recently worked with a patent attorney who was furious about a recent incident.
“My boss set me up!” she said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We were en route to a meeting when he told me, ‘Why don’t you handle running the meeting?’ How dare he do that? I had no time to prepare,” she said.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a similar complaint from clients who have been asked to speak without enough time to prepare. But being a great speaker isn’t about how much time you spend preparing—it’s about learning key skills that will help you speak spontaneously with ease.
Here are two examples to help you get started.
1. Focus on the Key Points, Not the Details.
I recently worked with a client who was the CFO of a major company. This client came to me because of a particularly challenging board member who constantly asked detailed questions about sales figures in specific cities and other finance-related matters. Initially, my client’s strategy involved spending hours memorizing every figure and data point in order to answer these questions.
What I helped my client understand is that the best strategy is to control the level of the discussion. Instead of answering the board member’s specific questions, my client could drill down to the key point that was behind the question and talk about that instead. If asked about the performance of specific cities, I suggested that my client could say something like, “I think the issue here is what are the trends we’re seeing in this region that affect our margins?” This way, my client would respond to the key point behind the questions without getting bogged down in details.
So, remember to stay focused on the big picture and not the minor details when it comes to getting across the most important messages.
2. Connect Your Key Points to Images in Your Mind.
Another skill you can use is to always have images in your back pocket to help explain your key points. Chances are people won’t remember your words, but they will most likely remember the images you use.
When I was prepping another client for a media interview at a recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we spent serious time discussing the image that best described my client’s business. The business was doing great, despite the burden of increasing regulations and significant government penalties. I wanted my client to use a visual image that symbolized the fact that the business was making great progress despite all the baggage. So, we decided to use the image of a hiker carrying an oversized backpack up a hill, as Davos is in the Swiss Alps. The image was headlined in almost all of my client’s media coverage. The challenge is to find the right images for your message, your audience, and your objective.
If you want to be a powerful leader, you need to give up the idea that you can only speak when you’ve had “enough” preparation time. If you stay focused on key issues and identify images that illustrate what you need to convey, you will improve your ability to speak with spontaneity and precision.