My Personal Checklist for Public Speaking How to Prepare to Engage Your Audience
This week I will be giving a half-hour keynote speech at a graduation for a leadership program for healthcare executives. As leaders, we speak in front of groups of people. Until 2009, I only spoke to our teams and leaders in my organization. Since then, I’ve started speaking outside the organization to different groups and companies. The first time I was invited to speak about leadership, it was a friend’s house. It did not go very well. Since then, I have developed my speaking skills, and have been on an on-going journey to becoming a better communicator. I want to share with you some of my “secrets” from my speaking checklist.
When I prepare to speak, it helps me to have a checklist to review. I don’t follow it to the letter each time, but I do go through it to see what I want to apply. There are variations if I am giving a training session with notes for example versus a keynote address. I hope my personal checklist for public speaking is helpful to you. Feel free to adapt it in part or whole as you prepare for your own speaking engagements.
Preparing Your Talk
- Determine your topic. Know your audience and give them an inspiring perspective or solution. This is vital. I remember one time going to a medical conference. The speaker was smart and the topic impressive, but it was not applicable to my field. I tuned the speaker out. But I did learn a lesson about speaking that day. Spend time getting to know who you are speaking to, then ask yourself one question. “What do I think these people are struggling with?” The more you can get inside their heads and accurately answer this question, the more your audience will be engaged. For my keynote this week I am talking to a group of professionals in an unfamiliar setting—a graduation. They are the middle and upper management of a prominent teaching hospital. If I do this right, I will gain special privilege among their thoughts that day. What will they be thinking about that day? What are their dreams for the future most likely to be? Their fears? Their hopes?
- Create a powerful beginning. I practice and hone the beginning more than anything else in my talk. I want it to be so polished, so authentic, so real, and so captivating that I have them spellbound for the rest of the talk, wanting more. Of course, sometimes I can figure out how to do that, other times I can’t. But that is my goal. In the first minute, you are also establishing your credibility. Unless you are a famous author, or personality people already know, you have to pose your beginning remarks to command your audience’s attention. For this graduation for example, these people don’t know me. I am planning to start with an emotional story that illustrates my point. One quick point about getting emotional on stage. What you never want to do is to make yourself emotional. You will lose credibility. What you want to do instead is to strategically place stories you are truly emotional about in your speech. There are many other ways I connect in the first few minutes. The key is to own the stage from the beginning and powerfully engage the audience. Here is how:
- Share something personal.
- Tell a joke or something funny. The funniest stories are the ones that happened to you.
- Reveal your story. How you started, where you came from. Don’t take forever here. Our story is usually more interesting to us. Hit key points.
- Describe why you are passionate about this topic.
- Craft a dynamic middle.
- BE AUTHENTIC. Share personal stories that show the real you—no hiding. This is huge when done well. Sometimes it is over done though when people make their whole talk sound like a therapy session.
- One line starters:
- One thing I have learned as of late… When you share something you have recently learned with people, it shows that you are a growing leader.
- Let me share with you something I have been working on… This shows that you are a thought leader.
- I have never shared this with anyone… This draws people in and connects them to you.
- This session I want to talk to you from the heart… Another way to solicit your audience’s attention and affection.
- Let me go back to my personal journey… That’s what people love most in speaking or writing. Show people how principles are applicable in a real human: you.
- Here is what I want to see accomplished today… This gives people a sense of purpose for your talk, and focus.
- Pose your argument into a powerful question, or start your talk with a question in which they can relate. Have you ever thought what would happen if you lost everything you owned? (pause) I want to talk to you today about what really matters.
- What is the point you are making?
- Write a thesis for your talk. What is your main point?
- Then, reduce your talk to one sticky statement that you repeat throughout talk.
- What do you want your audience to do after your speech is over? How will you trigger them to action?
- Review your main point at the end.
- Have a jaw dropping moment. I recently saw a friend of mine give a talk. He brought an old book on stage and tore five pages out of it, one by one, to illustrate how every page in our lives matter. It was shocking that he was tearing pages from a book. (And I was grateful it was not the book I had written that he was tearing pages from.)
- Get people involved. This is powerful. You can ask people to raise their hands, repeat after you, or even have a few people join you on stage to contribute. For some talks you cannot do any of that. My talk this week is supposed to be a keynote at a graduation, so I cannot do solicit responses from the audience that way, But anytime I can, I like to plan some means to involve people. It makes an impact!
- Do something physically memorable. I remember one time I was talking about health, and was in shape at the time, so I got on the floor and did 25 push-ups. Even after a few years, people still remind me of that talk because of that act.
- Give them a fresh perspective.
- Conclude with a powerful ending. End with an emotional story. Practice the ending just as much as you practice the beginning. Plan the last sentence you will say. End on a high note. Leave the stage after a dramatic moment. Many give a tear jerking story at the end, then they do a teaching for one minute after. Avoid that, as it takes away from your memorable ending.
Selecting Your Attire
You want the audience to look forward to hearing you just by looking at you. Does your appearance give the vibe you’re after? I am not saying to dress to intimidate, quite the opposite. But do dress in such a way that people have an inherent trust in you.
Deciding What to Bring
Here are a few standard items I bring:
- Music stand. I don’t like standing behind a podium. I feel it blocks my connection with the audience.
- Extension cord
- Printer (especially if I am speaking at a conference)
Before the Talk
Here are a few things to make sure you know in advance:
- What time to get there—at least an hour before you speak.
- Connect with the audience before the talk. Mingle around to meet them.
These are a couple of principles I have learned from experience.
- Your talk begins the minute you walk toward the stage. Remember when you talk, it is a stage performance. Everything about you, from your clothes, to your smile, to your confidence, to your mannerisms communicates something. All of it has to be planned and intentional.
- I used to walk up on the stage and fumble with my papers, and set everything up. Do that before hand. Intentionally plan the first 60 seconds after they announce your name and you begin walking up to the stage. I play it out in my head several times. I practice in front of the mirror. I practice projecting my voice.
Finally, here are some principles you’ll want to incorporate into your delivery.
- REMEMBER YOUR PASSION. People will look for that. Passion for the topic, and passion for the people to see what you see.
- If you are uninspired, they will be uninspired.
- Have an excited ATTITUDE.
- Be engaged.
- Don’t repeat words over and over. I often say right or you know too often.
Thank you for letting me share my personal checklist with you. If you’d like to read more about public speaking, check out this article I previously wrote entitled: Revolutionize Your Public Speaking.
For Further Reading: