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  • Matt McGarrity

Want better talks? Set clearer goals.



Baltasar Gracian was a writer and philosopher in seventeenth century Spain. His works were so influential that the village where he was born renamed itself in his honor (Belmonte de Gracián). His Art of Worldy Wisdom, a collection of thoughts and advice on how to get ahead in life, continues to offer insight. One such piece has been translated and retranslated so many times it’s hard to place the original. A speech “is like a feast, at which the dishes are made to please the guests, and not the cooks.”[i] At first glance, this seems an obvious truism, “Of course a speech should be for the audience and not the speaker.” Failing to remain audience-centered is probably the most common and most devastating mistake that speakers make. Bad delivery can be improved. A weak point can be bolstered with evidence. But a speech that doesn’t heed the audience is doomed before it’s begun.


We want our speeches to be audience-oriented, designed to satisfy the needs of the audience. Assume that your audience members are stingy with their time and attention. Why should they listen to you? How is it in their interest? This might be as simple as “it’ll be on the test” or more amorphous as “this helps me remember the deceased.” Regardless, there should be something that the audience can gain from listening to your talk. Don’t hide this benefit, put it on display as motivation to listen. Ultimately, your speech isn't for you; it's for your audience. That means balancing what you want to say on a topic with what the audience needs to hear on that topic.


All too often, speeches are comprised of what the speaker wants to say. Let me give you an example. I have a friend who attended Princeton Seminary. All the seminarians had to pass through a core course, which had been taught by the same professor for decades. This professor would assign some required reading from a textbook. When the class would meet, the professor would stand at a podium, open the textbook to the assigned reading, and…begin to read the chapter aloud. He would keep going until the class ended, at which time he closed the book until the next meeting. Terrible. Rather than an audience-oriented talk, we could classify this as content-oriented. The professor wanted students to do the reading, but he ensured they “accessed” the content by reading them aloud. The fact that many students were ignoring him or asleep was irrelevant. The content had manifest in either book or spoken form. That class wasn't about what the students could do with that information or how that information might change their understanding about something; it was just about the words.


You have probably sat through many such content-oriented talks. I think briefings on new security protocols can be like this. “I said it. They can’t sue because I said it.” Why are content-oriented speeches such a common trap that speakers fall into? Because content-speeches are easier to prepare; ignoring the audience is simply faster. How much time do you think that professor spent preparing that lecture? Zero minutes; he just read a book aloud. I once had a teacher who talked about “step prep;” he prepared his lecture as he walked up the steps to the classroom. Guess how good his classes were? Terrible, but he didn’t want to put anytime into the preparation. A good carpenter can build a desk that will last for a hundred years; a shoddy one can build one faster that will fall apart faster.


Good public speaking asks us to think about how listeners will experience our talk and what we hope they would take away from it. These are your speech outputs. Quite honestly, it's the value listeners derive from the talk. As speakers, we should ask of our presentations: what should listeners be able to do at the end of the talk? For example, if you were presenting to your colleagues or reporting to a grant agency about your recent work activities, you goal wouldn’t be “I want to explain all my divisions functions.” Rather, it would be more like, “I want my audience to be able to identify and describe two important projects.” The difference might sound subtle, but it shows up strikingly in performance. The first goal would result in an overly complicated romp through every aspect of your workday; such a speech labors under the burden of comprehensiveness. The second goal, however, focuses the content and identifies audience behaviors. If my goal is for them to identify and describe, well, I had better do that myself. "Identify" demands a short summary statement for each major project and "describe" requires me to include lots of examples of the job.


Always go back to the beginning and set appropriate goals. What can you truly achieve in the time allotted with the audience you have? Work within that set of constraints. A speech is for the guests, not the cook.


[i] This rendition is provided by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric, p. 24. Their basis is the French translation of Gracian in L’homme de Cour, p. 85.

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