Just like a culinary masterpiece begins with the best ingredients, crafting a great speech begins with getting the best support material you can and knowing what you can do with it. Even if your planned speech is something anecdotal or casual, you will want to give some real thought to what is going into your particular “casserole” and how you can get the best results from it. In this step of the process, you gather together the information you plan on using to communicate your message. That’s worth spending some time on. Here’s how I’m going to divide things up:
- Hard data – Today I want to talk about facts, case studies and statistics.
- Soft data – This component is big enough that I want to break it up:
- Stories and anecdotes — Thursday (3/6)
- Quotes, interviews and articles — Tuesday (3/11)
- Real and rhetorical questions — Thursday (3/13)
- Humor (March 18) – Seems like it deserves a special breakout, since it can be a great tool but also requires some special handling (as anyone can tell you who has had a joke fall flat in their introduction!).
- Legal material – Special focus for legal professionals:
- (March 20): Deposition, hearing or other testimony;
- (March 25): Cases, statutes; legal opinions
- Wrap-up (March 27): I want to finish up the month by reviewing everything in an abbreviated way to help it stick with you.
Got it? Good. Then let’s begin with …
Just the facts, ma’am
Maybe it goes without saying, but the two important things about your factual data is that it be (a) accurate and (b) relevant. There’s no point in reaching for mathematical support for an argument if even a child can figure out that your numbers don’t add up. And there’s no point in reaching for impressive statistics from a world-renowned organization if the information really doesn’t help make your case. Besides that, here’s what you need to know about how to handle this kind of information to give your speech maximum impact:
Facts: Keep them simple and clear and organized. Whatever you do, don’t overwhelm your audience. If you flood them with a tidal wave of facts, they will not be able to hear or absorb them. Facts are best told, and easiest understood, through stories (check back Thursday when we spend more time on stories and anecdotes).
Statistics: My advice for the body of your speech is the same as it was for the introduction: When it comes to statistics, don’t use too many of them. Use as few as are necessary and only use them to effectively drive a point home.
If you find yourself having to present reports with lots of numbers, you’ll need to use an even lighter touch. Unless you’re speaking to a very unusual audience – remember our all-important Know Your Audience guidelines – chances are people will not respond to a lot of numbers and dry, factual material. And if they can’t take it in, they can’t process it or retain it and it does nothing to solidify your message.
My best advice, if your presentation requires a lot of hard data: Instead of citing endless statistics, budget figures or company policy (and slowly boring your audience to death), pick the highlights. Choose only the data that is worth mentioning, discussing, celebrating or explaining. Put the rest in a “leave-behind” report so everyone can read it and process it on their own time. Your audience will thank you profusely for your thoughtfulness.
When possible, have a story or example to go with each statistic, so you’re not just reading them aloud from the podium. Presume your audience can read as well as you can and then give them an actual reason to want to listen to you instead.
One last tip to go out on: When using statistics or numbers, especially startling ones, use repetition to drive the point home. For example, when I talk about how long it takes to make a first impression, I state the number… pause… drag it out… repeat it again more slowly and a little bit louder, then I say it again as a full sentence.