The 3 Rules

Everyone has "three rules" to address virtually any challenge. Here are my three rules for getting an audience to sit up and take notice--and for the right reasons.

Rule 1 - Counter-program

The audience has expectations. If they've heard you before, they think they know what to expect. If they haven't heard you, they simply group you with other keynoters or dinner speakers they've heard before from your industry.

You've got to break through their preconceptions. If everyone else is using text-heavy PowerPoint support, you use dramatic photos. If everyone else is forecasting the future of your industry, focus on eye-opening lessons from the past. If your public persona is fire-breathing, use a more "fireside" style.

You don't want to be so radical that the audience can't follow your message. But particularly if you work in an industry that thrives on innovation, there is no better way to project an innovative image for your company than to do things differently on the podium.

Rule 2 - Play the audience

Simply put, a speech is live theater. You don't have to entertain, but you do have to tell a compelling story. The audience is not out to get you...usually. But they won't hang on your every word either, unless you lure them in.

So know your audience...and your speaking environment. They will expect something different from you as a conference keynoter than if you are leading a panel or having a face-to-face discussion with them.

  • What is the title of your talk, and what preconceptions will that title create?
  • What is the perception of your company, and what frame of reference does that create for your listeners?
  • What types of talks have you given before, and how might that color audience expectations?
Think about every factor that may affect your audience as they take their seats. Then use your best sense of what they want from you--and give them something more, or something different, or something that bends their perspective.

Rule 3 - Speaker-support should only support

You've all seen them. Text-heavy PowerPoint slides that look like pages of a book. Charts dense with information--with typeface reduced in size so that it all fits on the slide.

Every time a new slide comes up, the audience stops listening to the speaker while they read the slide. And then there are those speakers who essentially read their slides, hardly adding anything further.

The upshot is that the speaker becomes superfluous, sometimes even a nuisance. Because, let's face it, most people are more articulate when they have the time to write something out, then when they are speaking off the cuff.

If you must use PowerPoint, use it as a brief outline only to prompt your memory and to give your audience a roadmap. Limit your slide text to 3-4 bullets of no more than 3-4 words each. After all, you are giving the speech, not your software.