Making a killer speech: How to keep your audience on tenterhooks

Queen Elizabeth II's 2012 Christmas Broadcast At Buckingham Palace
Humour should be used with caution – you can engage without cracking jokes (Source: Getty)

Being able to communicate across your workforce is a key skill required by anyone who is, or has aspirations to be, in senior management.

In large corporations, employee demographics can differ widely – this is no more pronounced than at internal company events and conferences which both domestic and international delegates are likely to attend.

Senior members of the company are usually expected to make keynotes on these occasions, which means that the content needs to be judged carefully for maximum effect. With a range of ages and cultures, and sometimes linguistic differences, it is important to ensure that any speech supercedes these potential barriers.

Know your audience

Ensure you look carefully at the demographic breakdown of your company in terms of age, culture and language and factor it into your content ahead of delivery. Make the time to have an initial conversation with the head of HR (national or global) to really understand the organisation’s make-up. This will allow a speaker to hone their topics, style and tone in order to achieve the desired impact.

Set a clear direction

At the outset of a speech, any speaker should clearly lay out what they will be talking about. These goals should be broad and relevant enough so that at least some of them (if not all) appeal to the interests of any type of individual. A breakdown in communication, and subsequently reduced engagement, occurs when an audience becomes lost among the nuances of a message (whether that’s in terms of style or the topic itself).

Setting the aims and mapping out the structure of a speech helps to avoid this by allowing audiences to follow its flow even if, at times, they miss the depth of the content due to linguistic, cultural or even generational differences.

Make the audience the stars

If relaying achievements, these should be shared with humility, purpose and relevance to the wider company. The audience will want to celebrate the collective work of the organisation, not just the success of the person on stage. This point reiterates a key principle of speech-making that is vital for internal conference: “the audience are the true stars, not the person on the stage”. By following this premise, a speaker can ensure their words include and appeal to all addressees.

Use humour judiciously

Humour varies tremendously according to age and culture, with language barriers further hindering its reception. The golden rule is to never be offensive, even if the audience is a familiar one or has a seemingly “uniform” composition, because you don’t want to risk offending individuals with varying personal thresholds. Laughs are, of course, a bonus, but it is more important that the context is understood.

Create an experience

A speaker should strive to achieve long-lasting impact on an audience, irrespective of who they are (again, one of the fundamental rules of speech-making). This means utilising every tool available to deliver a full experience that makes each and every delegate feel that they have truly been “in the moment” with that speaker.

Visual enhancements, such as presentation slides and videos, can be useful here. These should be content-light and will allow, with a diverse audience, different delegates to focus on different stimuli while remaining focused on the speaker’s content throughout.

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