Toastmasters International’s Simon Bucknall takes to our pages this month, delving deep into the elements of an inspiring speech. Read on for his dos and don’ts when trying to inspire an audience

Imagine the scene: a schoolboy edges to the front of his class. Scuffed shoes, shabby jacket. But then he speaks.
“When you look at me, you probably think I’m a joke, but I’m not! You probably think I’ll end up in a gang, but I won’t! Come on, be honest. You must look at me and think I won’t do anything with my life, but I WILL!”

Over the years, I’ve heard thousands of speakers – from CEOs to refugees, from MBAs to primary school teachers, from university professors to politicians to the occasional prison inmate.

Few have matched the impact made by that 15 year old.

To say you could have heard a pin drop in that classroom would be an understatement. Was he perfect? No. (Frankly, he was a pain for much of the day.) Was he polished in his delivery? Far from it. Was he inspiring? Absolutely.
So, what is it to inspire? At work? In your community? At home?
We know the importance of inspiration. We thirst for it. Some assume that to qualify as ‘inspirational’, you must first have a celebrated accomplishment to your name:

  • Olympic gold medallist.
  • Presidency of a country.
  • CEO of a billion dollar company.
  • Founder of an international movement.
  • World record holder.

In my experience, inspiration requires none of these things. What absolutely is required, however, is certainty. Certainty in what you believe. In what you value. In what you know, deep down in your gut, to be true and important. Think about it for a moment…
Could you imagine being inspired by a ditherer? By someone who simply can’t make their mind up? Who’s never-really-quite-sure?
Princess Diana, Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs and Mother Theresa may have expressed themselves in very different ways. What they had in common, however, was deep conviction – a clarity in their own mind regarding what they believed to be important. The impact was plain to see.

In the workplace, a leader’s ability to inspire through the spoken word has never been more highly prized. You may be rallying your team, seeking to engage the Board, presenting to shareholders or pitching to prospective customers.
So, what are the practical steps that make a difference?

Tip 1: Start with Change

As human beings, we feel inspired ‘to’ do something… To feel a certain way, to think a certain way and/or to behave in a certain way. That ‘change’ is valuable. It explains why effective speakers and leaders command the respect, recognition and fees that they do.
By contrast, the vast bulk of workplace presentations deliver little if any change at all! The focus is almost entirely on the content, with little if any thought being given to how that content might be applied by the audience members.

As a result, when the presentation ends, people leave, nothing really changes and the whole exercise has been a complete waste of time.
Ask yourself right at the outset of your preparation: What change do I want to achieve? In the room? In the minutes after they leave? Over the next few weeks? Months, if not years from now?

Build your key messages around that clarity of purpose. By doing so, you’ll…

  • Deliver better – and more authentically.
  • Focus your energy on the audience, rather than on yourself.
  • Feel less ‘nervous’.
  • Likely include less detail (which is good!)
  • Leave people with something concrete to take away.
  • Differentiate yourself from the majority of other presenters.
  • Be more likely to inspire others… To change!

Tip 2: ‘Clarify Underlying Values & Beliefs’

Inspiration involves a transfer of belief. If you do not believe in your message, idea or proposal, then why should anyone else?
Values and beliefs underpin any powerful message – sometimes, they might even be the message. There is tremendous power in the clarity with which you hold them.

In relation to what you need to communicate, what DO you believe? What DO you hold dear? Get clear on that; harness that! For example, for my part, I absolutely believe that the ability to speak powerfully is a skill, not a gift. That as human beings we consistently underestimate the true value of our own personal experience. That words can speak louder than actions.

These simple beliefs absolutely underpin the work that I do – and that comes across in the way that I deliver. (In my experience, mental focus is far more important for delivery than pure ‘delivery technique’).
As a simple exercise, complete the following sentence: “I absolutely believe…” Keep it simple. There is power in the single-mindedness of your answers.

Tip 3: Find the ‘Critical Moments’ in Your Stories

Storytelling is often cited as the key to inspirational impact – and with good reason. Personal experience exudes Certainty. After all, you’ve lived it. You were there. No-one can dispute the fact that you’ve had that experience (assuming of course it’s genuine – so, no lies!)
What is often underestimated is the importance of drilling down into the specific ‘Critical Moments’ within those stories, to unearth the precious gems that ignite the interest of listeners.

Critical moments are the gold of storytelling. Just like gold in the natural world, they’re not just lying around. They have to be dug for, retrieved and refined…

Reflect for a moment on a story you’re fond of telling. What was the critical moment of that story? The tipping point, if you like. The point at which things changed. What precisely happened? Where were you? Who was there? What was said?

Tip 4: Use Dialogue

Dialogue is a very effective tool for conveying the drama of a Critical Moment. Through the use of dialogue, your story enters into the present tense. Listeners hear the voice of the character (rather than you the speaker). Emotionally, this makes for a more intense – and so, potentially inspiring – experience.

Contrast the following two statements:

‘A member of the Danish royal family was depressed and wondering whether or not to commit suicide,’ and ‘to be or not to be.’

Give your characters a voice. If it’s you, voice your own words as they were said at the time; you’ll achieve a deeper emotional connection as a result.

We’ve covered a number of ideas in this short piece; which ONE will you take forward and apply?

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