Most of the people I coach do not write their speeches. They rely on a speechwriter who either fails to capture their voice or delivers a text that has been written to be read, not spoken.
This makes it incredibly difficult to deliver in a natural and convincing way.
Most senior professionals (or leaders) prefer to speak from briefing notes with key points, as this allows them to convey these ideas in their own words.
But sometimes, they have to deliver a keynote speech in a formal setting and cannot go off script.
So how to do you get your points across but not sound scripted?
Speak to the audience, not read to them
Have a look at this extract of a speech that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, recently gave at the Martin Ennals Award Ceremony in Geneva.
I was in the audience as I coached the three awarded human rights defenders for their remarks to the media and at the ceremony.
Cérémonie de remise du Prix Martin Ennals 2023, 16 février 2023, salle communale de Plainpalais. Photo David Wagnières
I was really struck by how naturally the High Commissioner delivered his remarks and felt he was speaking to me and not at me. What was he doing to captivate the audience?
• Firstly, he had a conversational tone as if he was speaking to someone he knew.
• Secondly, he built a connection with his words to the people in the room, praising their tireless efforts to give a voice to the voiceless.
• Thirdly, he matched his tone and words with his body language, making eye contact with the audience.
How often do you see this? I observe a lot of speakers, and believe me, it is very rare. Most of them fail to align their voice, body language and words – and many of them rarely look up when speaking.
If you watch the whole speech of the High Commissioner
you will see that he is looking at the audience as he makes and expands on the same point. He looks down only to remind himself of the next point and then looks up again to deliver it.
It is a technique known as SEE-STOP-SAY and was used by Ronald Reagan, an actor who became a US President. I go into more detail in this blog.
It takes some practice, and the High Commissioner doesn’t always do it. However, he is so much better than the speakers who look up at the audience mid-sentence or at a random moment which has no connection with the thought they want to convey.
I have trained diplomats making speeches in very formal settings, such as the UN Human Rights Council, in this technique, and it really makes the audience sit up and listen. And as for the speaker, it helps them come across as approachable, accessible and authentic – qualities that are key if you want to be a great public speaker.
The head of an organization that last year ran more than 100 panel discussions asked me that question recently. By the way, if you think 100 is a lot, the organization had topped 150 panel discussions in 2020/21!
We all understand the quest for visibility, but sometimes less is more. The organization in question understood this when at COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh last November it had to cancel a panel discussion – one of 15 it was organizing – due to a lack of audience.
Lack of audience
I was told by friends who attended COP 27 that there was marquee after marquee, side event after side event, but many of them were not full. One private company held a panel discussion at which only three people turned up.
This, I would argue, was an event that should have been cancelled, as it is not good for the organiser’s reputation, brings little benefit to the speakers, and is an uncomfortable experience for the audience.
Ironically, this is more likely to happen at big events like COP as there is more competition for attendees. This is having a knock-on impact on panelists in that they are being asked to speak at too many events, and there is not always enough of them to go around. Another international organization fielded requests from 80 side-event organizers for speakers – many of which they could not accept as they didn’t have that number of speakers available.
Lack of speakers
It can be challenging, particularly when organizing week-long events on a specific subject, to find enough speakers as there are sometimes only so many specialists. Organizers then turn to their B and C lists, which means speakers who are not so well-informed and are limited to the points they can or want to talk about.
In the past, speakers have grabbed the opportunity to be on a panel, whether for visibility or vanity, but organisers are reporting a new trend – the great panelist pullout. Panelists are either pulling out – often at the last minute – due to other commitments, suffer from panelist fatigue or because they see the low audience figures registered.
Countering the “cancel culture”
In the competitive world of events, organizers have to design and deliver an event that draws in audiences. Rather than limiting their thinking to speakers or subject, they need, for strategic reasons; to be more audience-centric – what is in it for the audience.
This means designing an event that first considers who are potential audience members and will the subject or theme capture their interest, either through possibly delivering best practices, offering new insights or helping them understand better the issues at stake.
After thinking first about how you will inspire or instruct the audience on topical issues, the next critical step is the casting – speaker selection. What are the criteria for choosing an effective speaker?
My question is always, what does a selected speaker bring to the discussion? Are they good communicators? How will the panelists interact with one another? This means that organisers need ideally to start the process of speaker selection a month to six weeks before the event, rather than leave it to the last moment.
