Value to the Audience

As I write this our Toastmaster contest is approaching its District finals. Many speakers have been eliminated. Those remaining have polished their words, practiced, edited their speech and practiced some more. Eliminated a section, added an anecdote and practiced again.

They have received suggestions, ideas and critiques. They have been told they have too much of this and not enough of that. Or not enough of this and too much of that. Or both.

But throughout all this one thing remains as constant as the North Star:

Your speech has to have value to the audience.

It needs the humor, the emotion and, of course, the stories. But they are the clothing that makes your valuable idea interesting and acceptable to the listener. Your valuable idea is the soul beneath. It is the bedrock on which you are building.

You can tweak and edit and adjust all you want but the constancy, the shape, the stability of your valuable idea should not be diminished by your changes. Your changes build and illuminate; they do not chip away at your idea because you have found a line that is funnier or an anecdote that brings a bigger hit of emotion.

The criteria for change are:

– it makes my premise deeper or adds insight to it

– it it makes my premise clearer and brighter for the audience.

You present your idea with emotional honesty (the audience will sense it if you don’t). This emotional honesty is what carries your message. The audience has probably heard this idea before – few speech ideas are truly unique.

What takes this idea – your idea – from ho-hum to enlightening is your honest insight into your weaknesses and your growth. This is the value you give to each person in the audience so they can take your experience and use it in their own life.

Share your ideas with honesty and the change you bring to others – change you may never know about – is the real reward.


Your Important Message

What if you have an important message – one that you strongly want to share with other people? It might be political or religious or just plain motivational or inspirational.

You might want others to join the struggle for…to believe that…to help make this change to….

You might have had an experience that so moved and changed you that you want others to be changed by it also.

It’s so important to you that you feel you must tell others. You need to stand up and tell them. You can call it a speech or a sermon, a lecture, an address, a talk but you have to stand up and tell it. It’s just that important.

The question is – how do you start putting it together?

There are three basic rules:

  • Don’t preach
  • Tell stories
  • Be very clear about benefits

Don’t preach

Resist the temptation to show them the error of their ways. The wrongs of the past may be very clear to you. People have sinned, political parties have been corrupt. Grievances abound. Let it go.  If you do mention it, tie it to the way of the future – a future you can show could be much better. Be specific about the ways it can be better if…

However much you believe that your way of thinking and acting is vital and it will improve people’s lives, resist the temptation to tell them what they OUGHT to do. Nobody reacts well to being told what they ought to believe, how they ought to  live their life, or what change they MUST make. It sets up a resistance and makes your job of changing their behaviour twice as hard.

Instead, show how the change has benefitted yourself or others. Show how the change can improve the future for them. Show, don’t tell. Which leads to:

Tell Stories

Your stories and the examples that illustrate your points are what will carry your message home to a deeper level. A smattering of facts and a whole lot of stories are the structure that will draw people in to listen. Your stories can be personal or about others whose experiences have been relevant.

Your stories are about real people who have physically and emotionally “been there”. The emotion is the most important part. It could be raw or warm or anywhere in between. But sharing the feeling is far more important than sharing the fact.

Be very clear about benefits

Many important messages ask that people change in some way or follow a course of action that is unusual for them. People find change or doing the unusual to be difficult. For this reason you spend time researching the benefits that will follow. If you can, brainstorm the benefits with others because different points of view will enrich your list of benefits.

Once you know the benefits, find the story that you can tell about them. In this way the points you make are not mere logical reasons, they are benefits. As you speak, the list of benefits grows.

You wrap up with a call to action. Make it resoundingly clear how your audience can achieve these benefits. Make their first step very clear.

Then step out of the way so your message can do its work.





First, I want to welcome someone new to the blog – a reader from the 130th country. That’s right. This blog is read in 130 countries. It’s a milestone for me and it makes me very happy.

My 130th country is Angola. I treated myself to a little geography lesson and I now know that Angola is a republic, formerly a Portuguese colony, on the west coast of Africa. Most Angolans are Christian and speak Portuguese. The capital is the port of Luanda and the country has much mineral wealth, largely untapped. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Now – matching actions to words. We’ve all seen new speakers doing something like saying “I was so sad and depressed” but saying it with a smile on their face. Clearly the smile and the words don’t match. To be taken seriously as a speaker your actions must match your words.

But it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Let’s say you are still nervous when you stand up to speak and the tension shows in your shoulders. But you’re speaking about your vacation and your words are “I was relaxing on the warm sand, with palm trees shading…”  Understand that there is a dissonance for your audience and do whatever you can – breathing, relaxation exercises – to reduce it.

