The basketball arena is rented for the all-employee meeting. The speechwriter, producer and lighting crew are sweating the last-minute details.
The principal, however, can’t seem to focus on the big event. Not to worry. I’ve done these things before.
How to light a fire under your bigwig? Show her the venue, says Justina Chen, a consultant and former executive communicator at Microsoft.
“Sometimes a principal needs to see the big stage in order to understand what’s truly at stake,” says Chen, author of “The Art of Inspiration: Lead Your Best Story.”
Preparation is key not only for important speeches to ballparks full of associates, but also for smaller audiences. Here are some tips for executives and the communicators who work with them:
If it’s a big arena, there usually will be a technical rehearsal. Even if none is scheduled, a principal should check out the venue, Chen says. A company meeting with 20,000 means facing an audience the size of a crowd at a professional basketball game.
That’s when the executive is likely to gulp and say: “Oh, it is tomorrow. It is going to be in front of a couple thousand people. I need to rehearse,” she says.
The technical rehearsal covers where the speakers will show up, where the green room is, where the makeup room is and where presenters take the stage. If it’s a huge stage, the speaker must work with the producer to figure out how to occupy the space.
Likewise, the executive should go through the speech itself, says Jonathan Rick of The Jonathan Rick Group, who speaks and offers webinars on the topic. In the movie “The Social Network,” director David Fincher required the actors to rehearse the opening scene 99 times, Rick adds.
“These are professional actors and a director,” he says. “If they’re going to be forced to do that 99 times, what does that say about your own presentation?”
2. Research internal audiences—not just external.
Most executives are mindful of the need to research an external audience, but it’s important to prepare for internal audiences as well, says Bill Corbett Jr. of Corbett Public Relations. Top leaders may be insulated, mistakenly thinking the organization is running smoothly when it is not. The communication team and HR team must be candid so the leader isn’t blindsided by an issue.
“A misinformed CEO who delivers a failed speech is not great job security for those who prepared him or her-or did not prepare them,” Corbett says.
Your audience will quickly sniff out a speaker who talks over their heads, adds Jeff Shesol, a former White House writer and founding partner of West Wing Writers. He and Corbett recommend asking these questions for both internal and external audiences:
- Who’s in the audience?
- Why are they attending?
- Why do they want to hear from you?
- What is important to them—life, business and career?
- What challenges are they facing?
- What’s the audience’s stake in the issue?
- What information do they want or require to be successful, grow or achieve a goal?
- What can you offer to this group, and what will make the program memorable?
Also find out the general age of the audience, their interests and their years in the industry. Get the titles and roles of those in attendance. “A speech to managing partners at CPA firms is going to be very different from a presentation to insurance sales professionals,” Corbett says.
3. Determine your goals.
A speech shouldn’t just be an information dump. What is the journey you wish to take your audience on? Chen won’t write a speech until she can get a principal to answer these questions:
- What do you want them to feel?
- What do you want the audience to think?
- What do you want them to do?
Chen recently worked with an executive for a speech by an executive to a business unit facing difficult odds.
“We want the audience to believe that this leader knows how hard it’s going to be,” Chen says. “At the same time emotionally, we them to feel completely inspired. So there’s this credibility: ‘I get it. Business is tough. At the same time, I believe in you, and I know we’re going to succeed.'”
What did they want the employees to do? Take the information and discuss it with their peers.
Audiences want to know, “What’s in it for me?” Offer something that matters to them.
4. Work the room.
This won’t work in all settings, but it often helps. On the day of a speech, arrive early and introduce yourself to audience members, says attorney James Goodnow, who frequently addresses large crowds and regularly appears on CNN and on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Talk to your employees about why they are at the event and what they hope to gain from it. This will not only help you get to know your audience better, but it will warm you up before you take the stage.
“To take your speech to an even higher level, integrate a few of the anecdotes you learned from working the room into your speech,” Goodnow says.
5. Be a showman.
PowerPoint should be like the screen behind the anchor in a newscast, providing visuals or video that amplify the points of the speech. It should not be a place where a speaker dumps his or her notes, says Rick.
Is your text big enough? Even if you use words sparingly (and you should), text that looked cool on your computer screen might not be legible at the back of a huge ballroom or arena, Rick says. Will the room be dark or light? This could affect the readability of the text.
Citing former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ famous product launches, Rick recommends “treating the presentation as art, not just a meeting. People are going to remember you more for your showmanship than your content.” You’re not going to be able to educate people if you don’t grab them.
Use movie scenes, clips, and images to make your topic relevant and offer a take that no one else could, and you will stand out, says management consultant Michael Provitera.
“Find the best video on YouTube that acts like a guest speaker during your presentation,” Provitera says. “Pick a movie scene that represents your presentation well. Show the relevance up front, and then address the content afterward—and the way the clip or video relates to the presentation.”
6. Remember broader audiences.
These days, most large live events are broadcast out to remote audiences. In some cases, such as all-employee broadcasts, the majority of the audience might in fact be in distant cities or even overseas. It’s therefore imperative for the speaker to engage these remote people in addition to the local audience.
Speakers should acknowledge remote audiences, looking not only around the room but at the camera. A speaker could invite comments through their webcast platform’s text features or via email. Speakers should also refer to remote locations, and when looking for employee call-outs or successes to feature, cast your net beyond corporate HQ.
Nowadays, everything internal is external, and be mindful that that inside joke or callous remark you make may find its way online. All it takes is somebody with a smartphone. Just ask the folks at Carrier Corp., whose decision to shutter air conditioner plants in Indiana and move production to Mexico became a hot campaign issue after someone video-recorded an executive’s announcement to dismayed workers.
“You are also almost always speaking to a larger audience,” Shesol says. “Your speeches might be streamed, they might be recorded on YouTube and later broadcast, they might be carried live by the news or covered while they’re happening by a bunch of reporters.”
7. Provide context.
Use relevant references to offer context to your references, says Daniel Gregory of Susan Davis International. When speaking to a branch office or a factory in another state, describe distances using local landmarks, or tell how an issue affected a nearby community. Paint a mental picture about the number of kids harmed by a problem by using the student body of the local high school for comparison.
If you’re too rushed to research, you can say something like, “One in every five people you ride the Metro with every morning will be affected by this.”
To expand to reach a YouTube audience, Gregory suggests using broader references. Say, “One thousand people in this community do not have clean tap water. If the same percentage of people in New York City faced this problem, the equivalent of every person in Manhattan would be affected.”
This article is in partnership with Kollective.