At nearly every single workshop, someone asks me, “how do I get to the point?” or, “how can I be concise while speaking in public?”
If you’re speaking to an audience with a limited attention span or in a crisis situation where your audience is dealing with numerous challenges simultaneously, you need to be brief and to the point. Unfortunately, the ones who know the most about an issue are usually the ones who say too much about it.
Start with the end in mind: If someone leaving your speech or presentation ran into a colleague in the elevator who asked, “what was Allison’s speech about?” or, “what does Allison want us to do?” – what would the answer be? That is your main message; keep it in your mind like a mantra to ensure that everything you say in the speech supports that main message.
Ask the “3 Questions” before every speech:
- Who is my audience? In this case, how much do they already know about your subject and why is it important/urgent/relevant to them?
- What is my goal? Your main message above should address this.
- Why me? Why is this subject important/urgent/relevant to you?
Write an outline of the speech: What information do you need in order to support (but not distract from) the main message? Organize the information into broad themes or arguments.
Write out the speech word-for-word: Get everything out of your head and onto paper or computer. Write your main message at the top of your speech or bullet points, so you see it again and again. It will remind you to stay focused.
(This is crucial) Analyze and trim the speech: Michelangelo once said about his sculptures that he could look at a block of marble and see the statue within, then he trimmed away what was holding it back. Our speeches are blocks of marble with a powerful message within: look critically at your speech and decide “what doesn’t belong?” Physically start crossing things out that hold your speech back so that your main message and arguments are clearly visible.
Read, practice, rest (repeat): The key here is iteration. You can’t write everything down the day of the speech and expect it to be exactly what you want to say (though yes, sometimes it can happen). The process of going over a speech draft multiple times over a period of days helps you look at it with fresh eyes each time, further cutting out what doesn’t belong. This is a muscle you build over time.
What about speaking concisely in a meeting, without time to prepare remarks in advance? Take a moment to jot down your one main point before you speak and think of one anecdote or reason supporting your point. Then, speak up with that one point and one anecdote, resisting the urge to restate it another way. Pause and breathe when you are done and wait for a response to your intervention.
We are always dealing with an audience’s limited attention span; our challenge is to get to the essence of what we want to say and then say it confidently, clearly, and authentically.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said,
“Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”