Here's the thing about speeches: 99 percent of them are average. The PowerPoints look the same, the jokes fall flat, and the audience members follows along politely hoping to extract a nugget or two of wisdom they can use in their personal or professional lives. All of this just makes truly remarkable speakers, like Seth Godin and Arianna Huffington, even more impressive. This year, for HubSpot's Inbound conference, I set out to understand what truly separates the all-star presenters from the rookies.
These are the six tips I found to be most effective:
1. Get to know the tricolon.
What the heck is a tricolon? The beauty of the tricolon is that most people have no idea they are hearing one until they repeat it later on. A tricolon, rhetorically speaking, is a series of parallel words or phrases strung together for affect. Think you've never heard one? Think again. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as well as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," are both famous examples of the tricolon at work. Obama is a masterful user of the tricolon, as was Abraham Lincoln before him, but you don't have to be presidential to benefit from this rhetorical device. Become a triple threat by using the science of the human memory to your advantage. Doing so will help you with your speech structure and flow, and keep you focused on being concise and memorable.
2. Be frank about fillers.
Surely (like everyone) you have verbal tics you rely upon in your daily life, particularly when you are nervous or under pressure. But "sort ofs," "kind ofs," "likes," and "ums" distract the audience from your core messages, and become glaringly obvious in the spotlight, so investing the time to eliminate them early and often is imperative. Videotape yourself delivering the entire speech end to end and note where and when you use fillers, then practice again with a friend or colleague who can raise her hand to alert you when you start to fall back on them. Knowing when and why you resort to fillers can help you replace them, as can improving your breathing technique: slowing down even a few seconds goes a long way to prevent nervous gobbledygook.
3. Channel Will Ferrell.
It's possible to deliver a really good business speech without being funny, but the bar is significantly higher if you go this route. People want to be entertained, whether they are watching a movie or attending a play, and conferences are no exception. I asked two of my funniest colleagues (one of whom used to do stand-up) to come up with a list of possible jokes for my talk at Inbound, then tested out which ones fit most naturally in my talk. Great jokes are authentic, well-timed, and appropriate for the audience. The worst possible thing you can do is force jokes or overplay your hand, so practicing jokes to perfection is imperative. In addition to loosening up the crowd, jokes also help you relax and breathe while people laugh, so frontload your jokes to boost your confidence (and oxygen level) throughout the rest of your speech.
4. Be honest.
To deliver a truly great speech, you must be 100 times more poignant and entertaining than you initially imagine, so it's imperative that you have great critics at your side who aren't afraid to be candid with feedback. One of HubSpot's marketers gave me a D+ on my third run-through of my speech, and his concrete feedback allowed me to improve by leaps and bounds the next time around. Public speaking is one occasion in which you can never be too hard on yourself. Be open to feedback and eliminate tactics or techniques that simply aren't working for you. A crowd can feel if something is forced or poorly executed, so invest your time in messaging and media that work for your storytelling style.
5. Get personal.
Great narratives aren't characterized by glittery generalities or statistics. Instead, they are brought to life by people's personal experiences. Scott Harrison of charity:water is a master at bringing his story of starting as a nightclub promoter to his presentation style. He is so compelling that the audience can almost feel the money, luxury, and glamor of his nightclub life, and then he perfectly contrasts the glitz (and emptiness) of that life with the incredible mission and reality of charity:water. Instead of using guilt to pressure people into caring about the world water crisis, he uses a personal narrative combined with beautiful creative execution to bring people to the edge of their seats. People come to see you, so show them who you are.
6. Keep clicking.
You probably have one slide or idea that you tend to get stuck on, either because you're excited about it or because it's a harder concept to explain or grasp. To you, the speaker, this pause might feel like five seconds, but to the audience, it feels like an eternity. The average American's attention span can be measured in 140 characters, not minutes, so behave accordingly: Get to the point of each slide and move on. To ensure this happens, be diligent about editing your slides. No one wants to squint to see your footnote or think too hard about the data you're presenting: Keep it simple, keep it interesting, and keep it moving.
Malcolm Gladwell estimates that the world's best athletes spend 10,000 hours perfecting their craft. This summer, I felt some of their pain going through the excruciating and seemingly endless process of speech preparation for my Inbound keynote address. The exercise gave me a keen appreciation for presenters who make it look and sound so effortless (and sometimes get a standing ovation). I'll be adopting these lessons I learned the next time I have to stand and deliver.