There’s no one in business who can’t benefit from being skilled at communicating clearly, crisply, and in a compelling fashion. Whether you’re giving a keynote to 9,000 people or presenting a recommendation to nine people, communication skills count.
I’m a professional speaker and can tell you that compelling communication isn’t something you’re born with, you learn it. Sure, some might be gifted motormouths dating back to when they were children, but truly persuasive, impactful communication is a skill that’s learned and earned. And Simon Lancaster, one of the foremost speechwriters for politicians and CEOs in the world, has learned and helps others to do the same.
His TEDx talk on clear and compelling communication (especially in speeches) is provocative, with smart advice for upping your verbal voracity. I’ll share the talk below and then I’ll summarize the six keys to persuasive communication within–as well as add my perspective as someone who gets paid to speak from stage.
1. Use fast and furious sentences.
Lancaster cites the phenomenal acceptance speech that Barack Obama gave in 2008, where he was firing off sentences that were a mouthful, like “Even as we celebrate tonight, we know that the challenges tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime: two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” The short, clipped sentences mimic how we communicate when we’re in a hurry and are helpful in stimulating a sense of urgency with the audience.
I use this technique to add to the level of my audience’s engagement. I speak in rapid-fire fashion with a series of short, staccato sentences. Please don’t take this as a brag, but I’m consistently told that my talks are “riveting”–and I know for certain this delivery style adds to that takeaway.
2. Follow the “Rule of Three.”
The other compelling thing about the Obama example is that he names three challenges. We’re used to things in threes. Three supporting points for a recommendation, three selling points to convince us, death comes in threes…(notice I just used three points to make my argument).
Interestingly, I followed this rule without knowing that I did (until Lancaster’s talk). It just always felt natural, and now I know why. Rifling off three compelling supporting points for an argument or three compelling statistics to make a case just has a sing-song quality to it that’s more persuasive. As Lancaster says, doing so is “the authentic sound of passion.”
3. Use the power of juxtaposition.
In one of my keynotes I use a line to grab leaders’ attention about the power their words and actions hold. Of this I say, “You can plant seeds of growth, or seeds of doubt.” The line is always fed back to me by audience members afterwards. Lancaster calls this using “balanced statements” and says it triggers an underlying presumption that the thinking behind the statement must also be balanced, and our brain likes balanced things.
But I think it’s more about the juxtaposition, that the brain recalls the tension presented.
4. Use metaphors.
Caveat: Make them simple and easy to understand. A good metaphor illuminates the point you’re trying to make in a way 1,000 words can’t match. In one of my keynotes, to illuminate the power of a leader choosing to be liberal in granting autonomy to employees, I compare it to the process by which power flows through a light bulb (a light bulb will flicker at best if you give it only a bit of power, as will a high-wattage employee).
People remember metaphors. Which means they’ll remember you.
5. Use exaggeration that’s clearly exaggeration.
Lancaster leaves the technique at just the power of exaggeration, but I think it’s critical to clarify that it must be understood that you’re exaggerating.
Over-the-top sentences echo how we speak in everyday life, says Lancaster, which makes them well-accepted. He gives this example: We say we love pizza, but of course we don’t love it the way we love another human.
I use exaggeration in my keynotes for humor or to dial up passion behind a point. Exaggeration as stretching the truth is never, ever a good idea. Audiences of any size can smell exaggeration a mile away. If it’s not obvious exaggeration, don’t do it.
6. Try a rhyme.
I don’t use this trick in my keynotes but maybe now I will. Lancaster says audiences learn concepts through rhymes. He cites the famous case of Johnnie Cochran’s defense of O.J. Simpson, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Lancaster calls this approach a “pleasing informational snack that sticks in memories like a musical earworm.”
Whether you’re giving a State of the Union address or addressing five employees, clear, compelling communication counts. Refer back to this article and count on it to help you deliver just that.