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Bernie Swain: Keys to Great Speeches and How Not to Bore Clients

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Americans set the Internet ablaze speaking out on Twitter. Yet speaking live to a crowd in public is still their No. 1 fear.

To get the word from an expert on how to prepare, present and benefit from making a speech, ThinkAdvisor interviewed Bernie Swain, co-founder and chair of Washington Speakers Bureau.

His clients include Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, the last six prime ministers of England, John F. Kerry, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen. Colin Powell, Robert Reich and Ben Carson.

Surprisingly, Swain, 71, never gave a speech, other than to address his staff, until he published a book, “What Made Me Who I Am” (Post Hill Press), last year. He preferred not to take the spotlight away from the notables he represented.

In our interview, Swain discusses how to connect emotionally with an audience and answers important questions, like whether to commit a speech to memory, use humor and how to respond to audience questions the answers to which you haven’t a clue.

In his book, Swain zeroes in on turning points that led to success for 34 of his prominent clients, like ex-Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, who started out as a musician but soon realized he wasn’t half as good at playing the saxophone as preparing tax returns for his bandmates.

Here are excerpts from our phone interview with Swain, whose firm, generating $180 million in annual revenue, is based in Alexandria, Virginia:

THINKADVISOR:  What should be at the heart of every speech?

BERNIE SWAIN: The need to solve a problem. The first thing to ask yourself is: What’s the problem I’m trying to solve, how is that relevant to the people in the audience – and what can they do with the information?

Is it important to make an emotional connection with the audience?

Absolutely. No matter the subject matter, that’s essential to be a successful speaker. Every good speech is emotional. The point is: How does it relate to the audience?

What’s an effective way to connect?

To have the audience understand who you are by telling a personal story about yourself within the body of the speech,  something about your family, perhaps.

According to some surveys, nearly 75% of the U.S. population has a fear of public speaking. What should you do if you’re one of those people?

You not only have to overcome the anxiety about speaking to large groups but also know how to connect with an audience. There’s a difference between the two.

It’s obviously important to understand who the audience is.

Yes. If there’s a reception, just before you give your speech, try to attend so you can interact and learn who the audience is: At what level is their education? What kind of humor do they have? If you understand your audience, it’s easier to bond with it. When you get up to speak, you don’t want to assume it’s a different audience than it actually is.

Is it a good idea to give jokes within a speech?

The answer is, generally, no. Humor is a great idea, but jokes aren’t. If I tell a joke, chances are the speech won’t work because the same jokes aren’t funny to everyone; and they may even offend some. If people think a joke doesn’t relate to them or your subject matter, you’ve totally lost them. You’re better off telling something humorous about yourself or your own life. By talking about family, for instance, you’ve instantly bonded and established a feeling of trust.

Any room for adlibbing within a prepared speech?

No, especially if you tend to ramble. You’ve got to stay on-theme. If you get into side stories, you lose the audience because you’ve taken them in a different direction.

Should you write out cards indicating key topics or refer to a brief outline?

No. The immediate impact of that is maybe you’re not smart enough to give a speech. By looking at cards, the audience instantly withdraws from what you’re trying to do, and so you’ve lost that connection right away.

How does this apply to financial advisors?

It [conflicts] with people’s need to have confidence in an advisor and what they have to say. If the audience can’t trust him or her to know the concepts of their speech well enough, the trust factor is gone. So you don’t want to have cards in your hand.

What are the essential elements of the speech itself?

There are three parts: The first is the introduction. This is where you capture the audience by convincing them why it’s important to listen to you and understand why you’re motivated to share the information you’re about to give them.

What are the other two parts?

The body of the speech is the basic presentation with supporting evidence. That’s where it’s important to tell personal stories, and at least one should be in every speech you give. Avoid side stories that have nothing to do with your main point. The third part is the conclusion, where you remind the audience what they need to remember from your speech.

Do you suggest hiring a speech writer?

Never have a speech writer write a speech for you to edit. The correct way is just the reverse. It’s important for you to say what you want to say because you’re the expert, the one with the knowledge. Write it out, put it in the order you want, and then give it to a speech writer to edit.

Should you memorize your speech?

No. If you recite a speech word for word, it doesn’t sound real. Also, one tends to forget things. And then you get stuck and stand there panicky because you can’t remember. The key is that you have to understand the concept of what you’re talking about. That gives authenticity to your subject matter and flexibility to adjust to different audiences. If you understand the concepts so that you can talk freely and aren’t just memorizing words, it makes it a lot easier to get up in front of people.

What was most challenging for you when you recently started giving speeches to publicize your book?

I tend to go off on tangents. So it was remembering the concepts and putting things in the right order. I spent a good month going over my speech two or three times a day and refining it, then changing it verbally to make it flow better.

