A great speech can still flop

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Some years ago, IBM hired me to speak to a thousand of its sales and marketing people. When I took the podium the audience was charged up, as IBM people usually are. But a few minutes into my speech – pandemonium. In a wild rush, the place suddenly began to empty. What was wrong? Had I said my favorite apple was the McIntosh?
No, it was a fire alarm, accompanied by the eerie mechanical voice repeating, “Evacuate the building! Evacuate the building!”
After milling around in the cold for 15 minutes, it was determined to be a false alarm and we stumbled back inside. I returned to the podium and gave what I felt was the worst speech of my life.
Moral? I can do everything in my power to prepare a great speech and still flop – sometimes because of uncontrollable events, other times because meeting planners fail to do the little things that can make a speech work perfectly. Remember, speakers are like diamonds: No matter how much they sparkle on their own, they need the right setting to bring out their best.
According to the experts, there are 100,000 presentations given in the United States every day. Here are my tips to get the most out of one of your biggest investments – your speaker.
• No sound system works every time. Microphones work better than they used to, but that’s like saying the post office is more efficient than it used to be. Make sure that you have a backup microphone, backup batteries and even a backup technician who is in the room ready to correct difficulties when they arise.
• Don’t let traffic jam a speech. Half the meeting rooms in America have walkways or kitchens adjacent to them. The room can be quiet as a church for a while, then dishes rattle, chairs screech, carts roll by. The speaker feels like a duck in a shooting gallery – trapped onstage and unable to do anything about it. Have the facility guarantee that there will be no outside noise while your speaker is at work. Then assign a room monitor to maintain control.
• Help speakers prepare to win. Some people spend more time briefing the busboys than the speakers. If you want the speaker to target a message to your company or association, supply him or her with material about your group. Don’t assume speakers will hunt for information on their own. Most won’t.
For a speech, make sure the room lights are turned up as high as they’ll go. Restful environments are for sleeping, not speaking. People remember more in brightness and have way more fun. Also, speakers perform best to a full house. Put the first row of seats just eight feet from the stage so the speaker can connect with the audience. Rope off a large section of the seats at the back and keep them blocked off until the crowd is bumper-to-bumper. This creates excitement and leaves the back seats for the latecomers. If you’re stuck with a room you can’t fill, use screens to block off the unused areas.
• Little things mean a lot. Not true. Little things mean everything. When I make a speech, I always bring along a roll of masking tape. Why? Two reasons: To tape down any cords on the stage that are likely to trip me up, and to tape down the door latches so latecomers can slip in quietly.
• The introduction is as important to a speaker as the leadoff hitter to a baseball team. The introduction sets the tone and builds the excitement. Choose your organization’s most experienced public speaker. An “honoree” or a “sponsor” is usually a disaster. Brief him or her in advance on how crucial the introduction is to set the table for a successful event.
• Request a question. How many speakers call for questions and get dead silence? Plant two or three questioners in the audience. But not with prearranged questions – canned exchanges are easy to detect and can destroy rapport. Instead, find questioners who will listen and are comfortable getting things rolling. Oftentimes, I also begin by saying, “I know no one wants to ask the first question … so may I have the second question, please?”

Mackay’s Moral: It’s easier to prepare and prevent than to repair and repent.

Harvey Mackay is the author of The New York Times No. 1 bestseller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his Web site www.harveymackay.com, or at Mackay Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.

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