Friday 23 November 2018 10:01 am

Public speaking 101: Stick to what you know

"The problem with your method”, the head of organisational behaviour of a tier-one investment bank tells me, “is that our bankers are often asked to speak about subjects that they know little about. Can you help them with that?”

My client was referring to the main premise of my presentation training: that in a presentation, content drives the style, and if you get your message right, competent delivery will follow.

In other words, don’t talk about something that you don’t know, or you’ll sound stupid.

Unfortunately, most of the time, we don’t get the message right, as we feel compelled to write and speak in the same deflated drivel as everyone else.

Let’s say you are drafting a client presentation. How do you go about it? Do you sit back and think about what ideas you want to convey, and in what form? No, you go on the intranet, find a similar presentation, and recycle it.

Now let’s see what happens when you have to speak on a subject that you don’t know.

Imagine that you are a London partner in the real estate practice of a respected law firm. In the past 20 years, you’ve built yourself a solid name in the UK property market, but your exposure to the firm’s other practices has been limited. One day, after working flat-out for six months, you travel to Rio for a dream surfing break, but, shortly after landing, you get a call from your managing partner.

“They told me you’re in Rio”, she says. “I want you to go to the ‘Future of HR’ conference and introduce our firm’s employment practice. They’ll want to know how we handle litigation, so please focus on the German whistle-blower case. Your slot is tomorrow at 9am. Sorry to spoil your break, but we have no one else on the ground.”

So you start surfing. Not the Atlantic waves, however, but your firm’s intranet. Here it says our employment practice has an “unmatched blend of specialist know-how”. I better put this in my speech.

And there’s the German whistle-blower case. The work we did was “ground-breaking”, apparently. Looks pretty standard to me, to be honest: no miracles here, nothing another law firm would not have done. And the payout was low. Why didn’t we get him more money?

What if someone asks me all this tomorrow? I better call the lead partner in Germany. Oh no, it’s already past midnight there. Perhaps I should practise in front of the mirror: if I look persuasive enough, I might just get away with this.

The next morning at 9am, you climb the podium, bug-eyed and stiff, praying for the whole thing to be over. Are you going to win any business today? Of course not. Your only hope is not to make a fool of yourself.

So, can I help people talk about the subjects that they don’t know? No, I can’t. And I don’t want to. Because this practice is a slap in the audience’s face. The reason people attend conferences is to hear an expert opinion, so when companies send in an ignorant speaker instead, this essentially amounts to fraud.

If you want to be a good speaker, talk about what you know. Or take some serious acting lessons. Because it would take Meryl Streep to say “unmatched blend of specialist know-how” and appear engaged.

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