Once you have your speakers, you need to explain to them why they are being invited and the questions they will be asked.
Similarly, organizers should not bring in the moderator in the final stages, but use their expertise in establishing the editorial flow for an engaging discussion even before contacting potential speakers. Many professional moderators are former or current broadcast journalists and know not only how to generate but also design a discussion that is productive and insightful for the audience.
I have reviewed these steps in more depth in previous blogs, but are worth recalling as we look at the weak links in panel organization.
In conclusion and to answer my friend’s question, you will be less likely to be put in the difficult situation of cancelling a panel discussion if it is well thought out, with the right speakers on the right subject at the right time.
Let’s hope in 2023 organizers don’t even have to consider cancelling a panel as they have realized the importance of quality over quantity!
The answers are often very candid but very wrong. They range from the slides I can recycle from previous presentations to structure and messaging.
You can’t give an impactful presentation or speech until you have worked out who you are talking to. Too many speaking engagements are wasted opportunities because the speaker has not tailored his or her content to the audience. If you give some off-the-shelf presentation, audiences know that you are speaking at them and not to them, and will, often, zone out.
You need to ask yourself three questions:
1. What does my audience know about the topic of my speech?
2. What is their attitude to the topic?
3. How big is the audience, and what is the setting?
Know your audience
The audience will likely be a mix – some know more, others less. In this case, you need to speak so that everyone in the audience understands what you are saying. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It is worth taking the time to do this, as the spoken word must be simple as the audience, unlike the written word, must understand it immediately.
If you are facing a hostile or skeptical audience, you must select your arguments and supporting evidence carefully. I often advise to connect immediately with this type of audience by addressing the concerns they may have. If you work for an oil company and are addressing environmental activists, you have to have the right level of humility, as you can easily be accused of greenwashing.
However, even with a favorable audience, you should think about what motivates them, what arguments they will find convincing and what are their biggest concerns. Here it is vital to tap into what is in it for them in terms of reward or the risk of not doing something.
Size and setting
If the audience is large and the setting formal, the style of your speech is likely to be more formal and rhetorical. If a smaller audience, particularly if you know them well, your tone should reflect this. In any case, you should think conversational rather than declamatory.
The setting – where the presentation takes place – is important as it may give you a way of connecting with the audience by referring to it. Similarly, assess how important the occasion is, as this will impact the tone and style of your speech.
It may seem like a lot of work, but it will pay off as audiences really appreciate a speaker who realizes that a successful presentation or speech must be audience- centric.
Many people I know – both panelists and audience members – are wondering what is the point of panel discussions.
This is what I am told by the senior managers, leaders and experts I have been training in various communication skills.
It seems they are often too promotional, disorganised, lack focus and fail to deliver any new insights or engage the audience. In fact the audience takeaway seems to be at the bottom of the organisers priority list for a successful panel discussion
And ignoring the audience is having consequences as organisers tell me that fewer people are showing up for virtual, hybrid or in-person panels. It would appear that post pandemic we are all suffering from a case of “zoomitis” and thinking twice before we tune in or turn up to an event.
Putting the audience first
Organisers need to clearly articulate why they are organising the panel and the outcomes they want to achieve, including answering the question why the audience should attend?
Here are some questions that ensure a more audience-centric focus:
• Why is this topic important right now?
• What are the key challenges the audience is facing on this topic right now?
• What does the audience need to know?
• What does the audience want to know?
• What is the benefit to them? Why should they care?
By the way, these are the same questions you should ask when preparing a presentation. Presenting is all about the audience – and so is organising a panel discussion!
It is only once they have thought about their purpose and the audience that they should invite the speakers. Big names can be a draw, but they, like all panelists must be ready to address the issues raised in the panel and not see it as an opportunity to promote their organisation.
Engaging the audience
Most direct audience engagement usually happens during the audience Q&A. Unfortunately, this sometimes doesn’t happen because the moderator runs out of time, often because there are too many speakers are on the panel.
I feel that the Q&A is given short shrift, seen as an add-on rather as integral to the event. In my view, the audience should feel part of the discussion from the beginning to the end. The moderator, for example, can ask the audience’s view at the start of the panel with a raise of hands, or poll, as well as at certain moments during the discussion and can even ask for their opinion or response to a comment made by a speaker.
The moderator’s role is not only to ask the questions the audience wants asked – similar to that of a good journalist, but also to keep them in mind throughout the discussion.
