Cultivate Characteristics of a Great Speaker
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Over the three or so years I presented CareerTrack seminars, I did a survey on the sly. I would ask participants at these events to write down what they thought were the three most important characteristics of a great speaker.
I did not give them any other coaching. I just asked that question and repeated it exactly the same way if they didn’t quite hear it right. Over the course of a year I did this informal survey many times and got a total of about 2500 responses to this question.
They would write down their answers on a slip of paper and hand them to me at the end of the seminar.
I compiled the results and this is how they came out. Although there were other answers, these three were at the top and ranked in this order. All other answers accounted for less than 20% of the total answers.
This survey demonstrated that great speakers must be seen as sincere, knowledgeable, and humorous.
The top item on the list was sincerity. People want a speaker they feel is “real.” Nothing turns people off more quickly than someone pretending to be someone they aren’t.
Everyone knows this intuitively. The question is how we create sincerity. What are the behavioral manifestations of sincerity? When people say, “That speaker really meant what he/she was saying,” what caused them to say that? I have found four elements to be the greatest contributors to what we all know and perceive as sincerity.
First, you must speak in a conversational tone. A tone that people will feel is how you normally talk as a person in your everyday life.
This is one of the reasons I think that Oprah is so successful. When you listen to her, you get the feeling she is really the person you hear and see on TV.
One of my favorite professional speakers, Lou Heckler, personifies this sincerity. If you don’t know who he is, you should. Call the National Speakers Association (contact information is in Appendix A) and get one of his tapes.
Another necessary ingredient to convey sincerity is to speak only about things you really believe in, and feel passionate about. Speakers who claim to “talk about anything” will fall flat on their faces in this area. There is no way anyone can truly feel passionate about everything (or maybe anything) they speak about.
Third, to be sincere in your presentation, you need a high degree of comfort about your in-depth knowledge of the material. Whatever your topic, you need to be an eager and interested student.
I have always had a passion for marketing. I read every book, attend every seminar, and buy every tape on the subject. Over the past 10 years, I have spent more than $100,000 in my study of marketing. When I speak on this topic, one of the things that contributes to my being perceived as sincere is my knowledge about the topic. (My passion also comes through loudly and clearly.)
Pick a topic area that you really enjoy and really study it. Read everything you can find about it. Know the field inside and out. Keep current with the latest trends and ideas. If you try to do all of this with a topic and find it to be drudgery, you haven’t chosen the right topic.
Someone talked to me not long ago about what they were going to do when they retire. I don’t understand retirement. If you love what you do, shouldn’t you want to do it forever? My Dad is now 87. He has written 17 books and he didn’t start until he was 65! He couldn’t have done that unless he loved to write. If I live to the same age, I am sure I will still be a serious student of marketing.
Finally, let people know something about who you are as a person. Let them know some of your secrets. Don’t tell them things that aren’t relevant to the topic, but feel free to let them in on things that would help them. People will connect with you as a real person if you do this. They, in turn, will be more likely to be open with you and that two-way communication can lead to lots of great benefits.
One way to get your audience to identify with you is to let them know of places where you stumbled before you learned a lesson you are about to offer or have just explained. Let them see your humanity.
The second characteristic that makes a great speaker, according to the audiences I surveyed, was content. People do not want to listen to a speaker who doesn’t deliver solid, useable information. How does one insure that this happens? Here are a few simple steps.
First, you must deliver information that is practical and easily applied. You should make it crystal clear how people can use this information. Give them all the tools. Nothing should be left to chance. At the end of your seminar or speech, people should not be left thinking: “OK, what do I do now?”
Second, you must clearly lay out the steps to follow to implement your practical advice. The best way to do this is in a handout that details everything they need to do. If you have ever bought a product that needs assembly, just think about how you have felt when the directions they included were poor. If you give poor directions to your audience on the how-to side, they will judge you as weak in the area of content.
Third, hang each of your major points on a hook that will enable your attendees to recall them quickly after they’ve left the seminar. In addition to your handout, you need to tell a story, or give an example that people will remember. Attendees need an “anchor” to store the concept. Stories and examples are the best and most memorable hooks. It is common for people to remember the stories long after they’ve forgotten the point. Of course, remembering the story leads to remembering the point!
Fourth, use a variety of teaching methods during the seminar. Everyone learns differently. Make sure you understand this when you are trying to give your great content retention value. Some people will need to see something, perhaps some kind of a prop or visual aid. Others will need to hear something to remember it. The story idea works well for these people. Still others will need to apply the concept to remember the content point. Create an exercise where they have to do something.
Mix all of these techniques throughout your seminar. Ideally, you provide something for each of these audiences for each major point in your presentation.
In my survey, the third most important characteristic of a good speaker was humor.
There are three key things you should do to make your speech or seminar more humorous.
The best humor is self-deprecating. Make yourself the butt of all the jokes you use. This will endear you to the audience. It shows you have a lot of confidence in yourself. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be very likely to show people that you screw up. Another big advantage to selfdeprecating humor is that you avoid the risk of offending someone in the audience by picking on some group or personality type.
Remember, only a Catholic can tell a joke that seems to make Catholics look foolish. Anyone else will appear to be insensitive and bigoted. (In fact, in our increasingly politically sensitive culture, even a Catholic might not get away with a Catholic joke any more. Just don’t risk it.)
Tell stories, not jokes. If you tell a joke and it doesn’t work, everyone knows it. No one laughs. And with a joke, there is no getting around the fact that it didn’t work. When you set up a joke, everyone knows what that setup looks like. They also know what people thought of the joke by the amount of laughter you get.
When you tell what you think to be a funny story and no one laughs, everyone will just think it was a story. Because a story lacks the joke set-up, there’s no built-in expectation that the story will be funny. If it is funny, people will laugh. If it isn’t, it will just seem like another story. Less harm done.
This leads to the last point I’ll make on humor. It’s only funny if they laugh. The definition of funny must come from the people receiving the message. I don’t care if you think a joke is funny. I don’t care if your family thinks it is funny. It is not funny if people don’t laugh.
If you tell a story to be funny and it doesn’t get a laugh, you need to drop that story in future seminars and speeches. Your audience is the only true judge of humor.
By the way, I’ve seen a lot of people try to take this advice only to mess it up by introducing the story with something like this: “I have a funny story that will illustrate what I mean.” Don’t do that. As I said, your audience will tell you if it’s funny. If you have to tell them in advance, it’s a good sign it isn’t.
Many professional comedians start with a collection of jokes. When they deliver them, people might laugh at five of them. They keep those five and add a bunch of new ones. People might laugh at six of the new ones, so the comedian will then keep those six that work. The comedian now has 11 jokes that work. Then they repeat the process.
I’m not saying you should become a comedian on stage. But I am saying that my survey indicates that if you want to be considered a great speaker, you have to be perceived as funny. This doesn’t mean that every story you tell has to be funny, but if you follow the steps above, at least more of them will. This in turn enhances your chances of being perceived as a great speaker, which helps you sell more products. And that, after all, is the point of all of this!