I attended a fairly typical high-school commencement ceremony last month. Like others, this event included many short speeches from both students and adults including the valedictorian, the salutatorian, the principal, the school president, the student council president and a featured alumni of the school. Honestly, most of the speeches weren’t too noteworthy as they included typical exhortations of “be the best you can be”, “don’t forget what we taught you”, “life is a journey – enjoy it”, “success is not about money”, etc. The most enjoyable and memorable speech was that of the salutatorian who was self-deprecating about his appearance, took a couple light-hearted jabs at the valedictorian, shared some funny anecdotes about his family, and didn’t overwhelm us with the “do good” phrases. This got me to thinking about best practices for a brief (3-10 minute) talk.
Leaders are often asked to give such talks at retirements, recognition events, new initiatives, employee orientations, special events, or welcoming remarks at a meeting/conference. What are some best practices for such talks? What gets the attention of an audience? What gets them to really listen when they know you’ll be done in just a few minutes? What can you tell them that they will value or retain?
I’m not a communications expert but I’ve heard lots of talks from leaders over the years – some in the context of business, some at professional conferences, some in the community (fund-raisers, church sermons, etc.), and many of leaders sharing their journeys. I’ve seen and observed practices that work and some that don’t. I’ve had some training, read some books, and reflected on the topic in the context of effective and enduring leadership. Again, not an expert but here are few concepts/ideas to consider:
The Rule of 3’s … Many communication experts say that people can retain and remember ideas, lists, or points if they are grouped in threes or stated three times. Much has been written about this. I first heard of it from Fred Garcia, an executive communication coach, who shared it in some training he provided while I was at Eli Lilly. (BTW, I think Fred’s book, The Power of Communication, is a must read for leaders.) You can also learn more about the rule of 3’s on-line. I would offer that you can break this rule by going lower than three depending on the length of the speech and the purpose. If there’s one major idea or concept you want to share, perhaps just emphasize that one thing … maybe three times. (It’s no coincidence that I’m going to share three ideas to focus on in this blog.)
A Good Story or Anecdote … Audiences enjoy a good story and it’s a great way to get their attention. I know a pastor who will often start his sermons with the phrase “A story is told” and then proceed with a 2-3 minute story as a lead in to his major point. Hearing that phrase, “A story is told,” makes your ears perk up and listen. This is a technique I have used on many occasions. I would identify perhaps just one idea or concept and think of a story or experience to use as the way to share it. Of course, it helps if the story is relevant and shared in a concise, understandable fashion. So, practicing your delivery of that story is important as well.
The Mood of the Room … Be cognizant of the mood in the room and the circumstances of the meeting or gathering, and know the role you are playing for that event. If the event is for learning, offer something that the audience can take away. If the event is a celebration, share a light-hearted story that gets the audience or keeps them in a festive mood. Most importantly, keep the momentum of the occasion going and try to add one thing of value, even if it’s just a good joke. I once attended a wedding where the groomsman droned on for 10 minutes about what the meaning of love was during his toast of the just-married couple. The wedding attendees wanted to talk, laugh, drink and dance – they did NOT want to listen to the “meaning of love” lecture. The celebration eventually went on so there was no real damage, but imagine when a leader misreads the mood and delivers a clunker of a speech. That could derail the meeting and/or create a reputation for the leader as being uninspiring, out-of-touch, or lacking awareness.
I would encourage you to be mindful of these and other items as you both give and listen to speeches. There are many other resources, books and information that I would urge you to research, review and consider. You can also learn a lot simply by observing others give short talks and presentations. One such presentation rich with content and examples of what I’ve discussed here is Jim Valvano’s speech at the ESPY sport awards in 1993 – 25 years ago this past March. For those not familiar, some quick background: Jim Valvano was a former championship college basketball coach and a basketball analyst who contracted terminal cancer and did not have long to live. He was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for his fight against cancer and his support of others who were afflicted, and delivered an acceptance speech at the award ceremony about a month before he passed away. His speech is almost 10 minutes with applause but still falls into the category of a brief talk. (Note: It is more about sharing wisdom and rallying support for a cause than basketball or sports.) You will see how masterful he was at delivering a powerful communication.
As communication is one of the most critical competencies for effective leadership, it is a topic I will come back to again and again. And, as many of you know, communication goes well beyond just giving prepared speeches or presentations, but it’s a good place to start. As you invest in your leadership, I would encourage you to (1) study effective communicators, reflect on their styles & techniques, and learn from them, and (2) continue to grow as a leader by trying different presentation approaches and techniques, even if they are outside your comfort zone.