A risky speaking gambit? Here’s the essential component for success

Presenting to a large audience invariably has potential perils. Like a tightrope walker, though, you must keep your eyes—and your physical presence—fully focused. Here’s the key element.


Do you commit to the bit?

A client had an unusual idea for an upcoming keynote speech in front of several thousand people.

In the middle of his talk, he wanted to show the audience a favorite four-minute music video. The video was on message and delivered his point in an interesting way, but the clip seemed too long and could diminish the energy in the room.

There’s also a rule of thumb that the power of the punch line must be commensurate with the length of the setup. In other words, the longer the lead-in, the better the punch line has to be. His punch line would be good, certainly, but was it that good?

For those reasons, I suggested that he show an edited version of the clip instead. The audience would get the point, and doing so would mitigate the risks of going too long.

He respectfully declined the advice. His demeanor when he did so inspired confidence that he would take his unconventional idea—one that went against many of the “rules” of public speaking—and make it work.

The essential element

It boils down to one word: commitment.

Even the slightest nervousness or insecurity about an unorthodox idea usually leaks out to the audience—often in a subtle but still detectable way—and, at best, undercuts the power of the moment. (At worst, it risks a backfire from which recovery is nearly impossible.) When delivered with true belief in the material and in full sincerity, audiences will go along for the ride.

That’s exactly what happened. Not only did his idea work, but audience members buzzed about it for months. It was effective, in part, because it was unpredictable. Had he gone the safer route of a short video clip just so audience members could “get the idea,” it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

Commitment alone isn’t a guarantee of success, of course. The underlying idea must be sound, on message and well executed, but commitment is essential.

Jerry Seinfeld on lack of commitment

In an interview on David Steinberg’s program, “Inside Comedy,” Jerry Seinfeld served up a great anecdote about an audience sniffing out his lack of commitment to a joke.

“I was doing a joke the other night, and as I was coming up to the joke—this is a joke that always works—and I was coming up to it, I go, ‘Ya know, I don’t even really like this joke. I don’t know why I do it; I don’t think it’s very clever. It always gets a laugh, and I know it’s going to get a laugh tonight.’ And I’m just about to say it; this is what I’m thinking. But I’m such a pro and I know this bit so well, and I’m in middle of my act, everything’s flowing, there’s not going to be a problem here. But in the back of my mind, I’m just ruminating. I’m thinking this joke is not a very good joke, and you know, whatever, I’m not going to take it out if it works. And it connects to the next joke. So I come up to the joke and I do the joke—and nothing. And I know that I do it the same way I always do it. But something—a light, a flicker, an eyelash—they knew it.”

Those examples both make the same point, in converse ways. If you’re contemplating using a risky device or risky material, there are only two options: Commit fully, or take it out. There are no in-betweens.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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