I’ll never forget my first speech. It was 1964 in Cooperstown, NY, and I was a 29-year-old project manager at GE who’d been asked to present a new plastics venture to a group of 300 high-level corporate types. Weeks beforehand, I meticulously wrote out every word I was going to say, and practiced reading it out loud what felt like a thousand times. Regardless, my rank inexperience in front of a crowd, combined with my self-consciousness about my lifelong stammer, made me a complete wreck, and without getting specific, let’s just say I spent a lot of time “feeling ill” the day of the big event, which ended up being, as you might imagine, an exercise in endurance for both me and the audience. I stunk.
Today, giving a speech or a presentation is one of the most fun things I do in life. I love it, and having been out in front of more than one million people in audiences around the world in the past fifteen years, I’d like to think I’ve come a long way toward getting it right. At the same time, I’ve come to believe a person’s skill in public speaking – be it in front of a crowd of 1,000 strangers or a meeting with five close associates – is more essential than ever. Making your case in writing is increasingly a thing of the past. You are what you say; your communication approach is your fingerprint, both professional and personal. I believe this so deeply, in fact, that we now dedicate much of a semester to effective presentations at the Jack Welch Management Institute.
Now, hundreds of books and articles, if not more, have been written about the “art of public speaking,” so I know I’m not inventing gravity here. But from a very personal perspective, allow me to share my three rules of success.
Rule #1: Keep your message simple. Not simplistic, mind you. Not dumbed down, either. But simple, as in not over-complicated and completely graspable. This imperative is only possible, incidentally, when you know what you want to say and have a strong conviction about it. Listen, people get up on stage all the time and wander all around their message, trying not to offend anyone, or trying to soften its impact to make it palpable to all viewpoints in the room. Sometimes they try to bring the audience through the circuitous thinking they themselves had to go through to get to their final point. And still other times, they bury their audience in data, hoping the data will somehow translate itself, or at least make them look more sophisticated. In all cases, the result is almost invariably befuddlement.
The best speeches and presentations do not make the audience chase the message. They have a strong central point, expressed in bold, clear, unambiguous language, with strong supporting arguments that analyze and make sense of the data. Sure, at the end, given your clarity, a few people may disagree with your conclusion. But that’s a lot better than leaving most people confused.
Rule #2: Tell your audience something they don’t know. I’m always amazed when a manager comes into an executive or board presentation and basically recites materials that all of us have already received by email. Likewise, I’ve seen too many speeches to count where the person on the stage repeats a well-worn message and the stories to go with it, or simply reads from his or her slides.
Every time you speak before a crowd or a group, part of your job is to surprise and delight; you have to give people nuggets of information that are new and interesting, and make them smarter. Now, this doesn’t happen without preparation. It doesn’t happen without you really asking yourself beforehand, “What can I say that will give the audience some kind of context about how all this stuff matters to the company and the industry and their lives?”
Giving a speech is not about relating information or a point of view so that people go, “Hmm,” and move along. It’s about igniting exciting conversations that go on long after you’re done talking.
Rule #3: Let your passion rip. I don’t get it, but there’s a popular strand of thinking that speakers gain credibility in front of audiences by appearing pensive and logical, almost contained to the point of flatness, like a 3-star general giving testimony before Congress. Obviously, I’m not completely opposed to those affects. No one takes a whirling dervish seriously. But I’d make the case that you gain more than you lose when you unleash your inner fire in front of an audience, and show them how much you believe and care about the topic at hand.
Today when I speak, it is always my most passionate lines that get the most engagement. For instance, one of my most urgent messages to managers is that they have to get into the skin of their employees; they need to understand their minds and hearts so they can excite them about, and give purpose to, the work. I feel this point so strongly, that once I blurted out, “If you’re a bore to the people who work for you, go slap yourself!” It was a heat-of-the-moment kind of comment, coming straight from my heart and gut, and I know that’s why it was the message people walked away with.
Frankly, a version of the same line could be said about public speaking as well. If you’re a bore to your audience, go slap yourself! Because it’s entirely preventable. Don’t overcomplicate your message, enlarge the brains of your listeners with context and insight, and show ‘em how you really feel.
Next thing you know, public speaking will be as fun for you as it is for the people listening, with one big added bonus – a boost to your career trajectory.