The following is an edited and abridged excerpt from a talk I recently gave for the Launching a Leadership Revolution CD series (specifically LLR 482) about the distinction between Information and Communication. It occurred to me that this may be useful as a companion to the audio recording. I hope it helps! (For more information about the Launching a Leadership Revolution series featuring my friend and co-author Orrin Woodward and other top leaders, visit www.launchingaledaershiprevolution.com).
Imagine you’re on stage in front of a bunch of people. They’re all looking at you, it’s quiet as a funeral home, you can hear a pin drop, your mouth is dry, and you have no idea what to say or what you’re even expected to say. You don’t know why you’re there, you don’t even know who these people are, and then you realize it’s a dream.
For a lot of people this isn’t only an occasional nightmare, it’s a real life fear. I’ve heard that right next to the fear of dying many people have a fear of public speaking. One of the things you can do to take a lot of the fear out of speaking in front of people is to prepare. Obviously, the reason so many people have had that nightmare, and the reason it’s so scary is because we don’t know the context. We don’t know how we got there, we don’t know what’s expected of us, we don’t know what we’re supposed to say, we don’t know what those people are expecting us to say. We don’t even know what language we’re supposed to say it in! Maybe they all speak Greek, for all we know.
The point to remember about effective public speaking is that preparation sets the context, and the better prepared we are, the more we have things in context, and then it’s a lot easier to get on with saying the things we’re supposed to say in a relevant way.
This article is not about actually delivering a talk or how to deliver a talk. There are a lot of materials in the Launching a Leadership Revolution series for that. This is more about the preparation behind what makes communication impactful, and here’s an important take-away phrase to make sure that you remember: Information is not communication. Some people seem to think that just because they have a bunch of information that they are going to put into verbal words it means they are communicating. It doesn’t. They perhaps haven’t communicated anything. There’s a right way to deliver a message and it involves a lot more than simply mouthing a bunch of words.
Public speaking is best when the speaker has taken time to prepare. I’ll never forget a talk that was given by a young man. Afterwards I was chatting with him about it and he said, “Yeah, I hardly even prepared at all for that, I just gave it a little bit of time and whipped out.” I didn’t say it, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Well, it showed. You didn’t have to tell me that, I could tell you hadn’t prepared.” Only the very best, by the way, can get away without preparing, and this only usually works because their very life is daily preparation for what they’re saying from stage. An illustration of this would be my business partner and co-author Orrin Woodward. He’s a very effective public speaker, and he’s famous for being able to move a crowd, and yet I’ve seen him step off an airplane, be ushered into the back of an auditorium somewhere with nothing more than a general idea of the main point he wants to communicate. He’s got nothing written down. He’ll grab a piece of paper, he’ll give it some quick thought, sketch out some concepts, and hit the stage. With no more than that he does a landmark talk that just moves the crowd and changes people’s lives. I’ve seen that happen where he’ll come off afterwards and say, “Man, I didn’t even get to my notes.” He’s prepared, but he hasn’t gone through some of the formal preparation that we’re talking about, but he’s prepared by the very living of his life, and the topic he was covering was something near and dear to his heart, and something he was living with every minute, every day.
So that’s a little different. But even so, after giving thousands and thousands and thousands of public talks, you can feel free to loosen up a little bit and go for it like Orrin Woodward does. Until then, you might want to follow the recipe we’ll go through in this article that works for the rest of us.
So preparation is necessary. I think the reason people don’t do it properly (and the reason that young man had told me he had just winged it, and said it without even being embarrassed) is either they don’t know that they’re supposed to, or it’s too much hard work. Now it’s not drudgery, it’s not impossible, but it does take some energy to organize your thinking - and by the way that’s what good communication is. It begins with organized thinking.
But it’s not enough just to prepare. One must prepare in the right way. The reason I give this little warning is because much preparation either doesn’t happen, as we already discussed, or it produces the wrong kind of communication, and by that I mean an endless stream of information. This fact, that fact, this platitude, that platitude, this one-liner, that one-liner, blah, blah, blah, blah, tell, tell, tell, tell, and information is not communication. So if your preparation leads to too much information, too many points to try to be made, too many facts and figures, and too much burying of the listener in factoids, then that’s not the right kind of preparation either. So this article is geared toward getting you to be able to communicate in a way that’s both memorable and worthwhile to the listener.
Here’s the principle behind this: good communication begins with good thinking. Proper preparation, therefore, is the thinking behind what is going to be said. Don’t we all wish that people would think a little bit more before they say something? Especially when they’re going do it in a formalized way in front of an audience with a microphone on a stage, you would certainly hope that things have been thought through a little bit. So proper preparation is the thinking behind what’s going to be said or communicated, and as Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, perhaps that’s why so few people engage in it.” So with a little salute to Henry Ford, let’s do some of the hard work of talking through how we should be thinking about communicating so that we don’t waste our time, and we don’t bore listeners to tears with our information, all the while thinking that we’re communicating.
