Millions have been touched in the past two weeks by the last lecture delivered to 400 students and colleagues by Dr. Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon University professor, whose pancreatic cancer gives him only months to live. Newspapers and the internet have reported on the impact of this one speech upon millions of lives. In referencing the power of a public speech, this story has been a great source for my own presentations to classes and corporate America. Just the sheer numbers who have been affected by the speech give powerful evidence to the importance of public speaking.
Another important element is that this is a current story. I sometimes use the testimony of General Electric CEO Jack Welch. He said in his autobiography that his ability to tell GE success stories in his speeches was a key to spreading the good news about the company to its employees and to stockholders in his early years. Since the book was written several years ago, a testimonial about something that happened last week carries greater significance to audiences. I find that audiences listen more carefully when evidence is recent—happening today or yesterday or even last week.
Up-to-date information is instantly relevant to an audience, and as speakers we must work hard to keep such information in our content. Let me suggest some ways to do that.
First, research newspapers and the internet on a daily basis for information that fits your topic. I scan The Cincinnati Enquirer, which is our local newspaper, and the Wall Street Journal for information that relates to my communication topics. In addition, I peruse the New York Times Book Review Magazine for reviews of newly published books that might supply information I can use in a speech.
Second, maintain contact with researchers in your field who can keep you abreast of breaking news. Remind them occasionally of your desire to keep up with new developments or case studies. This might be a colleague in your R & D department or someone who maintains the company library or website. Your professional organizations can also provide sources for keeping up with your area of expertise.
Third, regularly evaluate your speeches to eliminate information that is outdated and can be replaced. If you have been using an example for two years, replacement time may have arrived. Sports stories have a short shelf life; for example, perhaps someone last week broke the record that was set in 2005 and made your World Series story outdated. Maybe someone yesterday performed an outstanding feat that should replace another story you now use.
Finally, keep track of information that may change because of current events. What is happening in Thailand now may be drastically different from events during the tsunami aftermath a few years ago. Follow stories or studies that you use in your speeches to make any additions needed due to recent events. An illustration using Fidel Castro as a powerful leader, for example, should be followed by a comment about his continuing health challenges so your audience will know you are aware of his present situation.
Some speech content, such as the date of an event or study, may seem insignificant. The recency effect of a day or a week or a month, however, can impact your audience to listen more carefully and even to accept the position you are advocating.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations whose people want to speak and listen more effectively to increase professional and personal success. He can be reached at 800.727.6520, or visit www.sboyd.com for free articles and resources to improve your communication skills.