If organisers and moderators take a more audience-centric approach to panel discussions, I am convinced that they will not only get better outcomes, but that the audience will turn up in droves for other events, they organise.
What lessons have we learnt from how we communicated on the COVID health crisis that we can apply to the climate crisis?
That has been a recurrent question in some of the panel discussions I have moderated at conferences over the past year.
Two years ago, this month WHO announced a global pandemic. Since then politicians may not have admitted that they got things wrong, but scientists certainly have as this article reveals.
What became increasingly clear is that scientists are comfortable with not having a definitive answer. Being proved wrong lies at the heart of scientific progress.
But the media failed to understand this at first. Editors want certainty and journalists like to give answers. News tends to be black and white, while science is shades of grey.
Julien Pain, producer of the French TV programme, True or False, told me during a panel that “journalists learnt that as science evolves scientists change their mind on issues such as lockdowns, masks, and vaccinating children.”
He said that journalists should have focused on “what we know for sure, what we don’t know and what we need to know”. This he thought would at least have dampened the anti vaxxer arguments about not trusting governments due to their constantly changing policies.
Interestingly, he felt that scientists tended to fall into the trap of playing the media’s game and were not cautious enough with their answers. Perhaps, he opined because they wanted to be on TV or radio.
One of the best public health communicators in history
One man who became an instant celebrity on British TV and radio was the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam. He managed to translate scientific concepts in ways that the public understood.
His skill lay in his masterful use of the metaphor. He told the BBC that “I like metaphors as they bring complex stories to life for people.”
He uses a whole range of metaphors from sporting – football in his case, to journey (planes and trains) to those about weather (storms) and food (yoghurt).
In the UK, he managed skilfully to persuade people to get vaccinated, protecting others and themselves.
As he leaves his post this month to take up a job in academia, he will be sorely missed as a scientist who managed to communicate clearly, confidently and with as much certainty as possible during the COVID crisis.
Journalists like to probe during an interview and often ask you a question about what you would personally do or what you think. Depending on how you answer, you can find yourself caught in a spider’s web that is difficult to escape.
In this blog, I will share an experience and give you some tips on how to answer this type of question.
As head of media at WWF International, I attended a press conference in London organised by WWF UK to launch a report on an oil spill off the coast of Spain. A journalist from the Guardian asked the speaker from WWF UK – would you eat the fish? He replied; I would not eat the fish. The speaker from WWF Spain and the report’s author replied that the fish was safe to eat.
This scenario is a public relations nightmare – two people from the same organisation contradicting each other during a press conference. I was not moderating but sitting in the audience observing, so powerless to act. Afterwards, I went up to the journalists to attempt some damage limitation. How will you spin your way out of that one? The BBC environment correspondent asked. I am not, I replied, but I suggest you talk further with the author of the report.
The problem was that the Spanish speaker had been great as a spokesperson when the oil spill hit the coast but struggled to convey the main points of the report in English. The journalist from the Guardian had become frustrated and asked the classic tricky question. The problem was the speaker from the UK had not thoroughly read the report and thought that if he added the word “personally”, his answer would be satisfactory.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
The headline in the Guardian the next day was that the fish were not safe to eat, making the work of WWF Spain with the fishers even more challenging. It is safe to say that we all learnt lessons from that press conference!
If you speak as a representative of an organisation, your opinion has to be the same. Journalists often ask this question when they sense that your personal opinion may differ from the “party line”.
It is, in my view, fair game to ask policymakers, decision-makers and regulators, for example, during the pandemic, if they are vaccinated or would vaccinate their children.
Strangely, it can be more difficult to answer on behalf of a close relative. A few weeks ago, an investigation from the police watchdog criticised the London Metropolitan force for misogyny, racism, bullying and sexual harassment. Have a listen to this
on BBC radio.
The presenter asks the spokesperson for the police watchdog if he would feel comfortable if any of his female relatives relied on the Met if they were vulnerable in any way. It is often a question that comes near the end of an interview, in this case it is at 05.52
You will note that he doesn’t answer directly but uses the question to drive home his message about the need to call out such behaviour when it occurs.
The personal question is a trap only if you let yourself fall into it. It can work in your favour and that of the journalist, providing them with good quotes and soundbites. And, if you proactively include a personal example or story in your answer, it can build credibility help to understand and bring your point to life. Just make sure, though, that the personal is always on your terms!