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7 ways to avoid a keynote disaster


Later this month anyone who has anything to do with mobile technology will descend on Barcelona for Mobile World Congress. It’s a major event on the tech industry calendar and will be littered with a number of speakers jockeying for oratory bragging rights!

Over the past three years I’ve coached a number of executives delivering speeches at MWC… so here are a few pointers. This list, which is by no means exhaustive, and can be applied to pretty much any public speaking situation.

1. Learn it!

There is no way around this. If you are influential enough to be delivering an important speech in front of large numbers of people, you are smart enough to learn your words. When I coach c-suite execs in keynote delivery I make no apology for browbeating them into learning their lines. But surely that natural spontaneity of delivery as it pops into your head is far better? Yes. Of course it is. But being spontaneous takes hard work. Ask an actor or a comedian. These guys spend hours and hours and hours learning their material. Just so they can be ‘spontaneous’. The professional actor will drill lines into his/her head so the words written by someone else becomes a part of their sub-conscious. This enables the brain to relax and then what comes out seems much more spontaneous and natural. If you are fighting to remember what is next rather than concentrating on the audience (we will come on to that) then you radiate a lack of confidence.And you might also miss bits out.Many people will say “use an autocue” and many politicians use autocue quite often. But as any TV presenter will tell you… using autocue takes a lot of practice. Looking at small transparent screens from a lectern whilst pretending you are not reading the words appearing in front of you, and looking natural at the same time, is one of the trickiest skills to master. Also…. Autocue does breakdown from time to time…. Remember the Samsung bendy TV launch?I’m not saying you should regurgitate your lines verbatim, but if you have learned them, and understand the flow of your narrative you will have the luxury of being able to improvise at will… mainly because you know precisely what you are saying and when you are meant to be saying it.

2. Tell a story

I quite like this quote:-“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”CS Lewis – ‘Chronicles of Narnia’

The construct of what you are saying is so very important for engaging an audience. How many keynotes have you sat through that closely resembled an under graduate essay? The very best keynotes do not cobble together random statistics, bland academic references, and power-point slides that are busier than Grand Central Station.They deliver an impactful story.

Surprisingly enough many politicians and industrialists are not natural storytellers. So if the keynote is important it’s worth engaging the services of someone who does know how to construct a body of text that has an engaging narrative. If you don’t have the budget for that, then remember the age-old adage: every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. And then repeatedly ask yourself the question: Why does the audience care? Put yourself in their place. If you had to listen to what you expect them to listen to, would it engage you? A speech packed with facts and stats ain’t going to cut it. Get up there and tell a story!!

3. Make sure your opening and closing six seconds are amazing

You will largely be remembered for two things in your keynote. How you start and how you finish. Sure, the substance is important but the most impactful moments will be (ordinarily) at the beginning and the end. I like to call the opening line “the grab”. It’s that moment when you are telling the audience “watch me, I have something interesting to talk to you about”. Be surprising. Be unexpected. There are any number of techniques you can use… but having an apologetic opening where you stumble around thanking the person who has just introduced you, is going to have people reaching for the phones faster than you can say “Candy Crush”. Great starts give great context. A background and scene setter for all that is to come. Great endings leave the audience wanting more, and with a thirst to discover more. Think through these two important sections carefully and study the expected impact on your audience.

4. Rehearse

There is absolutely no substitution for hard work and rehearsal. I know execs that will block out diary time for rehearsal. And I know of those who just have a flick through some notes the night before and then step into the breach. The latter will ALWAYS, without exception, deliver a much poorer performance than the former. I have coached execs that, on the face of it, are not naturally gifted public speakers but with hard work and practice have turned into fantastic orators. That is no reflection on me but much rather a testament to the work they put into delivering a performance. If an exec says, “I don’t have time” my answer is always “it just depends how important this is”. And that is always another part of the challenge - getting an exec to buy-in on how good they will look if they put the effort in.

