A few months ago my teenaged son was struggling with getting started on a speech for his English class. He had a stack of research notes and a ton of ideas (who knew that a tree sloth can hold its breath underwater for up to 40 minutes?), but was at a loss as to how pull it all together. I explained that early in my communications career, my friend and mentor, veteran journalist David Beers, laid out a simple but brilliant formula for writing op-eds. Over several years helping non-profit leaders create and place op-eds, I found it to be nearly foolproof. Happily, I discovered that the formula is also fantastic for getting started on a compelling speech. And while a beautifully crafted speech defies any pat formula, a simple framework can help get those creative and intellectual juices flowing. So, here’s the basic idea, starting with my own addition: beginning with a story. For the rest of it – apologies to David, as I’ve almost certainly mangled his original sage advice!
Here’s the overview, followed by some detail:
- Start with a story
- Provoke with a compelling hypotheses or main argument
- Back it up with 3-5 supporting points or ‘validators’
- Describe the solution or call to action
- Circle back to the opening hypotheses (or story)
1. Start with a story…
As virtually every communicator should know by now: start with a story. It could be anything: a personal experience, or one recounted to you; a current news story; a hypothetical or fictional story. As the authors of “Made to Stick” describe so well, stories are “sticky” because they engage an audience’s imagination. When we hear a ‘vivid’ story, we literally see pictures in our minds, and in some ways experience the emotions and physical embodiment of the described experience. This dynamic can transform the audience-speaker relationships. As master communicator and brand strategist, Bill Baker, explains, “starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defenses and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you.”
Typically, I encourage speakers to think about a few basic elements: setting and characters (it’s ‘stickier’ to see actual pictures in our minds, not just hear about concepts), some sort of tension or ‘quest’, action, and resolution. There are probably a dozen frameworks or elements taught to help create stories; that’s just one approach. I tend to push the visual. At public speaking trainings for the Center for Progressive Leadership and Simon Fraser University I would ask participants to pair up and tell stories that were so vivid their partners could actually draw something to capture the tale.
Your initial audience engagement doesn’t have to be as rigid as a classic story, however. You could:
- start with a brief visualization (“picture this: you’re driving along Highway 99, when suddenly…”)
- ask a question that invites the audience to ponder their own perspective before sharing yours (“How do you discern between a genuine and token apology?”)
- ask for a show of hands to demonstrate some particular common experience (“how many here arrived by public transit?”)
- share a powerful quote, or poem
- read out a topical news headline
- … or something else
2. Launch into your big compelling hypotheses, position or argument
This is fairly straightforward. What’s your main argument or hypotheses? It should be provocative and compelling in some way. It could just be one statement, like, “When it comes to green tech innovation, Canada is teetering on the cusp of become either a global superstar or an industry laughing stock. Here’s why…”
3. Back it up with supporting points
Next, follow with three to five supporting points or ‘validators’ that back up your main argument. You could transition from the opening position statement above with, “consider this”… then follow with your ‘evidence.’ These supporting points could include statistics, facts, even another story – anything to “back up”, prove or make the case for your key position.
4. Clarify the ‘call to action’
For any kind of social change argument, this is where you lay out the solution: what’s your “call to action”? For whom – who is responsible, and what should they do, exactly? If it’s appropriate, you might also describe the next step. And if there’s a role for the audience to play – even better.
5. Circle back to your opening
Here’s where you wrap it all up with your closing paragraph or statement, circling back to the beginning. Basically, this is where you figuratively say: “Snap! See, that’s why I stand by my argument or position”. It could be a sentence or two related back to your opening story (maybe this is where you roll out the story’s ‘ending’), or your main position, or both.
Beyond the Formula
And again – truly transformational speeches are like works of art – there is no definitive recipe for their creation. For some of the deepest, most powerful resources in the field, check out veteran public speaking trainer Gail Larsen’s Real Speaking site and blog. Gail offers both executive coaching and small-group intensive trainings out of both the US and western Canada (I’ve taken two of her workshops), and her book, Transformational Speaking, is invaluable.