How to write a great speech: RELEVANCE

Emperors in the Coliseum would signal the fate of a gladiator with the lifting of a thumb.  And not much has changed.  Because this is the age of mobile technology.  And there is nothing worse than looking up after a minute of your pivotal speech or presentation to see the key decision-maker in the room looking down, Blackberry in-hand, and a scrolling thumb providing its own telling feedback on the impact of your big moment.

In the age of Twitter, I’m often asked to help clients avoid this fate in 140 characters.  Fortunately, I can often cut that to nine:

RELEVANCE.

Whether a client is speaking at a wedding, a business conference or in Parliament, the same principle applies.  Because a speech, any speech, needs to create an impact if people are going to enjoy and remember it.  And there is no better way to make that impact than by making it one hundred percent relevant to your audience.

Relevance comes in different shapes and sizes.  From a strategic perspective it means focusing on benefits rather than features.  This is a fundamental rule of any form of communication, but when it comes to speeches, and particularly speeches on a technical subject, there is a tendency to push common-sense to one side and tell people an awful lot about what you know, at the expense of what they really want and need to hear.

As a result, many business speeches and presentations begin with a hugely detailed section ‘about us’ which incorporates ‘who we are’, ‘what we do’, and ‘what our latest great product or service is all about’.

This may be all true.  And it may also be incredibly interesting to you.  But an audience is likely to be stifling the yawns and reaching for its emails before you have even got going.

Relevance means approaching things back-to-front.  It means engaging their interest from the start; demonstrating that it is really worth giving you their complete and undivided attention before you even start to explain the technical aspect of what you do.

And so if you are explaining to an audience why your new product is going to transform the way they work, please don’t start by telling them how long you’ve been working on it, what its ingredients are, or where your offices are based.  Think about how they will use it, the problems it will solve, and the frustrations it will alleviate.

Similarly, if you are Best Man at a wedding, the worst possible way to start your speech is by talking about yourself for too long, and by regaling the guests with long and detailed stories that demonstrate why you and the Groom are such good mates.  By all means introduce yourself, but then imagine you are in the audience before you start writing.  This isn’t about you, it’s about them and him.  And you are simply a conduit for sharing relevant, interesting and amusing information about him.

In short, if a speech isn’t relevant, it is highly likely to fail.  Audiences have short attention spans.  The twitching of a thumb may no longer spell the end of a life, but it can provide a clear indication that your speech or presentation is facing an early death.

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