5. Control what your body says

In 1971 Albert Mehrabian published his celebrated book on body language “Silent Messages” from we which we learned 93% of all communication is non-verbal’. This simple statistic breaks down further: 58% body language; 35% tonality; 7% words.Whether or not you absolutely subscribe to Mehrabian’s theory on how our sub-conscious mind views the average speechmaker, there is a truism that can’t be avoided. Getting the words right is nowhere near everything you need to do to create a positive audience perception. Controlling your body, and what it says without you even realizing, plays a critical role in the keynote preparation process. And whilst we can choreograph hand gestures, coach on stagecraft, and issue threats to kill if a bunch of keys is jangled, the one thing we find very difficult to counter is the sub-conscious gesturing caused by nerves.

But this is why, ironically, it is CRITICAL that lines are learned. If you are fighting for lines, can’t think where you are in your speech, and you aren’t feeling too confident, guess what? Your body tells the audience.

And once you start telling the audience that you are not confident they a) disengage and b) subconsciously (and consciously) disbelieve you.Choreographing your keynote - even with basic moves will not only help you remember your lines – it will give you one less thing to worry about.

As Mehrabin noted, tonality is also important. Whilst it might take guts to suggest to the CEO of a multi-billion corporation that he could do with some voice lessons, it is one of the best investments you could ever make. Ask the programme director of any radio station how important tonality is in engaging and retaining audience attention.

So why should it be different in the corporate arena? The answer is simple. It isn’t. Human engagement is based on complex neural brain activity, and the human voice is one of the most engaging instruments ever invented. It can also be one of the most polarizing. Downing Street legend has it that the late Margaret Thatcher was coached to drop her delivery tone a few semi-tones to add gravitas and authority to her public speaking. Arguably this technique worked, mainly because the brain finds deeper tones much more attractive and credible.

I’m not suggesting that you need to start smoking 20 a day and quaffing Johnnie Walker’s finest on an industrial scale, but engaging a vocal coach to help with intonation, breathing, and pronunciation, will certainly add to the overall perception that you know what you are talking about, and it will help deliver that all important gravitas.

6. Look the audience in the eye

One of the golden rules when meeting someone for the first time is establishing and maintaining eye contact. This rule doesn’t change when you meet a room full of 500, or even 5000 people for the first time. Looking up and scanning the audience, engaging with people at the back, will always make you look in control. If you command the audience you command the stage. I will never forget seeing Anthony Hopkins in a production of “Pravda” by David Hare and Howard Brenton, at the National Theatre in London. For his first scene he stalked into the vast auditorium and planted his feet firmly in the middle of the stage (if you don’t know the play he was playing the part of fictional news baron ‘Lambert Le Roux’ – do the anagram and see who you come up with). He then stood, and looked around. Hands clasped firmly behind his back. There was no set in sight. He just stood in a pool of light and looked the audience up and down. There was a pause. You could have heard the metaphorical pin drop. And then he spoke. It was the most masterful stage entrance I have ever witnessed. The audience was mesmerized. He oozed stage presence. All too often a speaker will hide behind his or her notes, or gaze at a power-point slide, they forget they are engaging in a conversation. All the usual rules about making eye contact with people go out of the window.

Eye contact breeds confidence. If you can stand on stage and confidently look your audience in the eye they will love you for it. Not only will you deliver your keynote like a world-beater you will have conquered the confidence wall. It takes balls to stand on a stage and look your audience straight between the eyes. You will grow in stature, and you will take your speech on to a new level.

7. The pause is your friend

Barrack Obama is an orator worth watching . One of the reasons Obama has become so successful as a public speaker is his mastery of the pause. All his key convention addresses are littered with dramatic pauses (all carefully choreographed) designed to enthrall and engage the watching audience. Playwright Harold Pinter became known in theatrical circles for his use of the pause. The Pinter Pause. Many of his plays had dark and menacing over-tones, but his use of the pause created concentrated drama - the sort of theatricality that you can run a knife through. The power of the pause is universally recognized in the world of direct sales where “he who speaks first loses”. How many times have you heard a car salesman ask you “what colour would you like?” and then say nothing until you speak? Silence sells. Silence allows your audience to digest what you have just said, and then hanker for your next compelling statement. A pause gives texture to a speech, builds stage presence, and also (in some circumstances) gives you thinking time.Remember. If you lose your place there is only one person who knows you are having a small absence. Hold your poise, your posture, and…. pause.

No one will ever know.  And the audience? They will think you are the Jupiter of Oration as you hold them in the palm of your hand.

Author: Nick Meir: Founder, A House Called Alice

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