Knowing why you’re speaking

When a client comes to me with a presentation to work on, I’ll often ask him or her: “So why are you speaking?”

This doesn’t seem to be a question to which everybody finds easy to give an immediate and clear answer. Some people slip into telling me what they’re going to say, as if the Why is either too obvious or too difficult to articulate.

For any kind of communication, however short or casual, you need to consider your purpose. You are not speaking for the sake of it, but in order to achieve a purpose. For the simplest and shortest of communications, this may be the only essential factor for you to consider before opening your mouth. Most people would agree with that sentiment.

However, this purpose can get really complicated: “I want the audience to understand that if we take Approach A it’s a really risky choice unless we figure out first what the outcomes will be of Project X, and then we should go ahead but only if we’re sure about what the market will bear. And I’d like them to feel really motivated.”

On the other hand it can become mind-numbingly banal: “I want to give the senior team an update.” Or even worse: “My line manager told me I had to.”

I would argue that every speaker aims to have some kind of emotional effect on the audience, as well as to have them understand what the message means on a literal level. Certainly you’ll want to keep them engaged over the duration of your message. Probably you want to persuade them to either do something different, or to commit to carrying on doing what they’re already doing without wavering. Sometimes you’ll need to take a few steps back to identify what it is exactly that you do want. Thus, you may discover that your objective of “I want to give the senior team an update” is really “I want to enlighten the senior team with the range of possibilities.” It may seem a subtle difference but personally, as an audience, I’d prefer to be enlightened rather than merely updated.

Getting to the nub of identifying a Why that’s simple and compelling, yet fits perfectly with your message and your audience may now present even more of a challenge than it initially appeared.

How actors identify and act on the Why

It might useful to borrow some techniques from the world of the theatre to flesh out some sort of practical solution to planning the impact you want to have on those listening.

A Practical Handbook For The Actor is a manual written by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previto, Scott Zigler. They are a group of actors who’ve all worked with playwright, director and acting theorist David Mamet. The book’s purpose is to help its readers develop a methodical approach to the actor’s perennial question: “What am I supposed to be doing out there onstage?”

Existential though this sounds, this is a technical question with a technical answer, with some insights that are pertinent for public speakers and presenters.

The writers of A Practical Handbook divide the areas of concern into ‘the action’ and ‘the moment’. They suggest that the actor analyses the text to decide what the overall action is for a scene – for public speakers, think “speech” – that they call a ‘through-line’ or ‘through-action’. Then each section can have a separate ‘action’, which cumulatively build up to achieving the ‘through-action’. The ‘through-action’ is the practical implementation of your Why.

Then with all this prepared, the actor responds to the ‘moment’, whatever is created by the other actor onstage and by the environment. The actor’s job is to do that in accordance with his or her ‘through-line’. The actor may need to improvise in the face of the unexpected.

The action

For our purposes, we’re going to concentrate on ‘the action’, and how defining and acting on this might be helpful for a public speaker, especially in terms of nailing the Why.

The “action is what you go onstage to do, the physical process of trying to obtain a specific goal, often referred to as the objective.”

This is my edited version of their checklist to help you select your own action for your presentation or speech:

“An action must:

  • Be physically capable of being done;
  • Be fun (or compelling) to do;
  • Be specific;
  • Have its test in the other person (the Handbook writers mean the other actor onstage, but in our case, it’s the audience at whom and for whom the action needs to be directed);
  • Have a ‘cap’.”

This means that you need to pick a verb to act on, which will allow you to change something in your audience, probably how they feel about your topic or idea.

For example, you can choose to challenge your audience about their preconceptions or to reassure them that your solution will be effective and straightforward. Your cap is simple; either at the end of your speech your audience is reassured, or it isn’t. Either your audience has been challenged, or it has not been.

There are many more possibilities, as many as there are transitive verbs. Avoid being too general or too neutral, such as ‘to inform’ the audience, which gives you no clues about how to present either your message or yourself. It’s also not much fun.

Emotion is important. If you can change how your audience feels, you have a fighting chance of changing what they think and, ultimately, what they do.

We’d all like to think that we are rational creatures who change our minds when the facts indicate that we should. However, there is a lot of evidence that is exactly what we don’t do, even when presented with good arguments against our current position. So, bullet points on a PowerPoint slide alone may not cut it. This is the reason always knowing why you are speaking, and acting on that knowledge, is so important.

When you have chosen your ‘action’, the Why of your speech is actionable. You will be ready to select all the relevant facts, vocabulary, arguments, tones, pauses, facial expressions and body language that will help you fulfil your objective.

What’s more, if you commit to your action, you may find that your instinct takes over and you will graduate from needing to make conscious choices to being ‘in flow’. You will have become connected to your Why, and to your audience.