Additionally, some of these principles will also work if you’re forced to communicate spontaneously, because we don’t always have time to sit down and think things out ahead of time. We might be in a meaningful discussion with our spouse, and we certainly don’t want to sit down and create a 5 bullet point presentation to make to our spouse, so these principles will be at work in all your communication, and will keep you from just droning on and on without truly connecting.
It should be obvious now that most communication therefore is not communication at all. This is very important to understand. Most of the time, when someone is addressing an audience, much of what is spoken is not actually communicated. Firstly, it’s generally not all that well received, and more importantly not that completely received. There’s all kinds of studies that suggest we only retain a small percentage of what we hear. We only retain a little bit higher percentage of what we see. We retain a little bit higher percentage of what we actually experience and do ourselves. So understand that by speaking to a crowd, you’re already limited just in the mathematics of that kind of communication, so you’ve got to put everything in your favor, because most of it goes in one ear and out the other. And most of it is not remembered very long afterwards if it’s remembered at all. So what ends up happening with most talks is they’re mere words. They’re just clanging symbols - a drone of noise. Unfortunately, that’s most of verbal communication. Just by the sheer mathematics of it much doesn’t get heard or remembered. So we want to fight that trend and turn the tables in the other direction.
One thing to keep in mind regarding verbal communication is that it should be interesting. Now what does interesting mean to a listener? Well, it means that it’s relevant to them. What you have to understand is that when you’re speaking, someone is giving you their attention, or they’re at least acting like they are by sitting there quietly and supposedly listening. But the effect we can have on their attention span is to stay interesting, and the way to stay interesting is to stay relevant for them. You might respond to this by saying, “It is relevant to them. After all, I’m talking to them about their future. I’m talking to them about their finances. I’m talking to them about their marriage. I’m talking to them about how to build their business. I’m talking to them about how to invest their money. Of course it’s relevant to them.” Yes, these things may be true in general, but your communication has to be acutely relevant to them. It has to be relevant to them every single minute. You have to earn their undivided attention, because if you allow them to drift off by you being uninteresting or by just blasting out information that doesn’t seem relevant to them in the moment, they’ll be thinking about the babysitter back home, or the food they’re going to have once they leave the auditorium, or even the vacation they’ve got planned for the following weekend. Their minds are very susceptible to quickly drifting away from what you’re saying and going elsewhere, even though they’re still sitting there quietly and politely. So we’ve got to be relevant every possible moment we can.
Another thing is to be memorable. We want to package things we say in ways that the audience can remember. Obviously it has to be of value, your content has to be valuable, which means you have to actually have to know what you’re talking about, which I guess should go without being said. Still, never forget that your information needs to be valuable, so dig hard to make sure what you’re delivering is of value.
The next thing is, and this should be obvious, but your information needs to be clear. It needs to be stated clearly, and I don’t mean how you pronounce the words. What I mean is the way in which you state your point should be very clear. It should connect with the audience. They should be hanging on your every word and connected to what you’re saying and waiting eagerly to see what you say next. What you say should be moving - it should stimulate some action. It should cause the listener to think, and all this is done through words. But the words are not the end result; rather, they’re the catalyst.
Now what exactly do I mean by that? Well, words are used as vehicles for images in the mind and emotions in the soul. You see, it’s not the words themselves, but what the words create in the mind of the listeners that counts. Better said: it’s not the words you say, it’s what they convey. Keeping this in mind will tend to keep you from being boring, because you won’t be too enamored with the sentences you’re creating and spouting, but you’ll be using those sentences to create word pictures and video images in the minds of the listeners.
All right, so how do you go about doing this?
Well, let’s start with a 30,000 foot view. Whenever you’re going to communicate, start with the big picture in mind. Ask yourself what is the one big thing you want to get across? If they could only get one thing from you, what would it be? (Believe it or not you would actually be doing quite well if the next day a listener to your talk could summarize your it in one statement, say, “You know, the big thing I took away from Bill’s talk was –”). So start with that at least, and think in the beginning, “All right, what’s the one big thing I want them to take away from this talk?” Or, “What’s the one big action they will take after hearing my talk?” or “What’s the one big change in their life that will result?” So understand the 30,000-foot, the high level, the big picture view. What is it that you want them to take away from it? If you can’t answer that about a talk you plan on delivering, don’t expect your audience to ever have a chance to summarize it. The best you’ll get will be something like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, he’s kind of going on and on about this and that, and blah, blah, I don’t know. He was fired up about it, though, I can tell you that.” So make sure you’ve got the big picture in mind and you have that one big thing at least that you want to communicate so your audience has a chance of catching it, and then remember this one big thing as you think through what you’re going to say, so you can figure out ways to make that one big thing prevalent, to make it clear, and to make it stick in their minds.
