Friday, September 26, 2014

Speaking off the cuff


Every project manager speaks to groups in public... it goes with the territory. But, what happens if someone drops in unexpectedly and an off the cuff briefing or speech or speaking opportunity portends?

If this is not your strong suit, here's some worthy advice from John Coleman writing at the hbr.org network blog:
  1. Define a structure: The pressure of extemporaneous remarks comes from their ambiguity. What do I say? What do I not say? The worst and most stressful business speeches are those that ramble without purpose. In forensics we’d tackle this issue by quickly drafting a structure on a note card to support our main point — often an introduction, two or three supporting points, and a conclusion. With these on paper, it was easy to fill in the details with stories, examples, and statistics. Now, when I’m asked to offer unexpected remarks over dinner or at a board meeting, I grab a napkin, notebook, or the back of a PowerPoint deck and jot down my main argument and some key supporting points. Then I fill out the examples and data I need to make those points — usually in 20 words or less. Any ambiguity or tendency to ramble evaporates.
  1. Put the punchline first: When I worked in consulting, one of the cardinal rules of communication was “punchline first.” Any presentation should have a clear thesis stated up front so that listeners can easily follow and interpret the comments that follow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen business presenters ramble through a speech with the audience wondering to the very end about the point of the comments. Giving a good business speech is not like telling a good joke. Don’t save the punchline for the end.
  1. Remember your audience: All it takes is a few lines to make an audience feel acknowledged and a speech feel fresh. Tie the city in which you are speaking into your introduction. Draw parallels between the organization you’re addressing and one of the stories you tell. Mention someone by name, connecting them to the comments you’re offering. These are small gestures, but they make your remarks more tailored and relevant.
  1. Memorize what to say, not how to say it: How many times have you practiced exactly how to say something in your head then frozen up or completely forgotten in the moment? In forensics speeches, we’d often have 5–10 citations to remember, 3–4 examples with names and places, and 3–4 supporting statistics. That’s a lot to research and remember in 30 minutes or less. The trick was this: We’d focus on memorizing key stories and statistics, rather than practicing our delivery. If you spend your time on how to say something perfectly, you’ll stumble through those phrasings, and you’ll forget all the details that can make them come alive. Or worse, you’ll slavishly read from a PowerPoint or vertical document rather than hitting the high points fluidly with your audience. If you know your topic, the words will come.
  1. Keep it short: Blaise Pascal once famously commented, “I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.” While it seems like the challenge of speaking with limited preparation would be finding enough to say, the opposite is often true. When at a loss for words, many of us underestimate the time we need — cramming in so many stories and points that we run well over our time and dilute our message. No one will appreciate your economy of words more than your listeners, so when in doubt, say less.

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