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  • Bruce Rule

To Succeed When Public Speaking Decide What Your Main Point Is

"Abraham Lincoln" "Public Speaking" "Rule Communications" "Bruce Rule"
If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” Abraham Lincoln (Maybe)

Whether making a speech or doing a presentation, you must do some basic preparation to be effective. Public speaking is hard to do off the cuff, even for experienced veterans, so don’t skimp on putting aside time to prepare—even for the most routine progress presentation.


Abraham Lincoln is credited with the saying, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” Some researchers doubt he said it, or at least they say there’s no record he did, but that doesn’t make the idea any less true. Your actual presentation may only be five to 10 minutes, but your preparation should be much longer.


We’ve discussed in previous posts the first thing you should do whenever you are given the opportunity to speak: Find out as much you can about who will be in your audience, and what their expectations might be. See here and here


With you audience in mind, now is the time to focus on the next step. And this one is crucial.


Your Main Point


You need to really think about the main point of your presentation, which is what you want the audience to take away at the end. Author Stephen Covey, in his bestselling self-improvement book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, puts it this way: Begin With the End in Mind. Of course, he is talking in general about your plans in life and how to be successful.


But it is especially true when it comes to a speech or presentation. You must be clear, in your mind, what you want your audience to walk away believing. In other words, what is your goal? What do you want to accomplish?


For instance, say you have been asked to make a presentation on a proposed project.


Is the point of the presentation going to be that the project needs the green light to move forward? That the bosses need to sign off on it?


Or is the point of your presentation that a certain amount of money needs to be allotted to the project? Or a certain number of workers? Or a certain amount of office/lab space needs to be set aside for it?


Or is the point that this project should replace another one already in progress? Or a different one that has been proposed?


As you might imagine, each of the possibilities should influence the way you approach your presentation and what you include in it. The more you can specify what your goal is, the more effective you can make your presentation.


When I was an editor in the newsroom, we used the postcard method whenever a reporter couldn’t decide what the main point of his story was. We would say, if you were writing to a friend, what would you say about the story that fits on a postcard? That should be your main point.


Brant Pinvidic, writing in his book 3-Minute Rule, pushes for you to be even more succinct: Can you make a Twitter version of your goal? (At the time of his book that would mean, can you say what your idea is in 140 characters? Now, of course, Twitter is X and allows 280 characters. But the point is the same).


No Wasted Opportunities


Even as something as simple as a progress report on a continuing project should have a goal. It should not be, “here’s where things stand,” because that is probably a wasted opportunity.


Here’s what I mean. Say, the project is moving along smoothly and hitting all the targets. Great. You may want your point to be that their confidence in you as the supervisor was warranted (which, of course, may help you land bigger projects). So you focus your progress report on how you handled any hiccups and kept the project on track, keeping in mind that you want to avoid bragging.


Or perhaps the project did run into some issues, so you may want the point of your report to be what the company has learned. What is the proper response o this obstacle? What is the best option to fix this problem?


Or perhaps the project’s timeline needs to be changed, so you would focus on what you think the new timeline is.


Do you see what I mean when I say even the simplest presentation needs some careful consideration on what point you want to make?


I’ll leave you with this example: A client was going to speak at an event in which he was on a panel discussing diversity and inclusion initiatives. He expected he would be asked to discuss the initiatives at his company and how he felt participating in them. After we talked about it, we came to the conclusion that the main point he wanted the audience to walk away with was this: You can reach your potential easier at a company that practices inclusion because you will not be discriminated against because of who you are.   


That is a simple, direct and powerful. And he had the examples to back it up.


This example follows into the next piece of preparation that needs to be done. Which is the answer to the question, “What’s in it for them?”


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