Insights + tips

Being Judgemental

" Making the audience care is a rare, and special, gift "

How would you feel if someone asked you to prepare, and deliver, a 5-minute speech in front of a room of professional speakers?

I was recently in Dublin at the Global Speaking Summit (where I won an award – have I mentioned I won an award yet?!).

Flatteringly, I was asked to be Head Judge of a competition called ‘Speaker Factor’ – A sort of ‘X Factor’ of the Speaking World, where the judges have less plastic surgery. I found it a fascinating experience being asked to critically judge other speakers, and award points based on their style, presentation, time-keeping and ‘bookability’.

I admire anyone who can create and deliver a 5-minute speech, it’s a real skill – I can barely say my name in 5 minutes! As a judge, I was already applauding everyone who had the courage to take the stage.

However, as they say, ‘There can be only one’, and so I had to assess each of the speakers. Here are some things which really stood out, and I hope they’re useful for you.

Oh, and just before you read – I should point out that none of these observations are comments on any individual speaker, they’re just my thoughts after watching several speakers in a row.

  1. Any speaker who can make a connection with an audience is already ‘winning’. If you can make an audience smile, or think, or lean forward and be interested right at the beginning of your speech or presentation, almost everything else will go well.
  2. You don’t need slides to give a good presentation or speech. None of the speakers used slides, and the audience didn’t feel a lack.
  3. Nerves are rarely visible to an audience. A lot of the speakers afterwards told me that they were ‘terrified’. Not a single one looked it.
  4. Preparation is the key to a great presentation or speech. It nearly always takes much longer than you’d expect to deliver a good speech. A rule in theatre is that you need one hour of rehearsal for every minute the audience sees. As a presenter, you don’t need that much, but neither is just ‘glancing through your slides as the meeting is beginning’ enough preparation either!
  5. The best speakers have a clear message, and a simple structure but they won’t sound or feel ‘robotic’ in their delivery. I’m a strong advocate of rehearsal, but the point of rehearsal is to free you up so that in real time you are able to connect with the audience, rather than trying to remember your script.
  6. When you’re on stage, your prepared timings will nearly always be wrong. In my experience, most speakers expand their time on stage. In other words, if you’ve prepared a tight speech of exactly 5 minutes alone at home, it’s very likely that on stage that 5 minutes is going to become 6 minutes, because in real time you’re reacting to the audience – you’ll take longer pauses, wait for the laughter to stop, give people some time to think. I always try to prepare myself some ‘wriggle room’ when I’m putting a new presentation together, and will plan to leave at least 10% of the time as ‘breathing space’ to use in real time.
  7. Nobody is interested in you. This is one of my golden rules as a speaker – most audiences are focused on themselves, and their needs. Your speech cannot just be about yourself or ‘your story’, you have to make it connect with the audience and answer the ‘So what?’ thought bubble hanging above their heads. A mistake a lot of less experienced speakers make is to think ‘I’ll tell my story and then spell out the ‘lesson’ at the end’. The trouble with that approach is that often (forgive me) your ‘story’ alone just isn’t interesting enough to keep people’s attention, and they’ll have mentally switched off before you get to your ‘lesson’ When you watch a truly great speaker tell a story, you’ll notice that the story involves the audience right from the beginning – we’re sharing the emotions and feeling connected.
  8. Humour solves almost all problems. If you’re naturally humorous, you have a killer skill.
  9. Most ‘stage skills’ are over-rated, but most ‘audience skills’ are under-rated. Many speakers focus on their movement, body language, and use of props and so on. While these can be important, nothing matters as much as your ability to engage an audience and deliver a message which resonates with them.

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