As the solo anchor of ABC television’s “World News Tonight” program for twenty-two years, Peter Jennings—according to fellow journalist Lynn Sherr—conveyed “a presence so commanding that dedicated viewers placed their confidence in him to convey everything.”
Shortly after Jennings’ death in 2005, one of his longtime colleagues, Tom Nagorski, pinpointed a major reason for Jennings’ success. Nagorski came on board with Peter Jennings as foreign editor for the program. He recalled a question Peter asked constantly, “What are we going to do today that will distinguish us?” Nagorski said of Jennings, “He despised predictability,” and “he loved it when we were able to do something, even if it was just an angle or a phrase in a piece, that he felt distinguished us.”
Let’s apply Jennings’ advice to giving speeches. Here, too, success depends on avoiding predictability by distinguishing yourself from the hoards of speakers people hear monthly at civic, political, religious, government, business, and social events. Here are five ways to become a memorably distinctive speaker.
FIRST: Never start by telling a joke
You have noticed that a vast majority of speakers try to crack jokes at the outset, hoping they will relax the audience and establish quick rapport. You’ve noticed also that many times this strategy fails. Why? The speaker botches the timing for the punch line, tells a joke listeners know already, or offends listeners through an off color remark.
Yes, humor during the opening minute can stimulate attention, but joke telling isn’t required. Simply offer a quip you thought of as you entered the room. Better yet, use self-deprecating humor. We like speakers who, with good taste, poke fun at themselves.
SECOND: Go note-less
Far too many speakers establish a paper barrier between themselves and the audience, either by turning pages of a full manuscript or by glancing down frequently at more abbreviated notes. This head-bobbing reduces audience attention drastically.
“But,” you object, “I’ve never given an important speech without notes.” Really? Did you read your wedding proposal to your beloved? Did you read your request for a raise to your boss? Of course not, because you recognized that unbroken eye contact would elevate your persuasive attempt.
Keep in mind that your speech should resemble a conversation instead of a recitation. Note as well that your audience has no idea what you mean to say, so if you leave something out or change the order, only you will be aware of the change.
No, you don’t need a teleprompter to go note-less, just mastery of your topic and an overwhelming desire to relate to your audience personally.
THIRD: Use fresh language
Ordinary speakers will use words and phrases we grew tired of long ago, such as: 24/7, surreal, if you will, what he brings to the table, over when the fat lady sings, gone viral, game-changer, step up to the plate, same old same old, and sea change.
Avoid those examples, and avoid all other clichés that may have carried impact initially but have grown tiresome and even offensive.
FOURTH: Create the image that time has disappeared
Customarily, speakers remind their audiences of time as a limiting factor: “In the limited time we have together today,” “I wish I had more time to devote to this important topic,” or “I’m running out of time, but I’ve got something else important to tell you.”
Nonverbally, you have seen speakers create time awareness by looking at their watches. Did you notice how the audience did that as well?
This is ironic, but true: To make your message both timely and timeless, never refer to time in any way.
FIFTH: Share your inner self
In the vast majority of speech settings, we come away with a rather standard impression of the speaker without feeling that have become truly acquainted. Superlative speakers, though, reveal their inner selves, in ways related to the topic.
Renowned speaker and author Og Mandino changed his entire approach to speaking when an audience member challenged him after one of his keynote addresses. She told him it was easy for him to talk about motivation and success, because he traveled widely, speaking for big fees, staying in the finest hotels, and associating with celebrities. She said he knew little about the challenges ordinary people faced, because he had never been down and out.
After that conversation, Mandino vowed silently that he would never face another audience without describing his early life failures. As a young insurance salesman, everything was going well for him, his wife, and their child. However, he formed the habit of stopping “just for a drink or two” with friends after work. His dependency grew, and his family left him. Mandino painfully recalled the day he wanted to kill himself, but couldn’t afford the gun he saw in a pawn shop window. Can you imagine how strongly his convention audiences identified with him when he gave that frank, honest self-portrait?
Of course, my personal story and yours are not likely to be that dramatic. Still, we will become distinctive when we tastefully tell audiences who we really are—and even reveal what nobody would have guessed about us.
For your next speech, reword Peter Jennings’ question this way: “What am I going to do today that will distinguish me?” Then use these five key strategies that will make you delightfully different.