Recipe for an Awesome Business Speech

Nine ingredients to ensure an engaging, informative presentation.


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OK, I admit it—I like attending finishing tradeshow presentations. Not just the top notch keynotes delivered by professional talent, but also those delivered by sales people, technical experts, human resource professionals and so on. For this reason, while others may walk the show floor and attend a few presentations so they can rationalize that they learned something at the show, you will often find me seated in the audience, pen in hand, taking notes on whatever I can learn to improve myself and my business. In so doing, I have seen hundreds of speakers—some of them outstanding, some of them dry as a bone.

Along the same lines, for more than a decade I belonged to an organization called TEC, basically a subgroup of chief executives who gather monthly. In the morning half of a typical TEC meeting, a resource specialist (code for professional speaker) delivers a presentation on a leadership topic of interest. Almost without exception these speakers are outstanding.

After sitting through well over 100 such sessions, I identified the techniques of the best speakers and created a recipe for an awesome business speech. The ingredients are the following:

Audience Participation. The best speakers involve the audience. They ask questions, solicit feedback, and give the audience the opportunity to share stories of their own experiences. If the audience is too large to provide this level of interaction, great speakers ask rhetorical questions or quiz the audience during the presentation to keep them mentally involved.

Entertainment. Great speakers weave references to human interest stories, current events and popular culture throughout their speeches. They share personal stories that help the audience connect to the content. They use humor that is directly related to the subject at hand (as opposed to jokes awkwardly wedged in to the presentation) to maintain the interest of those in attendance.

Take Home Value. Inasmuch as an audience wants to be entertained, what is even more important is that they leave the presentation feeling as though the content provided value. In the case of a business or technical presentation, this value should be something that can be implemented or changed in order to improve business or professional performance.

Real Objective Evidence. Great speakers support their positions and conclusions with data. As a general rule people love to hear simple statistics that back up a point. Survey results or case studies are other good examples of ways to provide independent support for content.

You are Here. Few things are more frustrating for me than "getting lost" in someone else's presentation. As soon as I struggle to understand how a speaker's point relates to the bigger picture of their speech I become lost and my mind starts to wander. Another pet peeve is when I don't know if we're halfway through the presentation, just getting started, or about to wrap up. Great speakers keep the audience informed of where they are in their message throughout the presentation.

Specifics, not Platitudes. Please, please, please don't speak in clichés; waxing about how we should "pull the team together so we can go ahead and make things happen." What does that even mean? Speak in specifics.

Tons of Information. The best presentations deliver loads of data on a variety of topics related to the overall theme and the presenters move fast.

Something for Everyone. Members of the audience will undoubtedly have varying levels of familiarity with the topic. Speak over the heads of some of them and they will be lost and confused, speak beneath others and bore them. The trick is to pepper the presentation with content that will interest all of them.

Memory Tools. What good is the message if the audience doesn't remember the key points? Top notch presenters offer their audience a memory tool that will enable them to recall the message. Examples I've used in my presentations are The Pentagon (the actual building in Arlington, VA) as a tool to recall the five steps to sustaining organizational change, or the various tools on a Swiss Army knife to help attendees recall the Eight Steps to a business turnaround. Another example any fourth grade aspiring virtuoso will remember is the mnemonic Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (EGBDF) used in the memorization of the line notes in the treble clef.

The goal of any presenter ought to be to deliver his or her message to the audience in a fashion that keeps its attention and in doing so gets the point or points across. Using the right tools and techniques will enable a speaker to do exactly that.