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.
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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?