For many people, getting up in front of a group of people to speak triggers a body response that is similar to being thrown in a cage with a wild animal. Indeed, there is that joke that most people would rather be in the casket at the funeral rather than delivering the eulogy.
While many people just try to avoid public speaking, it is hard to avoid it in a career where you need to be pitching clients, giving presentations, running transactional calls, and every once in a while being called to give a speech.
My firm recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and at our annual firm gala I gave a speech just like I have done for the past 19 years. Each year, I undergo the same process for how I prepare to give such an important speech to a room full of close to 200 people. In reflecting on my preparations, I thought I would share the steps I undertake with the hope that it can be useful to you in the various stages of your careers.
Of course this is a “speech,” but the preparation is similar for pitches, presentations, and pretty much any situation where you are “presenting” in front of others who are watching you “perform.”
- Fear. Gasp, I realize I am making a complete fool of myself. I have forgotten what to say. Or people are laughing at me. Or someone points out what I said was just wrong — in front of everyone. I wake up sweating. It is a dream, of course. For many years I was just terrified of public speaking. I heard all the silly suggestions like pretending everyone else in the room was naked — ugh. None of it worked. But then someone said something that resonated for me. This was that the adrenaline and butterflies I felt before speaking was “good” — it meant that my body and brain were ready to outperform! Is this true? I don’t know, but it has worked for me. I get butterflies, but I am not really nervous any more. I try to look forward to these kinds of things, and I welcome those butterflies.
- Pick a message and drive it home. It seems obvious, but before you write a speech you need to figure out what the message will be. As stated in the Churchill quote below, once you figure out the message, then you need to drive it home to the audience. I have learned — the hard way, by blowing it in the past — that ONE message is best. Two messages is blowing it. Got that? ONE message.
- Be a storyteller. Regardless of the topic it is always good to weave in an interesting or thought-provoking story to make you more relatable as a speaker. People love listening to stories. They say Lincoln was a master story-teller, by the way. Supposedly many of his speeches were in the nature of stories. And they are really much easier for an audience to listen to, follow, and remember.
- If you are naturally funny, that is great, and if not, don’t worry about it. Trying to be funny and failing really can take the wind out of your sails. There is nothing wrong with being serious and strong and passionate.
- Share your speech with one or two people you trust. We’ve all been victim to our own delusions of grandeur and that definitely applies to speech writing. Sometimes I think I have an amazing speech but for some reason it just isn’t, or maybe it is, but the speech draft isn’t getting the point across the way I want. I have (two) trusted confidantes who will be ruthlessly honest with me, and I let them read it ahead of time. By the way, in an earlier draft of this speech, both of them told me my speech essentially “sucked.” I then rewrote it almost entirely. Thank God I have them around — thank God they are honest with me — and thank God I am willing to listen to them openly.
- I remember Keith Barket — the former global head of real estate at Angelo Gordon — from whom I learned an incredible amount. He passed away tragically in 2010. But Keith was always so cool and impregnable in front of a group — how did he do it? I called him one night about something or other, and he told me he couldn’t talk to me because he was rehearsing his presentation. I was incredulous — Keith, rehearsing? Keith told me, in his special way, “Bruce, everyonerehearses! (emphasis added)” Well, if Keith rehearsed, then I better do it too. I always rehearse. It is astonishing how awful I sound the first time through and how impressive (humbly) I sound after a couple of trial runs. By the way, for me, I don’t “over- rehearse,” as then it starts to sound canned and rote and boring. So I rehearse “just the right amount.” One last thing: I don’t rehearse what I plan to say; I pretend I am actually making the speech — to an empty room, of course — and I then make appropriate changes if necessary.
- Breathing. I don’t find this is an issue for me anymore but if you are really scared, I advocate saying your first few words really LOUDLY. It is surprising how much that energizes you — and makes you feel strong. So I used to do that.
Finally, I will end with the excellent admonition from one of the world’s great speakers, Winston S. Churchill:
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”
Good luck! I hope this helps.