Having been on the public speaking circuit for the past 25 years, and coaching speakers for the past decade, I've had the opportunity to work with and watch thousands of presentations. Two things have become clear to me over that time: Speaking has to come across as effortless and authentic, and that it requires diligent preparation.
Anything less creates a feeling of incredible discomfort for both the speaker and the audience, and ultimately casts a shadow over even the best message and content.
I was reminded of all this while watching a speech that Sarah Palin gave at a Wisconsin fund-raiser on April 1, as a lead up to the Wisconsin primary.
It was an extraordinary example of what not to do when speaking in front of a group.
Before I go any further, let me be crystal clear that this is not meant to be a political commentary of any sort. Instead, my intent is very simple: to point out the things that make speaking coaches and media trainers cringe. As with so many bad habits, each of these errors can be easily fixed with a bit of patience and practice. I'll also show you just how easy they are to fix in less than 24 hours.
So here's what Sarah Palin did wrong and what she should have done right:
The First 90 Seconds
The first 90 seconds of a speech are crucial. This is your chance to connect with the audience. Flub this and you've got an uphill (often impossible) battle trying to connect for the rest of your presentation.
Palin did a reasonable attempt as she talked about the Green Bay Packers, her father's Wisconsin high school football carer, and a local football star.
What she didn't do was to practice her opening 90 seconds beforehand.
How do I know? If the first 90 seconds are not absolutely flawless and you find yourself fumbling for words, you simply haven't practiced enough.
You can go unplugged at virtually any point within a presentation (there is one more I'll talk about later where you shouldn't) but never in those first 90 seconds.
In addition, when an audience responds during those first 90 seconds, you need to acknowledge and encourage their response.
The first round of applause Palin gets is at about 3:40, roughly one minute into her speech.
But she jumps in to cut off the applause at 3:44.
Audiences, especially large audiences, respond like a single Pavlovian organism. If you acknowledge and encourage a particular behavior, it gets reinforced and repeated.
Cutting off a response signals that you have an agenda and don't want to be interrupted.
Which is exactly what Palin gets for the next 18 minutes during which she makes the single biggest mistake any speaker can make: She diligently reads her speech nearly word for word from a script.
Let Me Tell You A Story
"Wait," you're saying, "it's a politician and they always have a script!"
While I'm all for tossing the script, the problem here isn't the script, it's reading it as though she'd never seen it before, hadn't written it, and had nothing to add to it.
Audiences respond to authenticity. And the best way to kill your authentic voice is to read a prepared script word for word without your own intonation, passion, and tempo.
That only happens when you haven't practiced the speech before hand or haven't annotated it to include your own words and ideas.
By the way, when I say practiced, I do not mean reading the script but actually vocalizing it in order to identify where the pauses, emphasis, and emotion needs to be.
Palin simply falls flat for the entire speech. And the proof lies in the fact an audience of loyal paying Republican attendees, who should have been cheering her on, just sat in total silence except for one, somewhat cordial round of applause towards the end of the speech when Palin makes mention of Benghazi.
Amazingly, she didn't even get a response to her line "Common sense is an endangered species in Washington." The line just got lost. When an audience thinks you're reading off of a script, they simply do not feel the need to respond. The speech becomes about you and not about them.
And without response, even the best speakers get flustered and start to retreat. It's a vicious cycle which feeds on itself. You can see it at about 8 minutes and 30 seconds when Palin is struggling to get a reaction. By 9.28 it's clear that the speech has become the equivalent of a reading assignment and Palin is spending more time looking at her script than at the audience.
It's not until the very end that Palin returns to her authentic voice in the second-most important 90 seconds of a speech, the close. At 21:26 she connects again by looking directly at the audience and never looking at the script again.
Making It Right
What should Palin have done, and what can you do to avoid the same errors? It's ridiculously simple:
- Get the first 90 seconds of a speech down cold.
- Connect as quickly as possible without small talk and chatter.
- Play to you strengths, in Palin's case by being conversational and extemporaneous.
If you haven't read the speech before hand (it happens!) then take pauses and engage the audience. This gives you time to compose yourself and develop a personal connection with the audience.
Pause to allow for the audience to respond, and cue them to do so. Often a simple pause or a nudge from the podium is a great cue for the audience to jump in.
Always set a tempo and a tone that integrates your audience into the presentation, making it at least as much about them as it is about you.
So, how difficult is it to turn a horrible presentation into a great one?
Palin demonstrated that herself the very next day. After clearly having reviewed what went wrong on the prior day, on her own and likely with her staff, Palin used some of the exact same material at a Town Hall Rally in Racine Wisconsin. The difference is like night and day.
In a video of her second speech you can see the remarkable change in the audience's reaction and in her comfort level as she does all of the right things, including connecting instantly, engaging the audience by having members of the military stand up to be acknowledged, and then spurring the audience to respond and become part of the speech with a rousing audience chorus of "TRUMP" to a series of questions she poses.
It doesn't matter where you fall on the political spectrum, or what your opinion is of Palin, the lessons to be learned from these two videos are simple and powerful: Be prepared, connect with and engage your audience, be authentic by playing to your personal strengths, and set a tempo that allows you and your audience to both be part of the message.