Posted 12th November 2008.
One of the most frequent pieces of advice I read and hear for fledgling speakers is “Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em”.
In other words: signpost, present, summarise.
The problem is that this leads to deathly dull presentations. By the time you're “telling 'em what you told 'em” half of your audience has either walked out or fallen asleep.
Don't get me wrong – the signpost-present-summarise approach has it's place. But it's primarily for training-type events where you are presenting complex information which needs to be remembered. Hence the need for repetition.
As a speaker/presenter, when you are called upon to “do your stuff” you can have one of three main objectives:
- To make a speech – essentially to get one main point across to an audience
- To entertain
- To educate and train
Most speaking roles at conferences or for corporate events tend to be from 45 minutes to 90 minutes timewise. That's just not enough time for education or training. So as a speaker, your primary function will either be to get a singe point across – a message the audience wants or needs to hear – or it will be to entertain. Sometimes both.
If you're speaking after dinner, the chances are that the emphasis will be on entertainment (especially in the UK, where corporate dinners usually involve the imbibing of significant quantities of alcohol). That doesn't mean you can't get a more business related point across. But it does mean that you must do it in an entertaining manner. Your point must be illustrated with interested anecdotes or stories – rather than dry facts & figures.
So in reality, the signpost-present-summarise formula that works for training just isn't suitable for most speaking engagements.
Instead you need to treat your talk much more like a book or film. It needs to have a compelling narrative, a strong opening, and a strong close.
Personally, I use one of three types of “opener”:
- A question to the audience – to get them engaged
- A story or anecdote related to the theme of the talk (for example, a story from my early days selling consulting services – usually illustrating a common example of “what not to do”)
- Something shocking – perhaps a carefully thought-out insult to the group or their profession, or a prediction of a dire future unless they change
On the subject of shock as an opener, one of the best talks I ever heard was from Kjell A Nordström – co-author of “Funky Business”. Kjell (a 6'6″ tall, thin Scandinavian economist with a shaved head) stood centre stage dressed all in black and waited in silence for 10 seconds after being introduced – then opened with the immortal line: “Shopping and Fucking”.
It certainly woke up an audience of tired executives who'd spent the day planning and strategising. And we certainly remembered what he had to say about creativity.