This month’s Speak Up for Success newsletter, and its companion blog post, What Mudbugging in a Chevy Taught Me About Public Speaking both discuss the predictable ways a public speaking situation can veer “off road,” such as:
- Having your time cut at the last minute
- Finding out your easy audience is actually a tough crowd
- Listening as the person who speaks just before you makes make all the points you’d planned to make (and now what are you going to talk about??).
You might think that more experienced speakers avoid these twists and turns; but sometimes we don’t — and my latest detour came when I recently spoke to members of The Society of Women Engineers at Hofstra University.
In my own defense, I do try to find out everything I can about an audience, and I’d asked a lot of questions about this one beforehand.
But I’d spoken to SWE members at Columbia University the year before, and that crowd was 100% female. So, without asking or even noticing my assumption that this audience would be the same, I carefully prepared a speech that was:
- Oriented toward women
- Illustrated (exclusively!) by images of women
- Accompanied by handouts with advice for women
My first clue that I’d made a mistake came when I showed up at Hofstra and discovered that… a third of the attendees were men.
Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
Here’s where it would be really easy to panic and decide that everything you’ve prepared is no good and needs to get tossed.
Don’t rush to this conclusion!
For one thing, it’s almost always better to build your speech back from something — at minimum, your key message and supporting points.
And for another thing, as soon as your initial reaction passes, you’ll probably find that most of what you’ve got can work, with minor tweaks.
Change the Context of Your Speech
One simple tweak that you can make is to change the context of your speech — in other words, the framework within which people listen.
If I’d just given my speech at Hofstra without commenting on its female bias, the men who were listening might have thought,
Hey, what about me?? What does she think, the whole world’s made of women?
So my job was to change that context, which I did by speaking directly to the men:
Gentlemen, before I begin, I need to apologize.
I didn’t know that you were going to be here, and parts of the speech I prepared are oriented more toward women.
But even though it might look like I’m not talking to you, I hope you’ll put yourself into the picture — and as we go along, I’ll put you there, too.
Because women aren’t the only people who have trouble making our voices heard. In my experience, some of the groups who feel most judged when they speak include men who are:
- immigrants, or non-native English speakers
- people of color
- those who grew up poor or working class
- people with disabilities, and
- any man who feels marginalized, devalued, or outside the mainstream because of his culture, values, beliefs, or education.
If you belong to any of those groups, you won’t have any trouble finding yourself in what I’m about to say.
My hope was that, with this introduction, the men would be thinking.
OK, that’s a picture of a woman, but what she’s talking about includes me.
And this seems to have worked, because — as I went on with the speech — the men were avid and attentive listeners.
What About When You Do Have to Toss the Whole Speech?
OK, you can’t always cope with a minor tweak; or even with the types of surgical strikes I describe in this month’s newsletter.
So what do you do when you have to toss an entire script just minutes before taking the stage?
So far, this hasn’t happened to me, and I hope it never happens to you. But if it ever does, I suggest that you:
- Open up a dialogue with the audience (“Before I begin my presentation, I’d like to know more about what this topic means to you…”)
- Switch the topic to something of mutual interest (“So, now that I realize you don’t care about X, is there a communications topic that does interest you?”)
- Look for a new key message — fast! Take the information your audience has given in 1. and 2. and look for the attitude or belief that ties it all together. Then check that with your audience. (“Am I correctly hearing that most of you think New York should secede from the USA?”). If they validate your new key message,
- Pick three supporting topics that you think you can discuss at reasonable length, and then, finally,
- Take the leap and start talking to people.
After all, you can’t do worse than you would have with your now-useless script, right? This may not be your most eloquent or slick presentation, but if you jump in with both feet, you can succeed.
Is There a “Rule of 3” for How Much to Change a Script?
Of course! There’s a Rule of 3 for everything, so:
- If the information in your speech is right, but the context is off, change the context with an introduction that makes allies of your audience.
- If the structure of your speech needs changing, follow the tips in this month’s newsletter.
- And in the highly unlikely event that you have to throw out an entire speech, get the audience to educate you, and then create an Instant Speech — and trust that you’ll deliver it well.
It’s no fun discovering that the speech you’ve prepared may not work; but with this Public Speaking Tip, it doesn’t have to be a disaster.
Just think of it as an off-road adventure like my recent one mudbugging in a Chevy — and look forward to the great story you’ll be able to tell!