Prepared remarks — prepare for anything

When you deliver prepared remarks, do you read them over before you hit the podium?

Longtime readers of this blog know that’s a trick question: Of course you read them beforehand. In fact, you rehearse them beforehand, too.

I recently heard a speaker correct himself in mid-speech. His prepared remarks had him talking about some sort of training program started under his watch. The text had him saying, “To date, we’ve trained X number of people.” But he actually said:

“To date, we’ve trained—well, I haven’t trained anyone; the program has trained…”

It got a laugh from the crowd, but I winced. He clearly hadn’t read through the speech in advance.

Make sure they’re your prepared remarks

Now it wasn’t the worst speech-reading gaffe I’ve ever heard. That prize would have to go to “Uncle Joe” Biden. He may have rehabilitated his reputation somewhat after eight years as Vice President. But to me he’ll always be the clueless pol who, in one of his presidential runs, delivered a stirring speech about his ancestors, their challenges and their joys. Problem was, they weren’t his ancestors. He lifted the speech from a British politician.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the press to out him—even in those dark days before Google.

He said it was unintentional. Really?

Keep your ears open

Prepared remarks represent the speechwriter’s best guess about what you should say at the event. But stuff happens. You have to be aware of your environment, of who’s spoken before you and what they’ve said.

I once gave my client a speech that mentioned “rabbit ears” TV antennae as a reference that will outlive its usefulness when the Baby Boomers pass on. Turns out an earlier speaker had used the same metaphor. Staffers alerted my client before he went on and he was able to adjust on the fly, making a joke of it. Awkward situation averted.

The speaker I saw at the women’s business conference this week did not have his wits about him. Or perhaps he hadn’t been paying attention to the introduction, because he bounded to the podium and said,

“Thanks, Ann, for that terrific introduction.”

What’s wrong with that? No, it’s not that he got her name wrong (I actually don’t remember her name, only that he used it). It’s that the “terrific introduction” consisted of—and I quote:

“Our next speaker is the only man here, so let’s give him an enthusiastic welcome.”

Is that what you’d call a “terrific introduction”?

I’d call it about the bare minimum anyone could say. Now, obviously he can’t go out there and say, “Thanks for doing the bare minimum to introduce me.”

But he could have said, “Thanks, Ann.”—surely no one needs a speechwriter to tell them how to say that—and then just skip to the second sentence of his prepared remarks. Which was probably something about how honored he was to be there.

Not honored enough to pay attention to what was going on. But honored enough to have someone write up some remarks for him. Too bad he didn’t read through them beforehand.

Do I really need rehearsal? Really? Frequent Questions

Q: Do I really need rehearsal?

A: Do you really need to get your point across?

I get it. Many clients hate “wasting their time” in rehearsal—standing in an empty room for an hour, saying the things they will later say in a full room.

Do you need rehearsal?Here’s my tough-love response: If you don’t want to rehearse, don’t accept the gig. But if you have accepted the gig, if you’re going to stand up in front of a roomful of people and ask for their attention, you owe it to them—and to your reputation—to be prepared.

Think about it: How would you feel if one of your direct reports made an unrehearsed presentation to the Board of Directors? Would you think well of him? “Gee, what a great guy. And clearly so busy with his real work to bother with preparation. Impressive.”

I think not.

I expect you’d be embarrassed that one of your people showed up unprepared. You might even feel that he didn’t respect you or value the Board’s time. (And you’d be right.) Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be that guy when comp time rolls around.

You hate having to sit through an unprepared speaker’s performance. That—not rehearsal—is the true waste of your time.

So why would you even think about inflicting that pain on someone else?

Yes, you need rehearsal

Chris Voss, the former FBI hostage negotiator, might seem an unlikely person to offer advice to speakers. But in his book Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it, he introduces one of the best arguments for rehearsal I’ve ever read: the “7-38-55” rule.

“UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian created the 7-38-55 rule. That is, only 7 percent of a message is based on the words while 38 percent comes from the tone of voice and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face.”

Translation: Audiences have many ways to spot a bullsh*tter. So don’t be one.

Oliver Sacks told a story in one of his books—maybe The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, though I don’t have access to check it right now—of some neurology patients watching a televised speech by then-president Ronald Reagan. The sound was turned off, so they could not hear what the president was talking about. But although it was a serious subject, they were laughing their heads off. They registered his insincerity just by looking at him.

A later Republican president remains barely comprehensible when you listen to him speak, but completely indecipherable—and more than a little nutty—when you read the transcripts. In his case, his facial expressions and demeanor work in his advantage. Audiences somehow see him as more substantive than readers do.

People think speeches of speeches as a bunch of words. And words are important. But (and it pains me to write this), words may not be the most important element of a speech. Tone of voice, the expressions on your face, your comfort onstage—these convey your confidence in your message.

So do you need rehearsal? Only if you want people to believe you and your message.

And if you don’t want people to believe you, then—again—why did you accept the gig to begin with?


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