Nick Westergaard

Nick Westergaard

We all want to communicate better. Yet we often fail to answer three simple questions that could help even the most basic presentation. 

Edward Albee’s 1958 one-act play The Zoo Story reminds us that, “Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” To help you remember to answer these questions, I need to veer a bit out of the way to help you come back correctly in the right direction as a speaker.

Now let me tell you about this forum I sat through …

A Missed Opportunity

Recently I attended a public forum featuring policymakers answering questions from the community. At the beginning, we were introduced to two representatives from sponsoring organizations. They would be saying a few words first.

As if to maximize his time, one stood up on the far side of the room and sped through what had to have been 10,000 words of content in about seven minutes. I can’t remember a thing he said. Before segueing to the next speaker, the moderator suggested that we were already getting behind and weren’t yet to the main event. The next speaker took this in and then … did the same as the first, flying through just as much content at an even greater speed. He too confined himself to one corner of the room.

But fear not: This speaker had a handout. However, the document pushed the definition of a “handout” as it was heavy with text. Beyond the lack of white space, it was full of bullet points. And sub-bullets. And numbering. And icons. On both sides. But mostly it had text. So. Much. Text.

Mercifully, the event arrived at the Q&A and things turned around. But what a squandered opportunity.

3 Questions Before You Speak

Every chance you have to stand up in front of a group of people is an opportunity. A chance to change minds, generate support, and even sell something tangible or intangible. Without the proper preparation, this is a missed opportunity. And preparation doesn’t have to be months of rehearsal.

By answering three simple questions, you can focus your communication and the impact you have.

1. Why are you here?

Why are you standing in front of this audience today? Is it to inform? To sell? To entertain? Start with the end in mind and work back. Let the “Why” inform what you say and how you say it.

2. How are you going to say it?

The “How” question sets off a series of other logistical points. How long do you have? Where are you speaking from? Will you have access to visual aids like PowerPoint? If it’s a quick 3-minute pitch don’t shorten your 30-minute board report. In three minutes you can make three points. Rather, you can make three points that people will remember. Use your time wisely.

And take command of the space. I referenced both of the speakers’ staging as it further paralyzed their message. By moving to the center of the stage, you move your audience a step closer to understanding your message.

3. What do you want to happen next?

Does your audience need to vote for something? Do they need to buy something? Like a TV ad or a direct mail piece, your talk needs a call to action. Sometimes it’s merely sharing what they’ve learned from you. This is a deceptively simple outcome. First, it puts more pressure on your talk. If you’re not clear and concise, your audience won’t be able to comprehend and share.

Second, if they need to share something you need to help them. Consider a useful leave behind. As my story demonstrates, a useful leave behind is more than just every word related to the subject you spoke on crammed onto both sides of a piece of paper. Be selective. Be simple.

Communication itself is deceptively simple. As a communication professional, I know that this ingredient is often called “the sizzle” as opposed to the substantive steak. However, without the sizzle — without the work of fully cooking your communication opportunities — you’re left with a cold slab of meat that no one wants to consume.

Take the time to make your speaking sizzle. It’s worth it.



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Dorie Clark, Author of Stand Out and Reinventing You, Professor at Duke University Fuqua School of Business