Manner of Speaking: Remedy for a Lifeless Speech

Manner of Speaking: Remedy for a Lifeless Speech

How to breathe life into well-worn subjects.

By Bill Hennefrund

You’ve had this experience too many times: The speaker of the evening tells a limp joke or two. Then he or she launches into a shop-worn topic such as:

  The importance of profits in today’s competitive environment.
  The need for teamwork in society.
  How to be successful by setting goals.

While you are toying with your dessert fork, you wonder: Why is this speaker wasting our time? There’s really nothing wrong with these subjects except that they have been done to death, and public speakers cannot always come up with earth-shaking topics. What’s more, a speaker is sometimes assigned a yawn-producing subject – particularly in the case of panel discussion events. Fortunately, there are easy ways to breathe new life into well-worn subjects. Here are six of them:

1.  Dig deeper into the subject. One way to freshen the stale speech topic is to find something new or unusual to say about it. You can get a good start on this research by using the key words of your talk to visit the Web sites relating to the subject. This will usually lead you to some interesting and unusual facts about your subject, and provide you with useful data.

Research of this kind often yields impressive statistical numbers, poll results, investigative reports and much more. You can also find unusual quotes to insert in your speech. I recently looked into the overly familiar subject of “good sportsmanship.” Google turned up 604,000 references, including the book, Seven Ways to Raise a Gracious Loser and a Humble Winner by Diane Laney Fitzpatrick. With this information, you can offer the latest tips and quote respected authors on this topic. Tired generalities become a problem of the past. Good riddance!

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your audience can’t tell whether you have researched your topic well – they can! A well-researched speech will be more impressive by a long shot.

2.  Tie the subject to a major, current event. You can be sure your audience will be interested in your topic if you come up with some sort of national-interest subject. For example, a petroleum industry executive recently planned to give a talk on “the need for adequate profits in our industry.” Members of his staff persuaded him that such a topic would put his audience to sleep. Instead, he decided to speak about a subject close to the pocketbooks of motorists: “The outlook for supplies and prices of gasoline for the next five years.” The “need for adequate profits” theme was still a major part of the talk, but it was not headlined.

To find a major, current event you need look no further than the front page of your newspaper, or the cover lines on a recent magazine. Almost any subject can be tied to events such as political campaigns, immigration or rising prices.

3.  Injecting the “wow” factor. Your speech subject may be prosaic, but you can create interest in it by injecting what some speakers call the “wow” factor – unusual statistics or riveting anecdotes.

Here are a few examples of arresting facts from recent speeches:

  Ten percent of all human beings ever born are alive at this very moment.”
  Eleven percent of the world is left-handed.”
  22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next hour.”

Where do you find unusual statistics or lively anecdotes? One good source is, a Web site devoted to interesting stories. Another is YouTube has a great collection of speeches that often contain unusual facts or arresting anecdotes.

Still another good source should be your own personal file of ideas, tales, clippings and quotations. If you have such a file, you’ll find it a great time saver. The actual form of the file and the method of classification is not important – as long as it is easy for you to use. One favorite method is to use five-by-eight-inch cards, arranged according to topics in alphabetical order. That size card is useful because you can carry it with you to the podium.

4.  Include an element of controversy. An old saying goes, “If you want attention, start a fight.” Jeff Scott Cook, author of The Elements of Speechwriting and Public Speaking, recommends talking about current conflicts if you want attention as a speaker. Or, he adds, “start one yourself. Emotions run hotter when ideas, events and arguments are polarized – cast in terms of right or wrong, rich or poor; and personified – cast in terms of factions and their leaders.”

Here’s an example of how a flat statement can be turned into a more provocative passage in your speech:

Dull: “Immigrants are easily crossing our nation’s borders and living in our towns.”

More interesting: “They refuse to learn our language, can’t afford car insurance and live in substandard conditions. They send their kids to our schools and hospitals, letting our taxpayers pick up the tab. Yet they take jobs others don’t want and could be a real source of strength for our nation.”

In sum, if you are planning to give a talk, look it over for places where you can inject some controversy.

5.  Keep it Simple. The speaker usually knows more than the audience about the subject at hand, so there is always the temptation to parade your expertise. In preparing for a talk, some speakers collect enough information for a year’s graduate course on the subject. They are so concerned about proving their expertise that they haven’t looked at the talk as the audience would.

There is no way an audience can digest it all. “Faced with an overload of information, the brain decides to shut down and take a holiday,” is the way a veteran speaker explains it. How many times have you pretended to listen to a speaker while your mind went elsewhere?

The solution is easy: Simplify your talk. Hold it down to three major points – or less. Then fill in the background of each point with specific examples.

6.  Develop a “Carry Away” Message. What is the main idea you want to leave with your listeners? It helps to formulate this idea in the planning stages of your talk. The “carry away” message ought to be captivating, clear and interesting in order to keep the audience’s attention. It is the single idea that you want to convey – hopefully, an idea that is unexpected and different.

Determining the “carry away” message early in the planning stages of your talk helps to keep you focused on the main subject, and prevents you from wandering into different territory. This message may be stated and restated in different ways several times during the course of your talk.

Here are a few examples:

“We need to stop or markedly slow global corruption” – from a talk by Alan Boeckmann, chairman of the Fluor Corporation.

“Business can make a real, positive and lasting difference in protecting and preserving freshwater resources” – a speech by Neville Isdell, chairman and chief executive officer of the Coca Cola company.

“How to influence power effectively” – a talk by John L. Napier, former U.S. congressman, on the subject of lobbying.

The final step in the process is, of course, to practice the speech several times. Memorizing might rob it of spontaneity, but delivering it aloud a few times will help smooth out the anecdotes and lead to stronger openings and closings. 

Bill Hennefrund is a freelance writer living in Woodbury, Connecticut.