How to Deliver a Speech that Gets a Standing Ovation
Rebecca MacDonald, a Canadian immigrant born in the former Yugoslavia who started with nothing and is now executive chair of Just Energy, a $2.3 billion (market cap) energy firm, delivered such a vivid and passionate speech at the Womens' Presidents Organization annual conference on Thursday afternoon in Vancouver, that the entire audience of 650 women business owners spontaneously leapt out of seats to clap, howl and cheer her on.
'I laughed, I cried, I almost had to leave the room when she spoke about her relationship with her mother,' said Nancy Lyons, president of Clockwork in Minneapolis, raving about the range of emotions MacDonald inspired just moments after the remarks.
So what can you do to make a speech that spurs your audience to similar applause and admiration?
Get personal. Rebecca MacDonald told her life story—and didn't spare the details. First, MacDonald credited her upbringing in a socialist system as fundamental to her mindset that 'women can do anything men can do'. Then she shared that her husband's initial skepticism about her launching a Canadian natural gas resale business was a catalyst that spurred her on. 'If he didn't say, ‘Are you insane?' I wouldn't be standing here,' MacDonald said, smiling. When she landed her first customer and sought gas supply, but was thrown out of the Toronto Petroleum Club because she was a woman, MacDonald added: 'I didn't want to face my husband. I didn't want him to say, ‘I told you so'.' Once her business started to take off, MacDonald's husband came to her to suggest, 'Darlink, let's merge,' recalled MacDonald, with an accent. But MacDonald would only do so if he'd work for her. In 1992, after he helped expand her company into a new market, MacDonald's husband was killed in a car crash. 'That changed me forever,' MacDonald confided.
Be honest. When asked about her upbringing, MacDonald admitted she had a very strict and dominant mother. 'I ran away from my mother,' she said. 'I probably wouldn't have survived her if I hadn't moved to Canada,' and then revealed that her sister committed suicide. 'My mother prepared me for life.'
Tell jokes. Although she touched on such intimate and serious subjects, MacDonald managed to keep the overall tone of her talk light and humorous. 'Sometimes we get bitchy and catty,' she admitted, describing one drawback of women. She also spoke of a time her son told a friend visiting their home: 'My mom's actually nice and friendly—she just has cash flow problems.' Early on, she mentioned that after her husband died she devoted her life to her work and two children. But before she wrapped up her speech last week MacDonald was sure to announce to anymen attending, 'I'm single and I'm available.'
Talk to your audience. Whether it was the serendipitous drink that turned into her first supplier relationship, becoming the first woman to take a company public in Canada—or the bout of rheumatoid arthritis that nearly kept her bed-ridden while doing so—throughout her speech, MacDonald related her business and life experiences to the particular crowd she was speaking before: entrepreneurial women.
Act as if each attendee is the only one. She invited the conference-goers to call her any time. She offered up her phone number (it's on the Just Energy website) and availability (after hours). 'I always answer the phone for a woman,' MacDonald said.
Forget notes, visuals or a PowerPoint presentation. MacDonald held our attention for more than an hour—just by being herself—and without relying on ancillary or distracting materials.
End on a high note. MacDonald wouldn't get off the podium until she could respond to a question with an uplifting final answer—even if it meant risking missing her flight home to Toronto, where she was due at 5 a.m. the following morning to watch the royal wedding over champagne and biscuits with girlfriends.
Here are MacDonald's pearls of wisdom you would have written down if you were there:
- "Nobody got to a big business without starting small."
- "Always pay your supplier even if you have no money to pay yourself."
- "I made a lot of mistakes, but I never made the same mistake twice."
- "Surround yourself with smart people."
- "I love hiring the best and paying them more than the market."
- "I never ask others to do something I'm not prepared to do myself."
- "If Rebecca MacDonald can do it, everyone can do it."
- "I thought $1 million was a lot, $10 million was a lot, $100 million was a lot, $1 billion was a lot. Now I want to shoot for $10 billion."
Now let me see if I can get my hands on the videotape of MacDonald's address.
ALLISON FASS | Staff Writer | Deputy Editor, Inc.com
Allison Fass is deputy editor of Inc.com. A longtime business journalist at Forbes and The New York Times, she has also held roles in venture capital and innovation at Hearst Interactive Media and digital strategy at a start-up consultancy.