Audiences come and go from one meeting or event to the next, hearing from one speaker after another after another. How many of those speakers do you suppose leave a lasting impact? The answer: not many.
There are six key components to delivering a speech and making it memorable. As you review speaker videos before retaining anyone for your meeting, or as you interview speakers, watch for these elements: opening with a flourish, challenging conventional wisdom, having a flair for the dramatic, freezing the moment, hitting the highs and the lows, and offering a powerful close. Let’s get more detailed.
1) Open with a flourish
Powerful openings relate to the time, situation, meeting place or some critical issue facing the group. They can come in the form of a challenge, a question, a humorous remark that relates directly to the business at hand, a historical or contemporary quote, a startling statistic or a profound observation, among other approaches.
If you open with a lame line like “Mr. Speaker,” “Madam Chairman” and so forth, you’re merely following what you’ve seen on TV. If you open with an unconvincing “good morning,” “how are you all doing today?,” “it’s great to be here” or something similarly inane, you’ve already lost audience members who see these openings at best, as fluff, and at worst, contrived.
A speaker must immediately and completely capture the attention of the entire audience, so a powerful opening requires homework. You need to know your audience and what it’s up against and what it’s heard from previous speakers (at the last meeting or from the CEO or their president).
Maybe an article in the group’s monthly publication had great impact. Maybe it’s an industry issue that’s commanding attention. Link the hot-button item to your opening and you’ll have the ingredients for a powerful opening.
2) Challenge conventional wisdom
Telling people what they already know in a new, intriguing way has benefits, but it doesn’t make a speech memorable speech. Think bigger. What industry rule or axiom are you ready to overturn? What has your industry always counted on that needs to be framed in a new way? What guiding principle, untouched for years, must give way to new or greater truth? Be the speaker who challenges conventional wisdom again and again in a most authoritative and insightful way, and you’ll be remembered long after your presentation.
3) Have a flair for the dramatic
The memorable speakers of the past half-century or so have all known instinctively how to use their voices, draw the audience in with their stories, and appeal to the expectations and emotions of their listeners. Think of Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and you’ll know what I mean.
They use the lectern and stage as their playing field. They use facial expressions, eye movement, hand movements and other gestures as their tools. They engage listeners and make it hard for them to turn away. They know attention spans are short, so they draw upon everything in their arsenal of interpersonal communication skills to convey energy and dynamism. Their voices stay lively and upbeat. They find a rhythm. Whether you like them or not, agree with them or not, you feel compelled to keep listening.
4) Freeze the moment
To make a point, a certain university professor stood up on his desk mid-lecture and poured a pitcher of water over his head, shocking the class and freezing the moment. You probably won’t do this onstage, and you don’t want to engage in behavior that seems contrived, but you do need to consider options for freezing the moment.
Stand on a table, make an exaggerated movement or raise your voice. All can effectively shock your audience and power home your point. Review the tapes or transcripts of your speeches and look for where you might be able to add a telling gesture or another “freezing” moment.
5) Hitting the highs and the lows
It’s said in the theater that if you make them laugh, you’ll run for six months. If you make them cry, you’ll run for a year. If you make them laugh and cry, your play will run forever.
In essence, a memorable speech takes the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Not wantonly, not arbitrarily, not haphazardly, but in a choreographed, synchronized fashion. They experience laughter, mirth, joy, and later sadness or sorrow.
Is this manipulation? Not if you use emotion to emphasize the points you are trying to make. Life is full of highs and lows, life is full of happiness and sorrow. It’s perfectly permissible and, indeed, highly desirable, to have your speech emulate life.
6) Offer a powerful closing
Regardless of how long your speech is, it’s human nature for the audience’s responsiveness and attentiveness to pick up as you start to close. Many speakers indicate the talk is ending by saying something like “in the remaining few minutes” or “let me close with a story on …”
How you signal the audience is up to you. What’s important is that you build toward a dynamic finish. Many speakers recite verse. Some sing. Others get theatrical. In all cases, a robust closing builds upon what you discussed in your talk and, ideally, completes a circle with your opening. The audience gets a sense of closure. You get remembered.
The closing-quote routine and the quote itself need to be short and on the mark. Don’t stumble. Don’t belabor earlier points. The audience will give you its last wave of attention if you don’t abuse the privilege by carrying on too long.
“Thank you” is not a powerful close. Expressions of gratitude can be offered after the presentation when the mic is dead and the applause dies down. The closing statement must be choreographed, delivered dramatically and in a somewhat higher-than-normal volume. It must expand throughout the entire room no matter how large that room may be.
Surely you’ve heard speakers you remember. Please share your experiences in the comment section below. Thanks.