Great speakers keep it simple

One thing that the best public speakers have in common is that they keep their speeches and presentations simple. Rather than trying to impress their audience, great speakers put their efforts into delivering a clear, compelling message.

Here’s one of the major differences between ordinary speakers and great speakers: Ordinary speakers want to impress their audiences, while great speakers want to communicate with their audiences—clearly and persuasively.

The finest speakers keep their organization simple. They rely on standard guidelines that keep the audience aware of what’s happening: “So moving from my first point—that we need to increase our sales this quarter—I’ll talk about my second point, describing a specific new training program we are initiating, involving everyone, including the CEO.”

Years ago I heard about a whimsical note someone supposedly scribbled on a tombstone: “To follow you I’m not content, until I know which way you went.” That statement summarizes how audiences feel. You may think you are being too repetitive with your transitions, yet audiences consider these spoken cues your vocalized GPS directions, to keep them on the proper route.

Second, the finest speakers keep their delivery simple. They don’t try to sound like product pitchmen, politicians, or broadcasters. In his fine book about speaking, You Are the Message, Roger Ailes noted that “The best communicators I have ever known never changed their style of delivery from one situation to the other. They’re the same whether they’re delivering a speech, having an intimate conversation, or being interviewed on a TV talk show.”

In other words, you don’t have to be flamboyant, bombastic, or gymnastic. Just have a sincere, energetic conversation with your audience. Sure, you might have seen other speakers who gesture like a windmill gone wild or shout at top volume. But because that fits their style doesn’t imply you should follow their example. The vast majority of audiences want you to talk to them with the same comfortable—but spirited—tone you’d use at a conference table when you participate in a meeting.

Third, compelling speakers use simple, everyday language. Certainly I applaud anybody’s effort to increase his or her vocabulary by working crossword puzzles, looking up words they don’t know when they’re reading, and even studying foreign languages. Primarily, though, our enlarged vocabularies are beneficial for reading, not for speaking.

My guess is that Winston Churchill may have mastered language more than any other statesman we’re familiar with. Even so, when he wanted to rally the British people during the Second World War, he didn’t speak like a scholar. He said—so basically that anyone could understand—“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs—victory in spite of all terrors—victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Did anybody miss his point? Not at all. Did citizens and soldiers rally behind the Prime Minister? Yes, with unforgettable dedication.

Next time you give a speech, leave out the big words. They belong in the dictionary, not in speeches. Instead of prevaricate, say lie. Instead of penultimate, say next-to-last. Instead of fortuitous, say lucky.

In closing (notice that I have given another obvious transition), I invite you to list the top five speakers you have heard in your lifetime, either in person or on radio/TV. Now picture those you selected, in action. I’ll bet every one of them made you forget they were giving a speech, because their content and presentation were so simple.

Do likewise. Keep it simple, and you’ll keep your audience interested, involved, and amazingly responsive to your message.

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