Or, maybe you are giving a technical presentation and you want to appear knowledgeable, competent, in control. You’d better be 100% certain of your visual aids so your computer or projector, or screen don’t let you down. Nothing says incompetent better than a memory stick that doesn’t work with the projector, or a screen that won’t roll smoothly into position. No point blaming Fred, who was supposed to set it all up for you – it’s you who gets to wear the responsibility.

Your actions start before you walk in front of the group. Stand up a few moments ahead of time. Stand tall, loosen your shoulders, take some deep breaths. When you move forward, move with as much grace and confidence as you can muster. Still standing straight, proud chest,  give your audience a smile that says you can’t wait to get started.

Whether your presentation is technical, persuasive, inspirational or a story your audience will remember it better if what they see matches what they hear. You’ve got the words they will hear organized to your satisfaction. Your rehearsal or practice time is where organize what they will see.

Rehearsal time is not only for drumming the words into your brain, it is for making sure your whole body, especially your face, is totally in sync with the words that will be coming out of your mouth. It’s not about body language and gestures per se, it’s about total consistency. It’s about bonding two of the five senses in order to have your message fully received on more than one level. It’s about making your message stick.

Can you add more than two senses? Maybe, depending on the message. As speakers we rely on ‘what you hear is what you get’. Add in ‘what you see is what you get’ and you raise your chances of being truly heard.

You would like your contest speech to be better than all the others. Best speech wins! Try these ideas to make yours a winning speech:

  1. Read the back of the judging form to see what the judges are looking for. Then make sure you’ve got all those points covered.
  2. Make sure you know what your theme is. Write it in one sentence. Then develop it consistently throughout.
  3. Include at least one point of humour. More than one is good.  Seeing an audience laugh reassures the judges that this speech is  coning across well
  4. Give the emotions a workout. Whether it’s fear, sadness or love make the audience feel your words
  5. Include stories. Of course. Goes without saying.
  6. You may need facts and data to support your theme. These play a supporting role, they don’t take over the spotlight.
  7. A strong speech changes the thinking of the audience or adds to it in some way. Again, in one sentence, write down the change in thinking or addition to thinking you are hoping to achieve. Then go through your speech to see if there is a better way to achieve this.
  8. Go through the speech marking all the verbs. Then spice them up; make them more action-oriented so you write in movement for yourself.
  9. Strengthen your opening and your closing. Make sure the closing reflects the opening.

Good luck in the contest! May this be the best speech in the contest and the basis for better and better speeches in your future.

The Take Away

No, this isn’t about food – it’s about what your audience will take away from your speech.

The purpose of a speech is to give the audience something. It could be:

  • information
  • pleasure
  • motivation
  • inspiration

As you are planning your speech ask yourself, “What do I want my audience to take away from this?”

Remember that our memories are frail things. With the best of intentions we only remember a little bit of what we hear. If you start of with the mind-set “I’m going to teach them all about my topic,” you’ll probably overload them. They will only remember a few things so select the important facets carefully and teach those few points well.

Which means adding stories. You set off with an overall purpose. You select a few major points. You add a story for each.

Better still, you select the stories and then fit in a point for each. This works for all types of speeches. Good stories are the backbone of your speeches and the carriers of meaning.

It’s a funny thing about audiences – they sense your intention. If you intend to teach them all about a topic they seem to give up trying to catch on to everything. You need to focus your message on their behalf.

In effect you’re saying “This is the important stuff. I’ve chosen it for you and I’m going to give it clear dimensions by illustrating it with stories.”

The audience appreciates that you have done the work of selecting the important stuff. It means that one task has been done for them. You have sorted out the best. They don’t have to decide what to take away from your speech; you’ve done that work for them.

Selecting the really important stuff from the just ordinary important stuff is not necessarily easy but it’s part of the process of speech preparation. Having clarity of purpose  makes not only your preparation clearer and more direct, it makes the whole presentation clearer to your audience.  It avoids the puzzled frowns and people muttering “What was that about?”

Understanding your purpose and knowing what you want your listeners to take away is the heart of effective communication.

The Bait and the Hook

Your first task as a speaker is to cut through the scattered thoughts and (possibly) mental laziness of your listeners. Your job is to gather them up from wherever they are mentally and get them listening to your thoughts and ideas. Think of it as like fishing. You need bait and a hook.


The speaker’s bait is the title. This week I heard a speech about the importance of memories. I’ve heard similar speeches before and I could have tuned out right away. But the speaker did not use the obvious, easy title “Memories”; he titled his speech “My Personal PVR”. We all tuned in to find out what this speech could possibly be about. It was great bait – all the fishes bit.

