Speeches are not small talk

Many of my clients are hard-driving, Type A people. I like that about them. In fact, I think of myself as Type A–adjacent: I can drive myself as hard as the next person to meet a deadline, but I also know enough about myself to schedule in rest and even relaxation. (Okay, okay, I’m working on it.)

But when you’re speaking to people who don’t know you, you can’t just barrel onto the stage and start spewing words at the audience. Even if they’re good words, outlining great ideas. You have to introduce yourself.

I don’t mean, “Hi, my name is”—someone else will do that before you come onstage. I mean, you have to let your audience know who you are.

Many of my clients think of this as small talk. They eschew small talk in their daily lives, so why should they engage in it when giving a speech?

It’s not small talk in a speech

I finally came up with an analogy that resonated with one of my Type A folks. Perhaps it will resonate with you, too.

When you go to a networking event, you don’t just walk up to people and start giving them your elevator pitch. Do you?

Why not?

Because you understand that until someone knows/likes/trusts you, they’re not going to care about what you do.

It’s the same thing with speeches.

This is not about meaningless small talk. Whatever you say must relate to the body of the speech you’re about to give. It must add value: by giving people some insight into your personality, how you got to be doing what you’re doing; by expanding people’s notion of what’s possible—in a similar way that the idea you’ll be discussing will expand their notion of [whatever your big idea makes possible].

If your personality is best described, as one of my former clients’ was, as “waking up in the morning ready to bite the ass off a bear”—I’m not saying you have to suddenly become cute and cuddly. That’s not authentic, and people will know that. But use it. Make a little joke about how people think you’re fearsome and tell us about how you teamed with some of your people to create this innovation you’re here to talk about.

You don’t have to turn the audience into Dr. Phil. We don’t care about the loss of your teddy bear when you were three. But we do care about what brought you to the height from which you’re speaking to us. Show us your humanity; let us care about who you are and we’ll care much more about what you’ve done.

Type-A Communicators’ School: The value of a slow start

I’m a Type-A person: for me, there really is no such thing as a “slow start.” More than two decades into my career and I remain genuinely surprised when a client begins a conversation by asking “How are you?” rather than jumping right into the business at hand.

But in my writing, I’m all about the slow start. I would never send a client onstage to just open up a fire hose of information. Speakers need to build rapport with their audiences—and yes, even if it’s an audience of people who know you. Say you’re the CEO of a company, talking to your employees. You may not need much in the way of introduction, but you still need to let everyone get a feeling for this day, this particular occasion. You stop and smell the roses together, metaphorically; you share an experience.

On a phone call between two people, this might take the form of “small talk.” (One of these days I’ll remember that.) But small talk is far too small for a formal setting, like a speech. Single out “Bob in the third row” and you alienate the hundreds of other people you don’t mention. No, you need to create an experience everyone in the room can share.

Regular readers will know what’s coming next:For a slow start, tell a story: What's the Story e-book by Elaine Bennett

You tell a story.

Not just any story, of course. You want a story that subtly sets up the theme of your talk. Something that shows the audience who you are as a person, what’s important to you.

Slow Start: introducing your material

I started thinking about this the other day I wrote about the “tell them what you’ll tell them” terrible writing advice we all learned in grade school. In the business world, this most often takes the form of the “executive summary” section that opens every single research report or white paper. Academic papers require this format as well.

But people whose livelihoods depend on someone actually reading what they write—published authors who want to sell books—draw the reader in with their introductory material.

Case in point, the marvelous Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. You’ll be nine pages into their book (approximately—I read the e-book) before they introduce the principles that shape the rest of the book. And what’s in those nine pages?

Say it with me, friends: stories. Stories that hook the reader’s attention. Stories that start aligning our worldview with the Heath Brothers’ way of seeing things. Stories that make us want to learn more.

So when we get to the point where most people would begin their introduction, our listeners or readers are already sold. They’re not just sitting there politely; they’re eager to hear what we have to say.

You cannot overestimate the value of a good, well-told story. Type-A tribemates, we’d do well to remember that.


Storytelling Resource: Why do we tell stories? How do we tell them? Where do we find them? I talk about my storytelling techniques—and tell a few great stories—in my e-book What’s the Story? Available here.