HUGH CULVER

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

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

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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