The 3 essential tasks of a good public speaker

How does a speaker know she’s written a speech she can be happy with? Here are three basics she must complete before she’s ready to join her evening crowd at the local watering hole.

The work of a public speaker is never done. You can never complete your expertise—a true knowledge of this subject is the work of a lifetime. You can never finish perfecting your presentation—even Martin Luther King, Jr. in “I Have a Dream” made some slips of the tongue in a speech considered one of the best of the last century. It’s too early to talk about the best in this century, but whatever it is, you can be sure it will be imperfect.

You can never connect perfectly with your audience. Attention is partial, and even if you’re perfectly present, only some percentage of your audience will be. Communication is always less than complete-noise always corrupts the signal, and your work is never done.

But if you do well in three speech areas, you can take the rest of the day off, content in the knowledge that you did your job. What are these three tasks?

First, structure. It’s not enough to dive into your topic and share your expertise. It’s also your responsibility to give your audience a way to think about what you’re telling them. This is known as a taxonomy—a structure. It doesn’t have to be complicated: “Five Ways to Think about the Regenerative Possibilities of Bees’ Knees”; “The Three Kinds of Labrador Retrievers and Why All of Them Are Annoying”; “The Six Secrets to Internet Domination”—and so on.

It’s not enough to provide your audience with knowledge. You must also give them a bit of knowledge about the knowledge—the rules of the game—or you’re not doing your job.

It’s essential to help the audience retain what you’re telling them by giving them a structure to remember your expertise.

Here’s an odd rule: you must give your audience one taxonomy—and only one. As soon as you dive into a second: “The Four Ways in which the First of Five Methods for Increasing Lifespan Can be Applied”—a subset of your taxonomy—your audience loses focus. Our brains simply can’t handle more than one knowledge structure at a time. We deeply resent, and tune out, speakers who try to foist more than one on us.

Second, emotion. Different audiences want different things. The larger the audience, the more it wants to laugh, and the smaller the audience, the more it wants to cry—but all audiences want to do both. If you don’t get emotional with them, they won’t remember anything. That’s how we remember: We attach emotions to facts and incidents. Without the emotion, we don’t attach.

It’s perfectly possible to attend a business meeting devoid of emotion and not remember anything about it a week later. That’s not a senior moment, that’s a human moment.

Third, depth. Speeches are not the place for much depth, but you should give your audience some sense of what it means to go deep in some part of your expertise, even if it is only to say, “That’s what X looks like, but I only have time to discuss a couple of aspects of it.” There, you simply hint at—adumbrate—the rest of your knowledge. That’s OK, but even better is to tell a story which sketches or briefly suggests your deeper expertise. That helps the audience evaluate and understand what it has learned. It needs to know what the depth of your field looks like, as well as its taxonomy.

Three tasks: They won’t make a perfect speech, but they will make a satisfactory one, and you can then head to the bar with the knowledge that you’ve done your day’s work.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.

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