When was the last time you heard someone say: “I wish that speech had been longer.”
I’m guessing, never.
Holiday time is here again. Party time is here again. Which means... speech time is here. Again. With an open question as to who dreads this more; the average speaker or the average audience.
I’m guessing both.
How can you turn pain into pleasure? The dread into delight? The answer:
Be brief. Be brief. Be brief.
Roosevelt was right. The secret to a good speech is brevity, and brevity is tough. Brevity needs thought and planning. As Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, put it: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”¹
Here are some time-saving tips to promote brevity.
A holiday speech has one short, three-part purpose. Hello... thank you... let’s celebrate. It’s basically a “Hi, and thanks for… all this year’s work / coming to the party / joining us in celebration.” (Edit as appropriate). Leave all the provocation, cautionary tales, visioneering, preaching, and eulogizing for another time. It must also entertain.
When we create a holiday speech, however, we go beyond this. We’re in front of an audience. We want to look prepared. We want to seem informed. We want to seem together.
That can hurt us. We pack too much in. We overtalk. We succumb to the Curse of Knowledge: ‘You know too much, and you’re way too passionate.’
We worry that if we don’t show that knowledge and share that passion, the audience might think we actually don’t care.
The secret to a good speech is planning. Keep it tight, write it ahead, and include a couple of techniques from rhetoric that packs plenty of punch into a small package.
Holiday speeches bring people together, metaphorically and literally.
What will everyone agree on? That common cause needs to link to the event you’re speaking at and set the tone for your speech. It can refer to past or future, emotion or fact — the only thing that matters is that everyone nods sage agreement when you drop it. Find that statement and stick it to the very start of your speech.
You have now united your audience. First goal gained.
Audiences like to know what’s coming.
Now you have everyone’s attention and goodwill, you need to share a) what your message is, b) how many sections you’re going to say it in, and; c) how long it’s going to take.
Be clear on what you want everyone to remember from your speech. If you can only land one main point, then what is it?
How will you structure that point? Is it one big statement, or are there three subpoints you need to bring out? If so, state them in short, pithy mentions: “...there are three things I want to say.”
As you list those sub-points, use your fingers. Literally. Count the points off on your fingers as you state them… Point 1… Point 2… Point 3… Listing structure in this way helps you remember what you want to say.
Your audience is now happily in receive mode, and you know where you’re going. Second goal gained.
You’ve got everyone looking in the same direction, and have a clear structure for your speech. Now it's time to decorate.
If your holiday structure was a holiday tree, that tree needs trimming.
My friend and colleague Gavin McMahon often points to the behavior of nervous speakers — they go into ‘safe mode.’ A call back to the old days of Microsoft Windows, when your PC was having problems. Safe mode, with all the bells and whistles switched off, is stable and secure, but appealing it is not.
Get out of safe mode. Scatter some lights.
When you write down your speech (and as part of your preparation, I do suggest you write down your speech), look for where you can add vivid adjectives. Look for where you can add a little muscle to your verbs. Safe mode is gray. This is meant to be a holiday speech.
Bring the holiday color and spice that make people sit forward and smile.
Third goal gained. The audience go wild!
Five minutes is enough to deliver your message, pack a punch, spread good cheer, then add surprise and delight by sitting down.
The average person speaks at 125 - 150 words per minute, so your five-minute speech needs to aim for approximately 750 words.
In other words, the length of this article.
¹ I know — you thought it was Mark Twain.