by Steve Adubato, PhD
As I write this column, I am preparing to deliver a commencement address at Montclair High School. Delivering such a speech is a great honor, but with any public communication like this, it is important to remember that the event is never about the speaker when people come together to celebrate the accomplishments of others; it is about the audience.
This is true for a wedding toast, a seminar, an annual shareholders meeting or wherever someone is expected to communicate and connect with their audience.
It’s so easy to get caught up in ourselves and in our speech. We obsess about the details and all the information we want to share. We gather facts and figures and what we consider interesting quotes and we prepare to dump as much as we can into our audience’s lap; “I’ll show them how smart I am!”
Too often when we communicate from this perspective, we come off as self-indulgent and just a bit out of touch with our audience. It is so important to try to imagine what it might be like to be on the other end of a presentation like this. Ask yourself if I were at a wedding, what kind of toast from the best man would I appreciate? If I were a shareholder in a company, what would I want to hear from the CEO? And if I were a high school graduate or a parent, what would I expect from a commencement speaker? What would turn me off?
One of the conclusions I’ve come to is that your job in this a particular instance is to communicate one simple, useful and practical message that resonates with people on a human and personal level. We often create misplaced pressure on ourselves to be overly philosophical or intellectual when speaking in a lofty setting like this. Yet, flowery language is rarely remembered by graduates. What IS remembered is a funny or poignant story that is personal and relevant to the graduating class.
The other thing that is remembered is the length of your speech. I’ve made a promise to myself to speak for no more than 10 minutes at this graduation. But here is the key. You can promise all you want, but so often we get caught up in the sound of our own voice and lose track of where we are that when we finish, we are stunned by how long we’ve droned on.
A client of mine recently promised his audience he would get them out of a presentation by 10:30 a.m. The problem was, he never actually took off his watch, put it on the podium or monitored his time. So he in fact spoke for 53 minutes. He told me later; “I was embarrassed and angry with myself.”
When speaking in public, we must monitor our time, as well as our audience. Of course your words are important, but the reaction of your audience matters 1,000 times more. If you see them fidgeting in their seats, checking their watches, or playing with their BlackBerrys, cut it short.
Simply put, in the vast majority of cases (including for the greatest public communicators like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama) the longer you speak, the less impact you have. That’s right, leave some things out. Cut that story short. Eliminate those statistics that you’ve been holding on to for weeks. Tell them less, but tell them with heart and in a conversational and genuine fashion. The odds are your impact will be a lot greater, and most importantly, your audience will appreciate you for it. In the end, it’s always about the audience; it’s rarely, if ever, about you.