HUGH CULVER

The one secret about public speaking nobody will tell you

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

It took me 10 years to discover – completely by accident – the one secret to public speaking that not only saved my bacon countless times, but actually made every speech better.

Today, I’m going to tell you what that secret is.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I get hired to speak to an audience there’s always one goal. Sure, my client has told me all about low employee engagement survey results, or their competition, or maybe they just want a “light motivational talk” to kick off their event.

It always sounds different from the last time. Less experienced speakers might launch into a frenzy of late-nights mind-mapping, editing, rehearsals and patching together yet-another-new-version-of-the-same-old-stuff-but-with-a-new-title.

Yawn.

That describes the first 12 years of my speaking career:

Short on sleep, delivering a grossly over-built, first-time speech to an audience who just needed some great edutainment and one or two solid take-aways.

Let’s get back to the one goal every client has.

In over 1,100 presentations, I have spoken to firefighters, pharmacists, nurses (a favourite), aircraft engineers, lawyers, physicians and drywall salesmen. In every case the organizers all wanted one thing:

MOTIVATE PEOPLE TO DO SOMETHING BETTER

Now, before you choke on your cappuccino, let me explain.

What really matters

Yesterday I spoke to professional fundraisers. What do they want? Simple, they want one or two ways to make their pitch to potential donors a bit more successful.

That’s it – that’s what I’m there for.

In my 60 minutes on stage, I need to first build trust and get buy-in that I have something of value that they need to know. Next, my job is to motivate them to do something better

“Complexity is your enemy” said uber-entrepreneur Richard Branson “Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”

To do that I have to work very hard to avoid what I call the bloated speech.

The bloated speech

We’ve all been there, squirming in our seat, thinking “Please make this end.”

It’s the bloated speech.

A nail-chewing lecture with endless PowerPoint slides crammed with long lists of 32 point bullet points, followed by undecipherable graphs and bad clip art. It’s the bloated speech.

That speaker has made the cardinal error of public speaking:

THEY THINK MORE IS BETTER.

Sure, some people are furiously trying to scribble down notes while others listen politely, waiting for that gem they will soon forget about – most even join in the applause.

But, here’s the most important test: how many are motivated to do something better?

And that brings me to the most valuable secret to public speaking that nobody will tell you (except me).

The most valuable secret to public speaking

Watch any speaker on stage and we can all spot areas to improve. Maybe they hide behind the lectern, avoid eye contact or talk too fast. But there’s one skill I’m always looking for:

Watch any speaker on stage and we can all spot areas to improve.

Can they deliver just enough content to motivate people to do something better?

The question, dear reader, you should be asking is this:

When you take everything you know about your subject – all the statistics, models, examples, stories and strategies – what small subset will motivate people to do something better?

That’s what you need to deliver.

You see, the most valuable secret to public speaking is this (drum roll please):

NOBODY WILL MISS WHAT ISN’T THERE.

I discovered this “secret” one night, after a very long day. I was nervously waiting for the emcee, sponsors, Chairperson and who-knows-who-else to clear the stage for my after-dinner speech. As the evening wore on and my allotted time shrank from one hour to 50, and then 30 minutes I kept frantically reaching across from the VIP table to my laptop to delete slides.

By the time I launched into my now-twenty minute, one hour speech, I was down to one quarter of my original slides. The surprise was – I loved it! Having less content freed me up to ad lib and work unrestricted with the time I had. The audience didn’t know the difference (nobody will miss what isn’t there) and rather than feeling frustrated, I was having fun, doing what I came to do: motivate people to do something better.

Since that night I’ve been vigorously pruning every presentation.

Once you take a weed-eater to your content, trim it down to the bare essentials and then deliver it with a bit of entertainment – now you’re a pro. Now you can command the bigger fees and fill your calendar with referrals and empty the box of books at the back of the room.

Now, you’re a pro. So get out the Sharpie.

Get out the Sharpie

If you’re tasked to motivate people to do something better, first look at what they don’t need.

If you’re tasked to motivate people to do something better, here’s what your audience DOES NOT NEED:

  • endless statistics to prove your point. Deliver one good one and make it stick.
  • one more PowerPoint slide. My formula is: 2/4/8. No more than one slide every 2 minutes, max. 4 bullets per slide and max. 8 words per bullet (and please increase your font size!)
  • graphs! Enough said.
  • more than one to three lessons in an hour. There’s an inverse relationship between more lessons and better retention—overload your audience and your value drops proportionately.
  • clips from Mr Bean, Fawlty Towers or Braveheart with zero relevance to your message. Video should either add humour or create an emotional anchor to your lesson. Otherwise remove it.
  • stories about taxis, hotels or airplanes. Try to choose stories relevant to the way your audience lives.

So get out the Sharpie-axe and start removing dead wood. That brings us to what to do with all that extra time.

What to do with all that extra time?

The most impactful and memorable speakers I’ve enjoyed learning from were artists of delivery. They typically use little in the way of audio visual aids and seem to not even be working hard. It’s almost annoying how easy they make it look.

And rather than adding more content, they weave a path towards a way of doing something better – constantly addressing the “problem” and revisiting the same solution. And here’s the trick:

Nobody misses what isn’t there. We don’t need to hear about their years of research, one more statistic or another example to prove their solution has value.

We’re getting the best ingredients, delivered with just the right recipe to help us do something better.

Your job, is to fight the temptation to over-build your content and instead to craft a better delivery so you can motivate people to do something better.

Now get out the Sharpie.

Want to dig a bit deeper into presentation skills? Here are some related posts that will help:

Get More Speaking Referrals with the ‘One Thing’ Question

9 stupid things speakers do on stage

How to negotiate your speaking fees and get hired

The business of speaking – four smart steps to getting paid to speak more often