Public speaking is often cited as the number one most common fear, even before death itself.

For some of us, high on the list of fears is the dread of listening to a speech that bores, patronizes, or otherwise wastes our time.

Whether your next speech is before the local school group or the United Nations General Assembly, following these seven sure-fire steps will dramatically improve your chances for success.

microphoneAnd don’t be deceived by how mundane these steps may seem. As Will Rogers said, “common sense ain’t all that common.”

#1 Diagnose your audience. Most people tune in to their favorite internal radio station: WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? That’s not to suggest that most people are selfish. It’s simply an acknowledgement that personal context is usually the first filter we use to evaluate our environment. It’s especially true when we’re asked to participate in some sort of change.

So before you even consider what your message might be, get answers to questions like these:

  • What are my audience members most concerned about?
  • What challenges do they face?
  • What are their common interests?
  • What are the values that influence their behaviors?
  • What information could be most helpful to them?

Although your message may have broad application, it will be best received when it’s tailored to your audience. One size does not fit all. Gaining rapport with your audience is critical to your success, and it requires a lot more than beginning with a perfunctory “Hello, Cleveland!”

#2 Begin with the close in mind. If you had to distill your entire message into a 140-character Twitter post, what would it be? Actually, that’s a pretty good discipline to adopt. Even though you may have a captive audience, they want and expect a tight message that marches along to a solid and memorable conclusion.

Imagine what your final sentence or two might be. Craft them carefully. These are not throw-away lines. These are the very last message points your audience will hear.

#3 Telegraph your message. Carefully consider the “hazardous half minute” – the first 30 seconds of your speech. It’s at the very beginning of your speech that you must assure your audience that you’re not going to waste their time and attention.

Although some messages can benefit from a build up, it’s often effective to say right up front what you want the audience’s take-away to be.

It could be something like “Today I’ll tell you how resistance to change can be your friend rather than your enemy.” Do you notice how that simple sentence provides a teaser? For many people, especially those in leadership positions, resistance is often viewed as a noxious intruder that deserves to be stomped into submission. You’re promising to change their paradigm and tell them “how” to do something they may never have considered possible or even advisable.

Whether your goal is to teach, persuade, entertain, inspire, or all of the above, your audience will follow along best if you provide a kind of “movie trailer” highlighting what they can expect.

#4 Illustrate with stories. From the beginning of human history, stories have been at the top of the list of effective communication tools.

As a young journalist I covered a lot of public speeches by business people, religious leaders, politicians, and others. Because I was then, as now, a student of human behavior, I often watched the audiences even more than I watched the speakers. Even in an otherwise dull presentation, I noticed that when a speaker said something like, “Let me illustrate with a story,” something almost magical happened. Audience engagement would “click on” as though someone flipped a switch. They paid attention. They became invested in the speaker’s message.

Stories can have a powerful effect. But not just any stories. They must be relevant to your subject. They must be appropriate for your audience. They must be well told. Select your stories thoughtfully. Slim them down to their most compelling essence. Practice them carefully.

#5 Connect with audience concerns. This is a convergence of all the previous points. Why even give a speech unless it explicitly addresses your audience’s concerns?

Notice the word “explicitly.” No one should be left wondering if you really “get it” when it comes to their concerns. To remove all doubt, you might say something like “I know the upcoming merger will present some operational challenges for you. So I’ll tell you about five specific things we’re doing to help make the transition smooth.” To the extent possible, put yourself in the audience’s position. What questions do they likely have? Even if those questions are unasked (maybe because people are reluctant to speak up?), you should provide plausible answers.

#6 Recap the high points. The advice to “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them” may be a cliché, but it has a lot of value.

You may be unable to wrap up in only 140 characters, but you should at least provide a compact summary of your main points. Yes, you want people to enjoy your speech during real time. But you should also strive to make it memorable. Why? So your listeners can apply the principles you profess, embrace the practices you teach, and follow the advice you offer. A tight summary can help pave the way.

#7 Call to action. Even a funeral talk can include a call to action: “Let’s resolve to honor Fred’s memory by continuing the work to which he was so devoted.”

I hold the view that public discourse should help people desire to do better and to be better. That implies a call to action. Don’t leave your audience guessing what you want them to do. Your entire message should be designed to “make a case” for the action you champion.

It’s been said that 99% of the population is afraid of public speaking, and that most people in the remaining 1% have nothing interesting to say. You can stand out from the crowd if you adopt these seven steps.

Remember: most of your success as a speaker is determined before you step to the microphone.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.

Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

Rodger Dean Duncan