Two nights ago I had the privilege of listening to General Colin Powell address 1600 people in a packed hall at Boston’s Convention Center. Granted Powell has become a professional speech giver. He’s got a talk that’s he probably given dozens of times and to justify a fee in excess of $100,000 an hour you’d better be good. Still, there’s a lot any of us who have to stand up in front of a crowd can learn from watching masters like Colin Powell. Here’s my take on listening to and watching the General help Boston’s Chamber of Commerce celebrate its 100th anniversary.
1. Get rid of the script
Easier said than done for some, but incredibly liberating. No one wants to hear you read, they want to hear you talk to them. The difference between Powell and the other presenters was significant.
2. Come out from behind the podium
Even those thin-legged podiums with nothing but a platform create a barrier between you and the audience. They say, “I am up here speaking and you are down there listening.” The simple elimination of a physical structure between you and an audience brings you closer together.
3. Tell stories (they’re easy to remember)
This is how you lose the script. Plot out a series of stories to tell. If they’re your stories they’re easy to remember. Powell told the following stories: what it felt like to go from being Secretary of State to an ordinary citizen; how his many meetings with world leaders reinforced his belief that the world still looks to the United States for leadership; how an immigrant hotdog vendor on Fifth Avenue in New York City refused payment for a hotdog, claiming “America has given me enough already.”
4. Be self-deprecating
Show a little vulnerability. It makes you feel human and guarantees to make you more likeable. Powell talked about meeting his wife and the unlikelihood of her falling for a soldier.
Everyone knows your speech is canned, even if you don’t have a teleprompter. But pick up something from the evening, the event, or other guests. Modify or customize one of your stories or examples to make it feel localized and of the moment. It shows you’re listening and paying attention to those around you.
6. Know the points you want to make
Powell’s story of Gorbachev telling him he’d have to get used to Russia no longer being an enemy was a way to talk about embracing change. His story about the hotdog vendor made the point that even if we criticize our own country and its policies, America remains the last great hope for much of the world.
I listened to everything Colin Powell had to say. And I was impressed with his message of hope, charity and the ability to come together to support one another. But I was equally impressed with how he delivered it. It’s stuff that works whether you’re doing a new business pitch, making a speech at an industry convention, or simply selling yourself to three clients across the table.
Heard any good speeches lately? Learned anything from them?