Old School Speaking Doesn’t Work – September 2021

The worst thing to happen to presentation skills is the classic Speech Model. When I was in high school speech class, we spent one section on delivering an Informative Speech. The next section was on Persuasive Speaking, then Extemporaneous Speaking, then Inspiration Speaking, and finally Humorous or Entertaining Speaking. This approach to speech training allowed the teacher to organize teaching this valuable skill. The problem is, this method is built on a false assumption; that there are different reasons for speaking to a group; namely, to entertain, inform, or inspire.

The truth is, there is only ever one reason to speak to a group; that is to persuade them to act. Barring the most casual conversation, almost every time people talk it is because we want to influence someone. Even asking, “Hey, did you see the new Tom Hanks movie?” is not entirely benign. If you loved the movie, you try to persuade your friend that it is a great movie. Even the most innocent of remarks can be traced to an attempt to influence someone.

If you follow the old-school speech theory, you may consider an upcoming presentation to be solely informative. You then let yourself off the hook when it comes to being entertaining, inspirational, or persuasive. You will deliver logical, well-researched data, and the audience will leave knowing more than before, but not knowing what to do with what they learned. Most people who leave a meeting feeling that it was a waste of time, do so because they were given no clear direction.

For a presentation to do its job, it must be equal parts informative, inspirational, persuasive, and entertaining. As for the extemporaneous part of speaking, the ability to improvise is at the core of all good presentations. Solid preparation is vital, but the person has yet to be born who can foresee every question or objection, so regular practice in being thrown into the unknown is crucial.

There are many reasons why professionals rely solely on informative presentations. Some people are afraid of looking foolish in front of an audience (the most common fear concerning speaking), so they compensate by delivering lots of data. Others mistakenly believe that the information alone is compelling enough to inspire the audience to act. This is rarely successful. Others are just lazy; gathering and delivering facts is the easiest task when it comes to speaking. Furthermore, gathering and delivering facts requires little to no practice; making it easier still. The reasons above describe the three evils in business that I have written about frequently over the years; fear, ego, and complacency. If you have trouble connecting or motivating staff—fear, ego, or complacency are the likely culprits (on your part, the staff, or both).

The reason that information-only speeches are so easy to deliver, yet yield such poor results is simple brain function. Gathering and reciting information relies on the memory function of the speaker’s brain; a pretty effective tool, and easy to activate. However, while you are regurgitating statistics, the audience must input them. They must absorb the data, prioritize it to decide what to keep and what to ignore, compare it to previous facts, and then categorize it for storage. This is really hard. It takes enormous energy for the brain, and we can’t do it very well, or for very long. I think the greatest irony of speaking is that data is the easiest thing for the speaker to recite, but it is the hardest thing for the audience to hear. A good speech reaches the heart of the audience as well as the head; and it also tells them what to do with their hands after the speech is done.

So, what do we do now that we have kicked the stool out from under the most comfortable way to deliver a speech? The first step is to honestly assess the strengths and weaknesses of your presentation. Inspiration comes from a good story. Find one that fits your message. Humor comes from being honest and vulnerable. So, let your guard down. Speaking off the cuff takes really talking to your audience. So, lose the script now and then. And ultimately, being persuasive means knowing exactly what you want the audience to do, not just what you want them to know. You must give them actions to take, not just information to ponder.

Take all the old-school methods of speaking and put them in a blender. A great speech is not a single drink, it is a balanced cocktail.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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