There are great speakers, memorable speakers and inspirational speakers. Of course there are the speakers we all dread – the boring speakers, the readers and the monotone speakers.
You usually know what type of speaker they are going to be from their opening words. “Can you hear me?” some ask to which the answer in my head is, “I think I am going to wish I couldn't” because this is not a confident start. Worse still are the killer opening words, “I hope”; “as unaccustomed as I am”, “how does this work” (meaning the presentation equipment) ... or “which button do I press”. These tell tale signs suggest the next few minutes of your life are destined to be wasted.
I like speakers who start with a confident, lively and interesting observation, one-liner or story – anything that is relevant and conveys something about their personality and/or the content of their speech.
“For me a great speech is like a comet: dazzling, eye-opening and over before you know it. I don't know how well I can do on the first two, so I'll try to achieve the third.” This was an opening statement made by the keynote speaker of a conference at the Space Centre in Leicester soon after its official opening. Can you see there is a relevance to the venue?
All too often, speakers tell a story that has no relevance to the situation or the purpose of their speech or a joke that is not culturally or politically sensitive. Here is one example I remember very well of a conference held in Liverpool:
“I would have been here much earlier, but police cordoned off Liverpool city centre this morning, when a suspicious object was discovered in a car. It later turned out to be a tax disc.”
The audience predominantly from Liverpool did not appreciate the joke nor was it relevant to the conference.
When speakers feel uncomfortable I have heard them using a range of self-deprecating one-liners such as:
• “I will try not to talk too long as I am told that it is best to leave your audience before your audience leaves you.”
• “I hope my speech will keep you on the edge of your seats. I hope that will be because you are interested, not because you are trying to get up the nerve to leave”.
• “I hope you enjoy my speech and if you do not, I hope you have a good nap.”
• “My speech will be like the latest fashion: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.”
• “Being a good keynote speaker is the art of saying nothing briefly.”
Whilst amusing, they do not suggest you are about to hear an accomplished, confident or inspiring speaker. One-line openers like these serve to lower my expectations resulting in me switching off subconsciously.
There are, of course, times when a little humour is right. For instance, I recall addressing an embarrassingly small audience at an event with a spectacularly low attendance – the organisers knew it, the audience knew it and I knew it. It was the proverbial elephant in the room and something had to be said because the atmosphere was decidedly chilly. I said something like:
“You must be a wealthy group of individuals because it looks as if you each of you bought two or three seats!”
On another occasion, I was the last speaker of the day at a long and boring conference. I sensed that the audience had disengaged and was already imaging themselves getting into their cars and driving home, I knew I needed to grab their attention. My opening went something like this:
“Wow, today sure has been a long one, but each of us here has a job to do. My job is to talk and yours is to listen. My challenge today is to finish my job before you have finished yours. By the way, you need to know that I know that I am a great speaker. I can say that because when I make a speech, as soon as I sit down, people say it was the best thing I have ever done. Seriously though, I do have some really important things to share with you - so listen-up and let us crack on.”
I recall another occasion when I turned to humour to manage a difficult situation. I was speaking at an event at the British Embassy in Singapore. I was given a very long and flattering introduction, which made me sound like a ‘right, pompous clever-dick’. Needing to lighten the mood, I made a remark:
“Wow, after that introduction, even I cannot wait to hear what I am going to say!”
This immediately helped me to connect with the audience, which is so important with any speech.
On another occasion, I had to give a presentation at a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. I had a very sore throat giving me a weak and husky voice. I realised that it would make it more difficult for my audience to understand me as my speech was in English. I knew that I needed to say something about my throat. However, I do not believe a speaker should ever apologise about any aspect of their presentation. Instead, I chose to use irony, to get the audience ‘on my side’. I said:
“I will not speak for long today because of my throat.” Clearing my throat, I added, “At my last engagement, I talked too long, and someone threatened to cut it.”
Instantly, I had built rapport. I was then able to concentrate on my speech and have a drink of water whenever I needed one without detracting from my speech.
The skill of using humorous one-line openers when speaking is to ensure they are relevant, sensitive and that they compliment your personality and style. I will end with a couple of my favourite humorous one-liners that I have used when coaching and training managers in presentation skills:
“The problem with many speakers is you cannot hear what they are saying. The problem with others is that you can.”
“Speeches are like the horns on a bull - there is a point here and a point there, but in between, it is mostly bull.”
“The worst speech is one that has an awful beginning, a lot in between and an unmemorable end. In contrast, the best speech is one that has a great beginning, a memorable end, and not much in between.”
I would love to hear your favourite or worst examples of humorous one-liners – if I receive enough, I will share them with you in a future blog.