Most speeches and other oral communications I hear fail to resonate with the audience. Instead of motivating the audience to act, or winning approval for the speaker's point of view, the material seems dead, lacking power and a personal touch. Even presentations that have substance and clarity wind up falling on deaf ears.
The reason is really pretty simple: Too many speakers lack passion and commitment to their topics and empathy for their audience.
First, anyone giving a speech ought to identify with the people listening. What mood are they in? How many speakers have they listened to before your presentation? What time of day is it? What is the feeling in the room? If you launch into a long-winded speech at the end of the day, nobody is going to listen. If you don't understand the interests of the audience, they won't understand you.
A few years ago, I had been trying for months to arrange a face-to-face meeting with a top buyer at a major company to whom I was trying to sell a large advertising schedule. I finally got the appointment and was really excited as I walked into his office. I was on time, but I had to wait a few minutes before I could visit with him. I had my presentation ready and felt like I was at the beginning of a big race. But as I was ushered into my client's office I could tell immediately that he was preoccupied with something. He was literally sighing as we talked, his speech was hurried and I just knew something wasn't quite right. So before I got too deep into things I suggested that we delay my presentation for another time because I could see he was up to his ears with other matters. He thanked me for my courtesy and told me his wife had been hospitalized after being in a minor car accident. He really needed to run to the hospital to make sure she was all right. He made a date for me the next week and thanked me again for being so understanding. The next week I got his business. This story shows how important it is to be courteous and to be aware of your audience's feelings and circumstances. Too many salespeople I know would simply have gone ahead with their presentation without giving any thought to what was bothering their prospect, maybe even without noticing his preoccupation.
I interviewed a young lady a few days ago for a sales job with this magazine and she asked me what are some of the most important qualities of any above-average salesperson. I told her that the most important attributes are passion and a willingness to work hard. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Why is it that so many people feel embarrassed to show passion about their work? I know people who love what they do and show it every day by their commitment and body language. They don't make any bones about it and tell anyone who asks them how much they like what they are doing. Passion is crucial if you are going to excel, whether it is at work, relating to others or play. That's why when I go to a presentation and the speaker talks about his products or the mission of his company with enthusiasm and passion, I identify with him immediately. How can anyone sell anything unless he believes in it? That goes for speeches at conventions, presentations to boards of directors or sales calls. Lack of passion usually means a lack of success, but most people don't seem to understand this.
Passion by itself isn't the only necessary ingredient to getting your message across. I believe one of the major tools you must use when talking to a group of people is to tell stories that prove your point. People are inherently interested in others' lives and will listen to personal stories. People especially love stories about individuals who have persisted and overcome incredible odds and succeeded. I tell stories like that all the time to demonstrate various points I'm trying to make.
One story I tell has to do with sticking to one's principles and beliefs. We all respect people who do. Some time back I was an advertising representative for some medical publications but I was never able to sell a big pharmaceutical house on the value of the publications I represented. One day I met with the top ad manager of the company. He had a reputation for being a tough fellow to deal with and he was. Here's the proposition he made to me: "If you place my ads on the back cover of all your (magazines) I'll give you an order for nearly a million bucks. That's my deal. What do you say?" I was flattered by his offer and it was tempting but I had other customers that had been featured on the back covers of those magazines for years and I wasn't about to throw them out just to get new business. I told the ad manager this, and he asked me very loudly to leave his office immediately. I was embarrassed and deflated but I knew I had done the right thing. A year later that same gentleman asked me to visit him again and he told me that he had respected my position on the matter and he gave me an even larger order than the one I had turned down. He also told me he respected my integrity for holding my ground and he even apologized for how he had behaved.
There, I've done it. I have just used a personal story to make a point and it probably held your attention much more than if I had just made the point without making it personal.
Storytelling is an art that requires practice. You need to know how to pace and structure it so it holds other people's interest. I know this: Stories that are from the heart can capture everyone's attention. I like to chronicle stories about people at the point of a sale. People who go out of their way to make customers feel better about a store or any kind of business. People who just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. The best recent examples of such stories are those from the Sept. 11 attacks. Those are inspirational stories, the best kind.
One of the keys to knowing how to tell stories is to listen to what stories other people tell. You need to keep your ears and eyes open to the world around you and see what stories you can use to make your points. Listen to them and then practice storytelling. You'll be surprised.