Your title should carry impact and suggest benefits. Its job is to fascinate, reveal just a little and hide a lot. It whets the appetite and makes people listen for more.

Try for a title that  will intrigue, maybe explain,  be relevant to topic, be short, catchy, and perhaps have a double meaning

A few ideas:

  •  Word play or rhyming. “Up the Wrong Tree”, “The Cat in the Hat”
  • Alliteration. “From Chump to Champ”
  • One, two, punch it up.  “Money, morals and mending socks”.
  • Use or bend a common phrase “Nightmare before Christmas”, “Last Tango in Halifax”
  • Adapt a song or movie title

A colourful, perhaps current title, that still refers to your subject matter, is irresistible bait. Spend time on it – don’t bore people before you even start

Leave the selection of a title to the end of your preparation,, when you know what you’re doing with the speech. Otherwise your great title could turn out to be irrelevant. And irrelevant is not good bait.


OPEN STRONG. This is the hook to connect to audience The purpose of the opening is to establish a connection with the audience. It is also the hook, offering intriguing possibilities. It is the shop  window, suggesting delights ahead. It breaks the mental ice, It must cut through mental distractions and draws your audience towards you and your theme.

It also frames your speech – it starts to narrow your topic down to specifics. If you are speaking about memories, you show the specific angle you are going to take, and if you spice it up you pull the audience closer. By lightly comparing a PVR with the ability to call on many memories the speaker has told his audience that he is going to have fun with the topic, not load us down with information about memories.

Ideas for openings

  • Put a question in the minds of the audience, one that will resonate with this group of people. “Can YOU imagine…(how I felt when….”). “How would you feel if…? Notice that these questions lead to an emotional response. They are not closed ended questions that can be answered yes or no, or with a lump of data.
  • A story, a quote, or a question/story hook up. “Have you ever…? I’ll never forget the first time I…it was like this…”
  • One of the best openings I’ve ever heard was a simple, slow “Her name was Mary.” Then the speaker used a long pause while we all wondered who Mary was, why she was important, why we should care. He followed up with a simple story, leading into his theme.

Your opening frames your speech. It helps you with the organization and selection of sub-topics and illustrations. It focuses the audience exactly as you want them focused

Your opening has to pull a lot of freight so put a lot of care into crafting it.

An Unpopular Opinion

Have you ever tried to persuade an audience of something that they are almost shocked to hear about. Popular opinion within this group says one thing and you are trying to persuade them of the opposite. Let’s say you are an environmentalist talking about a proposed oil pipeline to a group of business people. Or the reverse, a business person addressing the same topic to a group of environmentalists.

How do you go about this? It’s one thing trying to give them more information about something they already believe, or trying to advance their thinking a little further along they way it is already going. But trying to reverse, to completely change their thinking is much harder.

You need to bring your persuasive skill to the podium. Not your logical skills and not your passion. Don’t set off with a mind set of “I’m right. You people are wrong!”

It’s unlikely that you will completely change minds with one speech. At best you might soften their position and cause them to look into the topic more carefully.

The basic speech structure is similar to any informational or persuasive speech. Select a small number (three is good) of the strongest points. Find good research to back them up and tell stories to drive the points home and give them a human dimension.

A few don’ts:

  • Don’t try to make lots of points
  • Don’t omit the stories
  • Don’t point out to the audience how wrong they are, and definitely not how stupid or blind they are for thinking that way
  • Don’t use a tone that is even remotely defensive or hostile
  • Don’t expect that your speech will immediately convert them to your way of thinking.

To persuade people to cross the great divide, even part way, requires that you respect your audience’s thoughts as you hope they will respect yours. This will reflect in your voice, that your tone is warm and friendly and betrays no hint of ‘I know better than you do’.

Your thinking will reflect in your word choice too. Avoid any emotionally loaded words, or words that betray signs of prejudiced thought. Even simple words like ‘big’ can be loaded, as in ‘big oil companies’ or ‘big drug companies’.

Make sure you research is thorough and from respected sources. “One university professor says” will not cut much ice.

Address the view that opposes yours with respect. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Give thought to your appearance. If you’re on the environmental side dress rather more formally than you might usually dress if you’re talking to a business group. If you’re on the business side, loosen up a bit. You don’t have to copy the other side, just don’t flaunt your different-ness.

Make sure your closing offers opportunities for later questioning or discussion – this shows you to be open and not as closed-minded as you think they are.

