It’s easy enough to offer a list of don’ts for public speakers—I’ve posted my own peeves—but here I’m giving hints on how to improve your game with a positive focus.
1. Start crisply, use your time well, and end just a bit early. Good time management is an essential skill of the public speaker. Far too many don’t use the time well, especially running over at the end. Rehearse to find out how long you’ll go. Never, ever run long. Also, start well; don’t waffle at the beginning.
2. Find a positive message and a hero, even if you’re criticizing aspects of your field. It’s the duty of every public speaker to find something right with the world, your view of it, or at least some hero who has exemplified the positive attributes you’re extolling. Otherwise, save your doom and gloom for the bar. The public speech needs positive visions of the way the world could be, even if you don’t believe it is that way right now.
3. Have a clear attitude or viewpoint. A good speech is an assertion, not a report. It’s not a time to be fair to all competing points of view; it’s a time to put yours forward. If you talk about other positions, represent them fairly, but don’t duck your responsibility to have thought through the current points of contention in your area of expertise and to have taken a position on them. Besides, attitude is fun.
4. Find one main point for your speech, and make sure everything supports that point. If it doesn’t, throw it out. A speech is an overwhelming and confusing informational exercise for the audience. Make it as easy as possible by keeping on point.
5. Don’t save your best point or story for last. Rather, begin with it. I’ve undertaken the exercise many times with my clients: We’ll take the big finishing story that is their pride and joy, and we’ll challenge ourselves to start with it. We ask, what comes next? How could we possibly top this? Surprisingly, we often come up with something that greatly improves the speech.
6. Don’t be afraid to risk your relationship with your audience by delivering difficult truths. Most speakers want their audiences to love them-naturally enough. You’re risking a good deal by standing in front of an audience; at least, it often feels that way. True change and authenticity require moving your audience with the truth about what’s going on-not just what you think the audience wants to hear. The latter is pandering, and it wastes everyone’s time.
7. Have an ideal audience member in mind. Just as you should stick to one main point-with supporting stories, information, facts, anecdotes and so on-you should also prepare your speech with one perfect attendee in mind. That way, your speech will focus on what it should: helping a real person think in a new way about something that matters. The only reason to give a speech is to change the world, and you change the world one listener at a time.
8. Don’t keep secrets from the audience. Ever since Steve Jobs and Oprah made fetishes—and successes—out of saving a surprise for the end, speakers have tried to imitate them. Everyone gets a car! Well, it has been done, and by two masters, so don’t end up making a lesser attempt. Instead, give the important surprises away as early as possible, and figure out what should happen next.
9. Use only one set of numbers. Too many speakers offer 10 rules of thumb for a given topic, and by the way, under Rule No. 2, there are six ways to improve your handicap, or whatever it is. The audience mind can only handle one set of numbers, lists or rules per talk. As soon as you launch into the first subset, you’ll begin to lose your listeners. Don’t do it.
10. Make your audience interaction real. I’ll forgive a certain amount of “By raise of hands, how many of you have two hands?” Maybe one-or none. Why don’t I like it? Because it’s treating your audience like children, reducing them to either/or voting ciphers. Instead, do the more rewarding work of asking open-ended questions and involving the audience in creating paths forward from your speech. If you’re going to change the world, you have to begin by trusting the people in front of you enough to make them part of the process.
A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.