The economy is spiraling. Companies are shedding employees. Stable investments are down double digits. Don’t start me on oil.
In hard times, a powerful speech is an incredible asset to calm shareholders and motivate employees. Tweet This Quote
If you’re running a company, your job is probably keeping the boat from tipping, and staving off mutiny. In times like these, a powerful speech is an incredible asset. It can calm skittish shareholders and re-motivate employees. The question is, can you deliver that speech?
Why sweat the structure?
A speech isn’t simply information—you can compile information in a document and send it. What makes a speech powerful is a combination of your material, your delivery, your forum, your audience and their reaction. It’s an organic, living thing.
To bring an audience to life, you need to hook them quickly, ignite them with hope, fear, passion and confidence, then invite them to join you on a journey to the promised land. Martin Luther King couldn’t do that without a well-formed structure. Neither could Steve Jobs. Trust me, you need structure.
To hook an audience, you need to ignite them with hope, fear, passion and confidence. Tweet This Quote
The classic Aristotelian structure
Aristotle nailed a structure for theatre and oration that was later expounded on by novelist Gustav Freytag. Here’s what it looks like:
Think about this in terms of your speech. In exposition, you map out the state of the world today. Rising action allows you to paint a dramatic picture of good versus evil—how the economy is conspiring against us, and how we’re determined to fight back. At the climax, we catch a glimpse of the promised land. Falling action allows you to map out exactly how we’re going to get to our happy place. Finally, in denouement, we all point in the same direction and start on our journey together.
The modified Aristotle
Aristotle and Freytag gave us a single rise and fall. But, if you’ve ever heard Jobs, MLK or JFK speak, you know they whip the audience into a frenzy with a series of these up and down cadences:
Again, think in the context of your speech. Line up all of the issues facing your company under “What Is”—a stagnant economy, perhaps a sector in decline, global competition, etc. Then, line up the solutions you’re innovating to meet those challenges under “What Could Be.” See where this could go?
The ultimate pitch
Elon Musk did a wonderful pitch incorporating a structure hybridized from the the above up, down cadence. It went as follows:
- Name the enemy, and describe why the time to fight is now (down)
- Show them the promised land (up)
- Describe the gruesome obstacles (down)
- Describe why you’re going to conquer those obstacles (up)
- Describe why it’s already happening (up, and bliss)
The hero’s journey
The hero’s journey, another framework to guide your speech structure, is relatively simple:
- Common person in common world is summoned to difficult journey they resist until a mentor appears and stresses why this is so darned important.
- Common person sets out, gathers posse, fights hard against terrible odds, conquers odds.
- Common person travels home enlightened, ready to take on new challenges.
What makes the hero’s journey amazing is that it can turn your speech into a story. The sort of story that can cue every emotion in the book. The sort of story that built Hollywood. But many people don’t realize that in this kind of story, there’s only room for one takeaway.
In your speech, there’s only room for one big takeaway—make it simple and inspiring. Tweet This Quote
The one takeaway
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20 years as a creative director and writer, it’s that people don’t have the capacity (or desire) to remember more than one thing in a presentation. I joke that the vast majority of us can’t remember more than two of the Ten Commandments—despite the amount of marketing they’ve enjoyed.
That’s why, when you’re implementing a structure to create a speech, you need to stay focused on your headlining thought—a truly big idea you can keep referring to and emphasizing. That headline needs to be supported and enriched by each of your talking points. At the end of the speech, you need to circle back and restate your big idea—again.
Every big idea has two things: it embodies your promise, and it answers the audience’s need. Tweet This Quote
I know, it sounds simplistic, but it works.
It especially works when you need to supplant an idea entrenched in the thinking of your audience. In a company going through tough times, that idea could be, “We’re all going to lose our jobs” or “We don’t know where we’re going.” A ream of facts won’t push these thoughts out of your audience’s collective frontal lobe. Only an equally simple, motivating thought will.
How to craft your big idea
Every big idea has two things: it embodies your promise, and it answers the audience’s need. When you’re sitting down to craft your speech, ask yourself, “What’s the simple, big picture I want to paint here?” and “Will anyone care?”
If you want an idea that is truly big, however, you need one more element: alignment with global forces. Are there global trends on the horizon that support your point? Is there a way to make your idea seem inevitable, given the way the world is shifting? Allow your big idea to give your audience goosebumps with its vision and relevance.
For more on how to craft an inspiring speech that includes structure and your big idea, read this post.
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