Three easy ways to turn a dull, boring, uninspiring speech into gold

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

If you’ve ever bombed as a speaker, or suffered through a dull, boring speech, you know how bad it can be. It could be the longest 60 minutes of your life.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to improve a bad speech, even without changing the core content.

I coach speakers, mostly on their business strategies, and occasionally with their speech (watch for a big announcement next week for an all new speaker school.) When it comes to their speech, I see the same mistakes being repeated. I can’t do much about their knowledge or arguments, but with a few small changes even an inexperienced speaker can get an audience to lean in.

Here are my top three ways to turn a dull, boring, uninspiring speech in gold:

1. Start with a problem

All presentations need to start with a reason we should listen. Don’t bore us with Thank You’s, or by telling us how excited you are to be there (that’s all about you). Instead, impress us. Make a bold claim. Tell a great story, or build an argument with findings from your research. Here’s how I think about it.

Imagine your audience is watching you with a TV clicker in their hand. At any time they can change the channel. Your job is to stop that from happening. How? 

By proving you understand their pain. 

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” Stephen Covey

Before I step on stage I’ve talked multiple times with my client, interviewed delegates, researched the company, and spent hours reworking my content. I know a lot about their pain. (get an awesome speech writing template that will literally save you hours of grief in this post “How to design a great speech“)

The first two minutes of my speech, whether I start with a story, or not, are always, always, always about a problem they want to go away. It’s pretty simple, if I have something they want, they are pretty likely to lean in.

2. Tell a story

We remember good stories. According to Uri Hasson from Princeton when we tell a story (albeit a good one) the mind of the listener becomes synchronized with ours. The event we are retelling that had an effect on our life can have the same effect on the audience.

It’s in our DNA to communicate with stories. Tell a bunch of facts or clever how-to’s, without stories and, well….

“For as long as you’ve got your audience’s attention, they are in your mind.” Joshua Gowin, Ph.D

The trick is to tell a sticky story. A story about how you trained really hard and then ran you fastest 10km (6 mile) race is nice. It’s also forgettable. A story about self-doubt, quitting, and then running the race, despite your rocky start, has potential. My rule is the more the audience can relate to me, the more they will lean in. The more they lean in, the more impact my lessons will have long-term. And that, ultimately, is what I get paid for.

As you rehearse your stories a great question to ask is “If I was in the audience, would I care about that?” I often tell a funny story about a Porsche driver when teaching my Windows on the World model. Once I started to ask that question, I realized parts of my set up for the story were dragging it down. Nobody needs to know how long I’ve lived in my city, or what kind of Porsche it was. After some heavy cutting, the story was better.

3. Make them work

Years ago, my wife gave me this gem: if the speaker is doing all the work, something is wrong. In other words, even if you deliver the speech of your life, I guarantee you that the audience left the room at least a half dozen times during your hour on stage. Audiences need breaks, changes of energy, and to be involved. Tossing another joke out is good – making them work is better.

“If the speaker is doing all the work, something is wrong.”

Try this. Next time you are presenting, plan to change the energy at least every 15 to 20 minutes. It could be a simple dyad (two-person) conversation, or have them journal something from your lesson. If you’re feeling really brave, go for a game, group discussion, or standing exercise. (see my post “How to deliver a great speech“)

Let me know, in the comments, what you are going to do so your speech is gold.

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