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10 Secrets to Being a Master Speaker

Exiters at Voice & Exit 2014 in Austin, Texas

Craft a great, short talk and captivate your audience.

One of the most embarrassing things in life is to have other speakers at your event make you look mediocre by comparison. But now you can be confident.

This piece is designed to improve the odds that you’ll have an incredible talk. Even though we created this advice for our Voice & Exit speakers, we think these rules of thumb can help anyone who has to give a talk. We offer these in no particular order.

  1. The Novel Insight

What single novel insight or piece of new information will you present in your talk? You will spread your talk around the universe if you remember that novelty has legs. Start by answering this single question and build everything else around it. Often, this can be your talk’s punchline and can happen toward the end of the talk. But whatever you do, bring the new.

  1. No Labels

The last thing we want to do at Voice & Exit is censor. And yet we have an absolute, authoritarian prohibition on ideological labels. If you self-identify with some political tribe, it’s VITAL to everyone’s experience that you leave it at the door. Such includes all the whistle words of your tribes, things like “social justice,” “liberty,” “sustainability” and the like. If you approach this talk as being about an agenda – even if we completely agree with your agenda – you are guaranteed to throw up a hundred walls in the audience, and at least ten thousand walls online. (The goal? Trans-partisan, post-political.)

  1. Anecdotes/Narratives are Powerful

The human brain is wired for story, but you don’t have much time. Anecdotes are a great way to use story within the arc structure. For some people an anecdote can stand in lieu of a Point. For others, the story IS the talk, leaving only the opening and close to frame the implications of the story for the audience. If that is your approach, that’s okay. It can be very powerful. Remember, the best way to get to the head is through the heart.

  1. Mystery Play

One device for keeping your audience rapt is to wait to reveal something important towards the end of your talk. This is known in show business as “the reveal,” but you can also call Mystery Play. This element should be suspended and the audience will feel unsatisfied until you deliver. BUT YOU MUST DELIVER. At that point, you’ve got ‘em. If you use the Mystery Play, try it out on a friend first to make sure it works. Setting people up for a big reveal is about delivering on an implicit promise. Fail to deliver and you’ll let your audience down.

  1. The Journey’s Guide

It may seem paradoxical, but you are NOT the “Sage on the Stage,” you are the “Guide at Their Side.” Your goal is to take the audience with you on a journey to new insights. That means your approach can be less definitive and opinionated, and more like you’re sharing something wonderful – i.e. wonder-evoking – that you’ve been holding onto.

This approach helps you keep ideological distance from any labels or judgey-ness that can irritate the immune systems of partisans or tribes. You are post-partisan because you have had an interesting truth revealed to you, and sharing it can help them be better people, too.

  1. Aspirational Selves

Every member of the audience will be there because they have opened their hearts and minds to you. Don’t shit on that. It will kill your talk and kill their experience. As importantly, you are there because they have entrusted you to help them become another self–a future, better self. How are you helping them become that better self? How are you helping them transform, improve and find understanding that will realize that aspirational self?

  1. Controversial & Radical Ideas

At Voice & Exit, we are not afraid of controversial or of radical ideas. We dance beyond that circle of stones that is the status quo, and sometimes we help people erase the boundaries people find around themselves.

A master speaker at Voice & Exit will be able to guide people into strange ideas and unfamiliar terrain without giving them an aneurysm. And the way you do that is by employing the above techniques, as well as treating them with the utmost respect. Consider that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies 6 moral matrices (value “taste buds”) people have to varying degrees: Care, Autonomy, Fairness, Sacredness, Loyalty, and Authority. The master speaker will tap into evoke as many of these moral matrices as possible without treading on any of them. And in the process, you might slip something novel into their hearts and minds forever.

  1. 12 Minutes

(Assume you have a 12-minute talk. How do you break it down?)

A logical way to break your talk down is to take all 12 minutes very seriously. This structure gives you an opportunity to do a Hook Opener, and Profound Close and three major points in between. This is the triple-decker + two buns sandwich.

  • Bun – Opener (1.5 min)
  • Meat – Point 1 (3 mins)
  • Meat – Point 2 (3 mins)
  • Meat – Point 3 (3 mins)
  • Bun – Closer (1.5 min)

Of course, you may be creative and want to use a different structure to your talk. But given that time is a solemn and severe master, you would be wise to develop a structure that enables an arc.

If you decide to abandon the arc, another form is the list-talk, which is a spoken form of a listicle. Obviously your list-talk would be either 10 one-minute points with two “buns” or 5 two-minute points with two buns. You will want form to be based on function, i.e. what you’re talking about and how its best delivered.

  1. Credibility Cue(s)

There’s nothing more boring-er than a talk that is nothing but a recitation of statistics or data. And yet it is vital that your talk present a credibility cue. This can be a fact, a data point, a quote from an authority – something – that gives you credibility and grounds your talk in reality.

  1. Housekeeping Checklist

Every talk will include essential elements, without which any talk simply won’t work at all. Does your talk:

  1. Provide context?
  2. Offer a credibility cue?
  3. Have a logic that makes sense?
  4. Help people learn something?
  5. Get to an ultimate takeaway or punchline?

Now that you’ve gone through your checklist, try your talk out on a friend.

Of course there are many more spells at the disposal of the master speaker. But these ten should give you a great start. Break a leg.

You can see all of this year’s master speakers LIVE at Voice & Exit 2015, June 20-21 in Austin, TX.