Much of this comes down to your mind set. You are passionate about this topic or you wouldn’t be taking on this task. However, passion won’t serve you well here.; it can easily be mistaken for an overly assertive or even aggressive stance.

Once you have structured your major points work on the stories that soften them and bring them into emotional focus. Work on presenting a friendly, acceptable point of view.

You are persuading, not fighting a battle.

December Sunset

A lingering red

sunset, the sky reluctant

to yield to darkness.

Memories to Memorable

I’ve been working on a presentation about ways to access memories in a way that make them a strong base for a memorable inspirational speech.

To me there are three useful ways.

1. Fall off a cliff

This is a major negative event that shoved you right off your contented little path. Think sudden dramatic diagnosis, think sudden major loss of a loved one, think a fall into addiction.

Your story shows you bottoming out, then starting the climb back. It might cover your adaptations, strategies that helped, people who helped or gave workable advice, creative ways around possible pitfalls, and most important, the mistakes you made along the way. In the end you climb back to a higher plane than you were on to start with. You have grown.

2. “Mostest” words

OK, I made up the word ‘mostest’. It says what I mean. Any superlative word that you can apply to a life event:

the biggest, the first, the last, the greatest, the best, the worst. And especially the word ‘most’ or the suffix ‘est’ linked to an emotion:

the most scared, the saddest, the most angry, the happiest I ever felt.

These are triggers to generate memories of moments where something dramatic happened in your life that can form the basis of a theme or a story.

3 The 5-second video clip

Think back to people of events in your life and you’ll usually come up with a 5-second video clip. Think of your Grade 12 home room teacher and you’ll get a brief video clip that may be typical or atypical, but it’s just a video clip – maybe she is walking into the room, over to the desk and sitting down. No story, just a mental video clip.

Follow this up with three questions: ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ and ‘What’s next?’ As you ask the ‘why’ question, think like a little kid who can’t stop asking “Why?” Dig deep, especially if you start to feel emotion underlying something that, on the surface, is quite ordinary.

The ‘how?’ question will help you look at it from a different perspective. ‘What’s next?’ will help you find a climax to make your story dynamic.

If you believe that, really, nothing came next, imagine what might have come next. Yes, you say, but it didn’t. I had to make that bit up. Are you sure you made it up? Is your memory really that accurate after 20, 30, 50 years?

Try these three ways of digging around in your memory bank. Dig deep down to bedrock to discover the emotional power of the story. Then you will have a unique and memorable speech to present.

It’s All in the Details

We’re told that in our speech stories we should use specific detail. Yes, indeed. But how much and what what kind of detail?

How much? Just enough to create a clear picture in the mind of the listener.

Recently I read a speech written by someone who had been on a skiing holiday. I’ll just give you the beginning of it. Trust me, you won’t want more.

“We skied through glistening, powder-soft snow, gliding down through flakes that kissed our faces. The heavens above were a clear arc stretching blue to infinity. We were blessed with crisp, cool air. The scenery was majestic, with mountain peaks stretching gloriously skyward.”

I read through paragraphs of this stuff. Way, way too much. A couple of short sentences would have got the idea across. A little bit of purple prose goes a very long way.

On the other hand “We went skiing, drove up in the car, stayed in the youth hostel and I lost my best pair of mitts.” doesn’t cut it either.

The audience doesn’t want to wallow in adjectives but, on the other hand, they would like to get the flavour of the ski trip. So tell it to a friend. Say it the way you would tell a friend when you got home. If you’re still in doubt, actually tell a friend and record your words. Audiences are your friend too.

What kind of detail? The details that will deepen your story and bring it to life. Suppose you want to describe a kitchen. If you are in North America you wouldn’t need to blether on about an ordinary stove, fridge and sink. But to enhance your story get clear about exactly what kind of kitchen this is. A rich, no-expense-spared kitchen? You’d go to the internet and find out what the rich housewife is buying these days. Maybe it’s a gas range with a built-in barbecue, a two-door fridge with an ice maker.

Suppose you want this kitchen to be a dump. There might be a stack of old newspapers in the corner, torn lino, a burned out light bulb.

You want the place homey? There’s a red knitted pot holder, the cat’s dish full of food, a mat with “Home Sweet Home” by the sink.

You don’t need to mention the big, obvious pieces, just a few revealing details.

To go back to the skiing story. Saying “Mountains stretched gloriously skywards'” is like saying “The refrigerator kept food cold effectively through the use of electricity”. We know that.

Detail is most useful when it is selected and presented in a way that adds to the audience’s understanding.