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November 3, 2013 10:00 am

Writing an Effective Business Speech

Writing an Effective Business Speech

Have you ever seen The Untouchables? Robert de Niro plays the infamous gangster Al Capone.

In a memorable scene, de Niro moves around a dinner table. He is carrying a baseball bat and delivers a powerful, compelling speech to his “business” associates. He poses searching questions to his audience. He deploys a helpful, colorful analogy that he knows they will understand, suggesting that a business is like a baseball team. He uses humor and simple, effective language. He is inspirational, referencing his own professional values. And his central theme and message are clear: “We get nowhere unless the team wins.”

Up to that point, it is a perfectly delivered business speech – then de Niro stops talking. He looks at his bat (in a way that only de Niro can) and cracks one of his guests over the head: A savage reminder of the consequences of letting the “team” down in prohibition-era Chicago.

The violent denouement aside(!), from our point of view the speech itself is instructive in demonstrating some of the key rules for delivering a business speech perfectly.

Know your audience

Who will be in your audience? What are they expecting from you? Do you have a clear, straightforward message for them?

Understanding your audience is essential. After all, you are occupying their time (thereby using up their most precious commodity), and your words and ideas will be occupying valuable space in their heads. They might not be expecting miracles but they will expect you to have thought carefully about them beforehand, and tailored your comments accordingly.

Keep it simple

Over-complication is a common mistake. Business audiences are usually shrewd and utilitarian.

Remember Disraeli’s famous criticism of Gladstone? He accused his political nemesis off being “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity.”

Don’t fall into the trap of spouting high-sounding rhetoric. Cut out words that don’t serve an obvious purpose. Use short sentences, not long ones. Use short words, not long ones. Avoid jargon and clichéd phrases. There may well be a “rocky road ahead” for this company, but you can find a far better way of expressing it.

Simplicity will make your delivery clearer, and enable your audience to focus on your core message. Once your speech is written, edit it and be ruthless. Experienced speakers refine their speeches constantly until the moment of delivery.

Use interesting imagery

Original analogies and metaphors can be powerful. They bring color, help simplify complex ideas, and linger in the memory.

Natural imagery is especially effective and can provide a vivid, universal frame of reference: Nervous equity traders might act like “a shoal of sardines evading a predator.” Overly conservative investors might be like “bees storing up honey for the winter”. Compelling imagery will help your audience remember you.

Use data sparingly but ruthlessly

Many corporate speakers make the mistake of carpet bombing their audience with data. Often this is intended to show how deeply knowledgeable they are about the subject under discussion. But to a smart audience it smacks of insecurity and can be counter-productive.

Knowledge is not synonymous with wisdom. In business, your audience has a right to expect both. One or two “killer” statistics that are acutely relevant, unexpected, and carefully chosen will have a far greater impact than some endless tundra of data.

Questions are often more powerful than answers

You must make your audience think as well as listen. Asking the right question at the right time can help to achieve this. What are the major threats to your business? What is holding your business back? What are your professional values?

Such questions strike at the heart of many familiar but troublesome business problems. If you can empower your audience to reflect on their own business issues and start resolving problems for themselves, you will have achieved something very powerful indeed.

Have a strong, central idea

Ultimately, language is not an end in itself. It exists for the communication of ideas. Make sure your speech has a strong, unifying theme: A clear message that your audience will remember and reflect upon.

And let’s be frank. If you do not have a clear message to impart you should not be giving the speech!

So if you get the chance (and you’re not too squeamish), have a look at de Niro’s Untouchables speech. Listen carefully and you will hear thought-provoking questions, an exposition of personal and professional values, simplicity of language, a powerful central message, and the deployment of an accessible, simplifying analogy.

Follow these rules carefully… And you won’t need a baseball bat to get your point across!

Delivering an effective business speech in a professional environment is a challenging, complex and often a daunting undertaking. Lawrence Bernstein writes for www.greatspeechwriting.co.uk/articles/ and frequently posts helpful guides on how to write, edit and structure a business speech or presentation, and is always happy to help should you have any further questions.