The Innocents Onstage :: The new storyteller’s progress

Image of Joe Crooks and Mark Twain
Joe Crooks with a little help for Mark Twain!

I am constantly asked by my clients, “what is the one thing I can do to make my speech better?” If you want the ONE thing that you can do, in my opinion, it is to PRACTICE. However, you can’t just practice ONE thing, the trick is to practice ALL aspects of your speech. I have a great fondness for Mark Twain, he was a great writer, but his wit and wisdom rings true for me time and time again. I strive to be as humorous and wise, maybe one day, but until then I will share my favorite antidotes with you in my writing as Twainisms. It is important to understand how small mistakes in your 15 minutes in the spotlight can make you utterly forgettable, attaching a little humor can make all the difference. Remember, No one has heard what you are saying prior to taking the stage, be free, be lively, be believable.

I break down practice for live speeches into areas that look something like this:

Practice entering a space. Believe it or not, it’s important to practice walking into an office, a conference room, or entering the stage. Whether you want to come in dramatically like Kramer on Seinfeld or glide in gracefully like Obama, it is important to practice. Remember, eyes up, meet and greet your audience, carry a water (we’ll cover this in the next section.) and SMILE! (unless, of course, your talk is about a serious, darker subject, because then you’ll look like Ted Bundy!. Try to set-up an area that is the approximate size, shape, and height of the real thing. The best scenario is to practice on location, we all know that is not always possible. You want to get a gauge for how much time it will take to walk into the room, settle into your surroundings, and begin your speech. Always be aware of what’s around you, look for tripping hazards, eye-pokers, stools, and podiums, anything that may trip up your entrance.

TWAINISM: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Practice drinking. Yes, I said it, practice drinking. It is important for many reasons. You don’t want to chug like you are at a college party, don’t gulp, and do not talk until you swallow. It seems straight forward, but practice it. A couple of things happen when you drink on stage: Your audience sees you as human, just like them, requiring water to survive. You also gain an invaluable vessel by which you can dramatically pause without looking foolish. (we’ll cover this in the next section.)

TWAINISM: “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

Practice being interesting. Again, it sounds funny, but your content and delivery should be as interesting as possible. This may be a challenge if you are presenting a quarterly business review or status update. Some people turn to crowded slides or humor to get through. If your content is not on topic or you are not funny, you will fail at being interesting or humorous. Practice any humor you intend to use on a similar ‘control group’ – friends, family, or a small group of colleagues that you will be addressing. Here is where drinking for a dramatic pause plays to your interestingness. Say you have a big figure you want to throw out and want people to remember. “75% of my time is used to create reports!” Take a sip of water and pause. Then go back to your big figure, “75%!” At advertising school, they taught us repeat things five times for people to remember. 91% of audience members admit to daydreaming during a presentation, in this day-and-age of instant gratification, and the ever-dwindling attention span, that pause and repeat will engage their brain and imprint your point-of-view in that moment.

TWAINISM: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.”

Practice at your pace and tone. To find the proper length of your speech, realize that MOST people speak their native tongue at approximately 130 words per minute. If you are speaking in your none native tongue it may drop to 100 or less words per minute. So, while you are typing out your speech, check your word count in your text editing tool and do the math. EXAMPLE: speech length – 2,000 words divided by 130 words per minute equals about 15 minutes and 30 seconds. (2,000/130=~15-1/2 minutes). It is a good rule of thumb, but PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

TWAINISM: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

Practice celebrating & exiting. It physically pains me to see someone ill-prepared to celebrate applause or exit without looking like it is an after-thought. It brings me back to watching a sporting event and seeing a celebration in the end-zone, or the 18th green, or the Olympic podium; if you haven’t practiced, you run the risk of blowing your big moment. You want your audience to remember your call to action, not you tripping, pausing awkwardly, or dropping your water. Your acknowledging the audience’s celebration and walking off a stage with grace is often MORE important than entering. 
A quick wave, or ‘tip of the cap’, or fist pump; do one. Know where your exit is and find it quickly and quietly. SIMPLE!

TWAINISM: “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.”

Practice Q&A (especially if you don’t plan to have Q&A.) There will always be someone in the audience who will ask you a question or two, whether it is on stage or off. It’s best to practice your speech in front of a ‘control group’. Challenge your ‘control group’ to ask questions or give feedback. That way you will be prepared for the types of questions people may ask and have an action plan for how you will address those questions. 

TWAINISM: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

You can reach Joe Crooks at Copper Magnolia for follow-on and input where he is chief creative :: speech coach :: partner

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