But can’t practicing too much take freshness away from one’s presentation?

Great speakers practice like a musician practices their instrument. It’s mandatory to practice but in such a way that you’re able to criticize it and get others to do the same. Practice in front of family members and your staff.  Allow them to critique your performance. I used to practice in front of my wife [WSB co-founder Paula Swain]. She’d be hard on me: “Do it again – I’m not pleased with what you’re doing.” So you need to have someone that’s honest with you and will push you to keep practicing. Then you gain confidence, and it becomes easier.

How about practicing while looking in a mirror?

Yes, and also videotape yourself.  Use your iPhone to watch yourself. If you get the opportunity, listen to speeches of people within or outside your company. Take notes and critique them: Are they speaking too long? Too short? What kind of energy level do they have? Do they use humor?

What can help reduce anxiety and butterflies-in-the-stomach before and during a speech?

Practice. The more you do something, the better and easier it becomes. One way to get over nervousness once you’re speaking is to instantly find two or three people in the audience that are smiling at you or nodding their heads. My first speech was in the round; so I needed to move in four different directions. The trick I learned was that each time I turned in a different direction, I’d make eye contact with someone who was nodding in agreement with me or smiling. I gravitated to them because I was obviously connecting with them. It felt as if I was talking to just one person, not the 400 or 500 that were there.

What about people who weren’t reacting to you so positively? Did you focus on them at all?

I avoided making eye contact with those who weren’t smiling or nodding when I wanted them to. Your energy comes from your audience. So if you feel that you’ve lost them, you can lose that energy too.

Some financial advisor speeches include dry investing and economic subject matter. How does an advisor avert boring, say, an audience of prospective clients, with such material?

One way is to use visual aids that incorporate pictures or drawings. They’ll make what you say more relevant. PowerPoint presentations are good, but they have to be creative ones. If they reflect the dryness of what you’re saying, there’s no purpose in putting them up there. All you’re doing is taking away from what you’re trying to accomplish.

So visual aids are to be used very much like humor and personal stories?

Yes. All of that is to draw the audience in and make them feel that the person talking to them understands what they’re going through. This allows them to relate to the speaker.

What about jumping up and down before your speech to get energized, as some actors do? Any other recommendations for right before you go on?

I go off by myself for l5 minutes and think about the first two or three sentences of my speech. It gives me confidence and pushes me in the right direction. It works great.

Should presenters eat or drink directly before their speech?

I don’t eat for hours before I speak because eating can make me feel tired, and then I don’t have as much energy. Certainly have some water beforehand to prevent dry-mouth, which may come from being a little anxious. I’d rather not take a sip of water while I’m giving my speech because I don’t want people to think I’m nervous.

Is it important to scout the room and gauge the audience ahead of time?

Yes. If there’s a reception [or such] in a space just outside the speaking area, before your speech spend l5 or 20 minutes walking around and introducing yourself: “Hi, I’m the speaker; and I’m looking forward to talking to you.” Engage in some light conversation so people can get a feel for you. Now you’ve already connected with some who will be in the audience. Then disappear for the next half-hour to think about your opening.

Is it better to encourage the audience to ask questions during your speech or to tell them to hold questions till you’ve finished?

Neither. You want whoever introduces you to do that. They can say: “When the presentation is over, [name] will be glad to take questions.”

What if you’re unable to answer a question?

Say, “I’m not sure of the answer; but if you’ll give your name and contact information to the person that’s running this conference, I’ll send it to you.” Or tell them you’ll give the answer to the organization for publication in their [house organ]. The worst thing you can do is make up something. Somebody in the audience may know you’re faking it. If you don’t know something, be honest and say, “I don’t know, but I’ll get you the answer.” Now you’ve got a new bond with the audience.

Good idea to ask folks before you launch into your speech to turn off their electronic devices?

Again, the people who introduce you should do that. You shouldn’t do any housekeeping. It will take away from your speech. You’re not the housekeeper.

What’s your take on making a speech using Skype?

You should not give a speech on Skype.  Even with all the technology that we have, it’s personal contact that [works best]: “I went to this event and saw [such and such] person speak. I felt that person was looking at me. I bonded with that person.” This is particularly important for financial advisors.

After giving your speech, should you quickly exit the scene?

No. If you’ve got an opportunity to shake some hands, definitely meet with the people who were in the audience. The whole idea is to bond with them.  You have to be aware of what your goal is in giving the speech:  Is to get people interested in your company? Sell them something? Educate them? Whatever the goal, the more personal contact you have with the audience, the better it will be received. Just say, “I don’t have long to stay, but I wanted to shake your hand.” That way, you’ve instantly enhanced everything you’ve said.

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