The Presentation Skill That Can Make or Break You

When Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, those now famous words weren’t even in his written script. They were ad-libbed in the moment, turning a speech originally planned to last a few minutes into an historic, 16-minute address.

In preparing to deliver public remarks, many leaders believe that the key to success is practice and preparation. And in many ways they’re right. But that’s not actually where success lies. As we saw play out in this week’s New Hampshire primary, it’s the message that can be delivered in between the formal lines of a script—that gift of improvisation—that can be most compelling.

Take John Kasich. As Politico noted this week, he doesn’t have a stump speech in the way that other political candidates do. He has “stump stories, and stump catchphrases, but they’re just ingredients he mixes and matches depending on his mood.” It’s that gift of improv that’s allowed him to connect with early voters, just as Marco Rubio’s overly robotic missteps have done the opposite.

The ability to improvise doesn’t cancel out the importance of practice and preparation. One of the greatest improv artists of all time, Jerry Seinfeld, rehearsed his first bit on the Tonight Show 200 times.  It’s that he knew his material inside and out that allowed him the confidence to improvise with ease—and to great success.

Mastering the art of improv starts with understanding the basics of speech prep:

Practice still comes first. You’ve got to know your intended message, and how to frame it for your audience, if you want to come across as having a point at all. Know the “shell” of your speech, and then once you’ve rehearsed it a few times, find ways to add subtle personal touches within that framework.

Remember the four elements of good speeches. The great journalist George Plimpton believed that all strong speeches contain four intentional elements: (1) To entertain (the hard part), (2) to instruct (easy if one knows the subject), (3) to persuade (as one would at a sales presentation, a political rally, or a town hall meeting), and finally, (4) to inspire (as a speaker intends to do in a sermon or political speech, or at a pep rally). Knowing the order in which your speech will happen will allow you to improvise with the right emotions, at the right time.

First (and last) impressions matter. Presenters often start strong (it’s where the majority of practice time is spent), but don’t think about where they want the presentation to go, or how they want it to end. Spend as much time preparing your opening remarks as you do on your closing remarks, and find ways to make both “bookends” of the speech feel equally authentic.

The story always wins. Every good speech should have room for at least one story to help prove or reinforce a point. If you can’t deliver that story from the heart, without reading a script, you shouldn’t be telling it. Keep searching for a story that you feel authentically connected to.

Since the days of President Eisenhower, as television was beginning to supplant radio and newspapers, national candidates have struggled to find the words to express themselves on stage and screen. Nearly every political candidate, corporate leader and foundation executive since has scrambled for a “message”. So in that sense—despite the advances in technology, visual media, and communications over the last few decades—what we’re seeing in today’s presidential debates is nothing new.

The trick is not letting the message control you, but rather finding ways to take control of your message.

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