoroughly knowledgeable in your field.
Learn from the greats
Take heed of the failures of those who have gone before you. Once you have a good understanding of the interests of your audience, examine speeches made by others in your field, and emulate their positive techniques while avoiding their mistakes.
The final say
The main thing to remember is that, no matter how bad a speech you have given, it is possible to recover. If you learn to recognise, acknowledge and work on your mistakes, you’ll become a stronger and more convincing speaker next time you make a presentation.
By George A. Dixon