The first in a series of edited tips from one of our most celebrated and influential speakers.
Let’s be honest here. When we present to an audience we usually do it to influence them. Whether that audience is large or small we want people to shift what they think and do. We want to engage, entertain, captivate, inform and ultimately persuade. The most memorable speakers do all of these.
Great speakers make us sit up, excite and enthrall us and leave a lasting impression. We repeat nuggets of what we heard them say and vividly recall not just what they said but how they made us feel at the time. They spark something in us that changes our outlook forever.
That is the power we have at our disposal. It’s why I want to see more people develop their power of influence – it is one of the most prized skills to have in our locker.
After 50 years of performing as singer, public speaker and sometime actor I have learned some vital tricks. Now, I want to help others to become ‘persuasive speakers.’ I have made many mistakes, but those mistakes have been my best teachers. So, what I know comes from a lifetime of hard knocks– howlers, damp squibs and inattentive audiences. I learn something new everyday.
Here is my first set of tips on how to be a ‘Gobsmackingly’ great presenter.
1. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WHAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT
When I made my serious speaking debut at the ICA (Institute of Cultural Arts) in London’s Pall Mall, I gleaned from listening to conversations over coffee, that the audience all spoke with Received Pronunciation. I could easily have been cowed. But, I turned it to my immediate advantage – citing an imaginary translator and giving them a profoundly Scottish performance. They loved it. I had arrived a speaker. My rough edges were a hit, they loved that I had once slept in a doorway just a few yards along the road from the venue while, my stories about the people of Leith (where Edinburgh, Scotland meets the sea) had them asking for more. They had craved something different and they got it. This was in 1976. My theme was that in every community there is a multiplicity of personalities and untapped skills and talents. I wanted to bring my evidence to vivid life for them. I was part of the evidence. I learned then to never hide who you are. Celebrate it. Don’t we love authenticity?
In a world of spin and script our most powerful inspiration comes from the richness of lives lived – not from theory. You are unique – work out what it is that makes you and experience distinctive and make it count every time you deliver.
Then it is less about the techniques and more about the story that’s told. In 1996, I was asked by Barnardo’s to coach a 15 year-old girl to present at a fundraising event that loomed on the horizon. The logic was correct. No person could represent the impact of the charity’s work better than someone who had benefitted. It took six nights and many moments of self-doubt on her part to get her ready. What I did was to give her the tools and confidence to tell her own heartrending story in a way that wasn’t self-pitying but empowering.
On the night, in front of a packed audience she blew people away – there were tears, and laughter in equal measure. She was brilliant. So said no lesser person than Leslie Thomas, author of Virgin Soldiers and a former Barnardo’s boy. People love stories and when told in the first person they are utterly compelling.
When I train people today I help them find and run with their true voice – there is nothing as magnetic and powerful.
How about this brilliant presentation on disability by Maysoon Zayid?
2. SPRING A SURPRISE
A local councilor once told me of a delegation of tenants who had assembled in the City Chambers at the end of long polished oak table. They were there to speak to the politicians about the of scourge dampness in their homes. The opener? Silence. No words were uttered for the first few seconds. Instead, a packet of Porridge Oats was produced and emptied on to the table – out came two large lumps of green mould. “That’s what our children wake up to….” Spoke the delegation leader. One action, very few words and a powerful point made. Did they get the message over? You bet they did. It was a theatrical trick but based on the theme on real lived experience presented by real people. I once started a speech in Glasgow by shouting. “I want to die and I want to die now…” There was immediate silence, shock and anticipation. I went on … ‘that’s what I told myself ten years ago on the Banks of the River Thames.’ They were hooked and listened intently. If I had started with the words: “I am pleased to speak to you today or introduced the theme descriptively I’d have missed the chance to spring a surprise. I sprang out of a large cardboard box at one venue to illustrate my theme: Be yourself don’t get boxed in. Your audience craves surprises. Whatever you speak about and no matter who you are – you can start with a ‘bang’ rather a ‘whimper’. Plan it. Use it. It creates a surge of interest and you have created a great platform for what you want to say.
I have no footage of the porridge oats I mention earlier, so here’s a link to how you can use the element of surprise to captivate people. No-one did it better than the late, great Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society – when he mesmerised this class of Shakespeare cynics.