Nothing happens until someone says something
There is a longstanding rule in business, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” In creating special events, there should be a similar rule, “Nothing happens until someone says something.”
There is a lot of work that goes into creating a successful event from stage design, to guest lists, to menus, to audio-video setups. Yet at the heart of any event is the need to say something that is relevant to the audience, important to the event organizers and communicated in a compelling and memorable fashion.
It is claimed that the three things people most commonly fear are snakes, spiders and public speaking – not necessarily in that order. This may explain why the most important function at an event – communicating a well-crafted message – often receives the least attention.
How many events have you attended where the room is spectacularly decorated, the food exquisite and the A/V system state-of-the-art? Then the speakers arrive at the podium. They often drone on endlessly, talk about subjects of which the audience has no interest and – worst of all – seem to be making up what they say on the spot. None of the speakers have a clue what the others will say, nor does the order of speakers make any sense. By the end of the day, the attendees have no recollection of what was said nor can they recall all the other elements of an otherwise very professionally organized event. Much of the audience find themselves wishing that they had opted for the excitement of watching paint dry.
This phenomenon of poorly planned and poorly articulated speaking applies to everything from a wedding reception to an annual shareholder general meeting of a public traded company.
The challenge for event organizers is that what is said by who is the element over which they often think that they have the least control. This is largely for two reasons. The organizers do not feel that they have the subject matter expertise to intervene, and many people invited to speak do not like being told what to say or how to say it. I believe the dislike of being told what to say is not derived from disrespect for the organizers but from the individual’s fear of public speaking.
In any case, when things do go badly it is the event organizer who is often the object of criticism, so don’t be afraid to take charge. It is legitimate for organizers to take control of the speaking element of an event. In order to do that a simple three-step process should be used:
1. Determine the communications goals of the event.
In any event large or small, determine the communications objectives. What is it you want the audience to remember a week after the event? It can be as simple as everyone at the retirement party remembering how the retiree was always generous in teaching younger employees or as complex a situation such as explaining that new technology and overseas competition has led to the selling of the company.
Be sure to push the client to address this critical issue of what it is they want to say. A vague and contradictory communications objective will result in vague presentations with no clear take-away. If the communications objective cannot be described in a few sentences, it is not really an objective.
When the communications objective is defined, be sure to share it with all the speakers so that their presentations can address the objective. Although not always necessary, it can be helpful to have a conference call with all the speakers so that they can discuss among themselves what each will say. There is no worse feeling for a speaker than to hear the preceding speaker say what they are about to say.
2. Ensure that speakers provide detailed speech outlines in advance.
An odd phenomenon of public speaking is that people will tell you they have barely anything to say in a speech, yet when they reach the podium they go over their allotted time and throw the whole program off schedule. This often results in the event organizer receiving icy stares from the waiters standing around wanting to start serving lunch.
Exceeding the allotted time on a speech is not caused by the speaker having too much to say, but rather, they have not thought through in detail what they want to say. The great editor E.B. White once said, “The best writing is rewriting.” This is particularly true of speech writing. Be sure to have each speaker provide in advance either speaking notes or at least a detailed outline. It will ensure a far more well-paced and memorable event. The speakers will be irritated with you before the conference that you have insisted on this. After the event they will be very grateful.
3. Be sure that it is the speaker’s speech and that it is rehearsed.
In large events speakers often have someone else write their speech. This is fine. In fact for really important events it is wise, if not essential, to employ a professional speechwriter. The challenge is to be sure that the speaker actually owns the speech and it sounds like them talking. Is there anything worse than someone reading a speech that sounds as if someone else wrote it?
The worst case that I remember was when a speech-giver decided to read the text of the speech for the first time when he was standing on the podium. It was early in my career when I worked as an aide to a government minister. At Christmas it was traditional for the minister to give a speech to all the foreign trade representatives. The minister did not pay any attention to the speech preparation. On the ride over to the event the minister was handed the text of the speech. He promptly tucked it into his pocket and did not open it until after his introduction as he was at the podium acknowledging the applause of the diplomats. As the minister read the speech, there was a line “free trade is no panacea.” The minister paused, read half the line, stopped and looked up desperately at the audience. Then he launched into the line again asserting bravely “free trade is no pancreas,” nodding emphatically afterwards. The room went quiet.
An enforced rehearsal would have avoided this regrettable yet memorable event.
I don’t suppose that there is much that we can do about our fear of snakes and spiders. But some simple planning and preparation can at least lessen the fear of public speaking and, who knows, maybe even let the event organizer take a bow at the end.