“…an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea” is the description once given to the speeches of President Warren G. Harding. We do not want to have that effect on our listeners!
All of us are somewhat uncomfortable with the unknown. Whether facing a severe storm, an uncertain economy, or being lost on a journey, uneasiness accompanies unfamiliar situations. The same is true in listening to a presentation. As audience members, we like to know where the speaker is going and how he or she is getting there. Whatever the type of presentation, the speaker has a responsibility to provide a sense of direction.
The speaker must provide a sense of direction in the opening of the speech. In the introduction, we might tell what the main points are going to be or give the central idea of the talk. Audience members are reassured by hearing, “I plan to cover three main points and they are….” Another way of accomplishing the same goal is to tell the audience what you expect them to take away from the presentation. We might say, “By the end of the presentation you will have an understanding of…” The first two minutes of your presentation should include a clear skeleton of what you plan to cover.
A sense of direction is also important in telling a story, relating a case study, or giving an illustration. A story is simply a narrative about a connected series of events. In order for the audience member to pay careful attention, we must proceed through the narrative at a reasonable clip. Most narratives should take no more than two minutes. If the story is longer than two minutes, decide what material can be omitted. Include only what is necessary to make your point. One way to accomplish brevity and clarity is to stick to answering briefly the “W” questions: “When,” “Why,” What,” Who,” and “Where.” We can all recall times when a speaker took so long to tell a story that we lost interest before he or she finished and thus had no memory of the point made.
Another guideline in providing direction in a presentation is to avoid telling all you know. We should relate only the information that is essential for the audience to get the point. As experts on our topics, we sometimes give too much detail. All we need are essential facts that will help the audience member understand or be inspired to decide.
In using humor, remember to provide direction. Make sure the humor relates to the point. Do not use humor just to make people laugh or chuckle. Humor should reinforce our points and help the audience remember. A joke contains a set-up, body, and punch line. The joke does not need information beyond these three elements. For example, an elderly gentleman on a cruise was on deck when a storm came up. A woman leaning against the ship’s rail lost her balance and was thrown overboard. Immediately a figure plunged into the waves beside her and held her up until a lifeboat rescued them. To everyone’s astonishment the hero was the oldest man on the voyage. That evening there was a party given in his honor. “Speech, speech,” the other passengers shouted. The older gentleman rose slowly and looked around at the enthusiastic gathering. “There’s just one thing I’d like to know,” he said testily. “Who pushed me?” In this joke you have the three necessary ingredients and no extraneous information.
Also show a sense of direction near the end of the presentation. Because people remember best what we say last, we must be sure to include significant reminders here as we summarize. We want to leave the audience with a strong memory of the content of the speech.
When we say we are going to conclude, we must keep our word. Within a couple of minutes, we should be sitting down or we will show that we were misleading about ending the speech. At the end, summarize, include an appropriate move-to-action step or a memorable quotation, and sit down. Too many speakers end in something of a daze by mumbling, “Well, that’s all and I’ll be glad to answer any questions.” Such endings may remind us of T. S. Eliot’s phrase “not with a bang but a whimper.”
President Reagan exemplified a memorable and powerful ending to a speech when he honored the Challenger astronauts who lost their lives on January 28, 1986:
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
All audiences want the speaker to have a clear message specifically related to them. When we provide a sense of direction throughout the presentation, our audiences are more likely to receive the message clearly and succinctly.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, Kentucky. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at www.sboyd.com. He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or firstname.lastname@example.org.