What Do You Do Before Your Speech?

What do you do in those long minutes just before your speech?  There’s lots to worry about, and you’re probably worrying about some, or all, of it:  your nerves, your slides, your audience, your technology, the stage, the lighting, the introduction, the plane ticket home, and getting to the airport on time, the timing of everything — the potential list goes on and on.  One thing you should be thinking about is most likely not on your mind:  your offstage beat.

I’ll get to the offstage beat in a minute.  But first I was chatting with an experienced street artist recently, and he immediately put it in his terms:  ”Of course; you’ve got to focus on crowd gathering.”  In other words, before you can put on a show in the street, you have to gather a crowd

But why should passers-by stop and pay attention to street artists before a show goes on?  Because the show has already started.  And that was my friend’s point:  you’re already performing.  You have to be, to pull in that crowd.  You have to figure out how to plant the seeds of a great story even while setting up, or greeting the people walking by, or sizing up potential troublemakers in the crowd.

I love that phrase:  crowd gathering.  It’s one of the three essential things you should be focusing on in those minutes before your speech — instead of worrying about nerves, slides, technology, and so on.  Crowd gathering, the offstage beat, and one other:  your purpose.  Let’s look at each in turn.

Crowd Gathering.  As my street performer friend says, the performance starts the instant you want people to stop, watch and listen.  For the public speaker, that means thinking about your interaction with the audience before your speech begins.  Do you greet them?  Work the room?  If you’re going to sit in the green room and avoid the audience, how are they going to be prepared for you — how are they going to get jazzed?  Don’t rely on the introduction, because that’s so often badly done — or not done at all.

I recently gave a speech to a large audience of salespeople, and had provided an introduction to the staff beforehand.  Imagine my surprise when the head of the group simply said, “Please welcome Nick Morgan,” without any indication of who I was.  As a result, I had to work much hard to establish any sort of credibility with the audience, who had no particular reason to listen to me beyond the simple fact of my presence.  Despite my efforts, then, that crowd gathering piece did not happen, and I started out with a setback.

I learned from that to be prepared to deal with an ungracious or forgetful host by introducing myself if necessary.  Not the best way to start, but it has to be done.

The Offstage Beat.  I’ve posted on this idea before.  It comes from the acting world.  Great actors know that a real person doesn’t just walk into your field of view from nowhere.  They always come from somewhere — the dentist, an IRS audit, the cafe across the street.  Each of those entry points gives them a different set of attitudes and emotions.  That makes them interesting, and gives them depth as people. So actors do the same with their characters — they figure out where that character has just come from before the first scene on stage.  That gives the character depth and complexity as they walk on stage.

Speakers need to do the same — get that first emotion or attitude toward your material — before you walk onstage.  While you’re being introduced — and I hope you are — think about how you feel about your opening ideas, story, or stats.  If you walk on with that attitude, feeling it strongly, you will be far more interesting to the audience than if you’re coming on stage just looking for the podium.

Your Purpose.  Finally, you should spend those agonizing minutes just before a speech thinking about your purpose — why are you there, what are you hoping to achieve with that particular audience?  Who are they, what do they need, and how can your expertise and experience provide it?  A speech is a wonderful opportunity.  Especially in those first few opening minutes as you begin your talk, your audience is gathered, open, and ready to learn, to grown, to be inspired.  What a privilege, to have the chance to hold forth about your passion to them!  That is your moment.  Know why you’re there.  Take full advantage of it.  Don’t squander it.

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