Thursday, December 22, 2016

You are not throwing away your shot: Don't load up that big speech

"I am not throwing away my...shot!" is now famous thanks to the soundtrack of Hamilton, but it's also a kind of theme song for a certain group of infrequent public speakers. You might be among them if you're an infrequent speaker viewing an upcoming speech as your one and only opportunity to say everything you have to say...prompting you to put all of that into your speech.

I sometimes call that the loaded-down Christmas tree approach: Too many ornaments. Too many threads. One speaker I worked with did this with a TEDx talk. She'd been asked to talk about the inspiration behind her new life's work, a new business she had started in the community, and why she felt it was giving back to her community. But in the talk she developed, we learned about her growing-up days, her decision to come out as a lesbian, her family history, her previous work in three different fields, and then the idea for the new venture...and it was just too much for one speech to bear. But she was truly convinced, infrequent speaker that she was, that this was her one and only shot to say everything meaningful to her.

Here's the problem: Your desire to express yourself is wonderful, but any speech would break down under all that weight. You're asking too much of your 15-minute or 20-minute talk. And you're also underestimating what a good, focused talk will do, which is to generate more invitations for you to speak, creating more opportunities for you to tell those stories you've been collecting.

Whether you are giving a TED-style talk or working in some other format, this is a good time to steal one of the great tenets of TED, that your talk should be about one big idea. Not 10. Not four. Just one. I like to comparing it to one beautiful jewel that you polish and feature for us to look at closely, rather than a gigantic necklace with many baubles. You'll be hard pressed to really talk about that one idea in 18 minutes or less, and we'll capture and retain more of your idea if there's just one for those of us in the audience to focus on.

Of course, infrequent speakers aren't the only ones with this struggle. You see it in government and corporate speeches that sound like a committee wrote them, with laundry lists of items embedded in them. Those speeches come from a different motivation, but have the same result. The infrequent speaker who doubts whether she will ever speak again is betting on a failure...and almost ensuring that it will happen. If you're feeling this way, try paring that talk down to one topic, and feel good that you have plenty of material for future speeches.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Scarlettaa)