Manner of Speaking: Get Off the Cow Path!

Manner of Speaking: Get Off the Cow Path!

How to steer clear of rambling
for on-point presentations.

By Suzanne Riches, Ph.D.

Giving presentations is all about making a resounding, clear point – taking a position and making it stick. How often have you sat through a meandering, pointless speech at work or even at Toastmasters? This experience is all too familiar. Some speeches make you feel as though you are on a cow path instead of a straight road leading to a destination. The paths worn by cows in the open range are jagged and twisting, often going nowhere in particular. If you have ever visited Boston, Massachusetts, you have experienced the difficult navigation left to today’s drivers by the cows of old.

There is a good reason for the nonsensical paths created by cows. Cows keep their heads down, looking for the next tender blade of grass. Cow paths are not created by the clear vision of one who looks up, measures the horizon and moves steadily toward a fixed point. So how can you get your eyes off the ground and your nose out of the grass? How do you avoid cow-path speaking?

Having worked with hundreds of business clients and college students, I know that helping speakers and presenters get to the point is the most difficult lesson I teach. Let me share five fail-proof techniques to help you steer clear of meandering cows:

1. Take a position! You must know what your position is to be able to make a point that will be clear for an audience. Forget just giving information. Even what many term an “informative speech” will benefit from a strong well-argued position. Let’s look at an example. Which speech would you prefer hearing? 

  “Fifteen Reasons Employees Leave Their Jobs”
  “Retain Your Employees by Addressing Their 15 Needs”

Both of these speeches will explore the “fifteen reasons,” but the second provides a focus or lens for examination. Your audience will be much more interested in your ideas if they see a clear and useful purpose for the information you are giving. By taking a position, this speaker drives the material to one useful point. Many speakers fear taking a position. However, opinions or judgments are what matter, what build drama and interest. Think about it – leaders are people who take positions; they don’t present random or even organized information that lacks a viewpoint.

Look at one more example before moving to the next point. Again, which speech would you prefer hearing? 

 “Three Ethics and Compliance Programs: Recent Initiatives at United Technologies”
 “How Three Important Compliance Programs Will Dramatically Reduce Ethics Violations at United Technologies”

I’d do anything to avoid listening to the first speech. In contrast, taking a position, speaker number two moves off the cow path to create an interesting and important message.

2. Use the 8-second drill. Granville Toogood, the noted speech trainer, created this exercise. I have found it to be one of the best. Begin with a three-minute statement of your position. Deliver this to your exercise partner. Now, cut the statement to two minutes, then to one minute. Things begin to get difficult as you cut your statement to 30 seconds and finally to 8 seconds. Now you have it – your most important point! Your position or proposition is clear. Your speech begins to organize itself around this one important point. See Toogood’s book The Articulate Executive, pages 99-100, for a thorough discussion of this method.

3. Three: Use the “So what?” question. Deliver your speech to a friend. Have them continually interrupt you with “So what?” and “Your point is?” or “You are telling me this because?” Suddenly any extraneous, unfocused ideas stand out in strong relief. You begin to see what the point is and what the relevant ideas, stories or proofs are. If you can’t clearly answer the “So what?” question, the material doesn’t belong in the speech or presentation.

4. Always stay focused on the WIIFM. The famous “What’s In It For Me?” question really is important. You can keep your speech on track by asking this question. Why should your audience be interested in your ideas? What is in it for them? Again, have a friend or test group listen to your speech. They should assume the stance of your audience.

Whenever they believe you are off-track or are discussing ideas that have no relevance to them or their interests, have them hold up a WIIFM sign. Stop and discuss how you can make the point speak to your audience. And of course, be ready to cut material that doesn’t move your speech along to the big point, which in itself must be focused around the WIIFM!

5. Can your audience write down the point of your speech in one sentence? Your Toastmasters club is a perfect place to test your ability to make a point. After giving a speech, pass out a small piece of paper. Ask your audience to write your main point in one concise sentence. Collect and read the responses. If your audience didn’t get the point or can’t state it in one sentence, you probably didn’t make the point. You still have some work to do. 

So Get Off the Cow Path and Make a Point!
Always remember that making a point is absolutely critical to your credibility with your audience. It has everything to do with how smart you appear to be. It also has to do with being engaging, connecting with your audience and subsequently getting your audience to understand and buy into your message. So use these five techniques, get off the cow path and make a point! 

Suzanne Riches, Ph.D., is a speech trainer from Denver, Colorado. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication and is a member of the Highlands Ranch Raconteurs Toastmasters club.