Okay, and just so you know, the one main thing I want readers of this article to take away is to illustrate your points with stories, examples and such. Illustrate, illustrate, illustrate. Don’t just tell them - show them. My takeaway line for you is this, “You haven’t told them until you’ve shown them.” Okay, so I’m being a little cryptic right now, because I’m telling you exactly what my main point is to be, and what the takeaway line should be, but if ten weeks from now somebody says, “Hey, did you read that article by Chris about blah, blah, blah, about communication that isn’t information only, what did you take that to mean?” You say, “Well, I think he’s telling me to illustrate my points with stories and examples and stuff, not just tell them, and I think he said something about how you haven’t told them until you show them.” Boy, if you get that, I would be just tickled pink (whatever that means).
Let me share a story to illustrate my point, and at the same time I’ll also set up the main body of how I was taught to do this. I was asked to preach a sermon one time many years ago. Flattered and honored, I tried my best. I prepared like crazy and organized my thoughts and followed some of what I’m telling you here about what at least I thought I knew about how to do this. In the end, though, I’m afraid that it didn’t carry the day. As a matter of fact, I’m quite certain I didn’t do that well. So I was handed a book about how to preach and how to communicate better, and this book changed everything for me because the author laid out a very simple formula that anyone can follow. Now, following a structure or framework doesn’t have to be rigid or boring. I’m not a big fan of these public speaking courses that tell you to say what you’re going to say, then say it, and then tell them that you said it. I have never followed those exact kinds of overly structured talks. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, per se, but I believe there are other extremely good ways to communicate and move people, and great ways to get your point across that don’t have to be quite so scripted. Now, back to the point. This book I read talked about 3 things. The author said to make sure that you always state, illustrate, and then apply what you’re saying. State means to clearly indicate your point. Illustrate, which means to color your main point with examples, and then apply, which means to tell them how it relates to them and their life and the actions they’re supposed to take as a result of it.
State: Be clear, be clear, be clear. Make sure that your statement of point is very clear. What is your main point? State it authoritatively and directly.
Illustrate: This is where most speakers fall down. The natural tendency I see among people who get up to speak to an audience is that they state, and then they state, and then they state, and then they state, state, state, state, state, state, state, logic, logic, logic, information, information, information, until the death of the audience. They think that telling is teaching. It’s not. Stop the tell, tell, tell, and start showing them instead.
I remember listening to this one speaker who had a definite mastery of his material. He had the nuances, he had the details, he had the techniques, the principles, the specifics, and he had logic upon logic upon logic upon logic. This guy knew his material cold. He had a wealth of information that the audience had paid to come hear him teach. But yet what he did for 50 minutes was tell, tell, tell, logic, logic, logic, tell, tell, tell, state, state, state. As I looked around the room I saw people on their phones, and they weren’t on their phones taking notes, they were on their phones texting, playing games, and checking messages. I saw one lady lean over, put her head on her spouse’s shoulders, close her eyes, and just kind of rest. I saw another couple of people look at each other, shrug, and get up and leave. I don’t know if they left for the entire evening, or just went to go get a smoke or a drink, I don’t know what it was, but it was total, what I would call an exit of boredom. These are all signs that the speaker had totally lost the crowd. The worst part, however, was that he was totally oblivious to the fact. He continued on with his logic as though it was the most interesting thing in the world.
So what did I just do, by the way, by telling you that story of that speaker who was killing his audience? I gave you a story to illustrate my point. You might not remember anything from this article, but hopefully weeks from now you’ll remember that poor sap up there killing his audience with his state, state, state, state, state, state, state, talk, talk, talk, talk! So the stories illustrate the points, and often people don’t really remember what you state. They only remember the illustration.
In this case I have used a negative story, but positive ones will also work. Remember: stories are the language of the imagination. What you’re trying to tap into is the audience’s imagination. You’re not communicating until you’ve got their brains tracking with yours. The easiest way to do this is through the telling of a story because stories connect with the imagination, and it’s the imagination that causes their attention span to be so short. Our imaginations are so active. They flit and jump from thing to thing, and we think of this and imagine that, picture this and daydream about that, and if the speaker does not capture the imagination, he doesn’t command the attention of the listener. It’s the imagination that is responsible for the attention of the listener. When you’re trying to get the listener’s attention, you’re trying to capture their imagination. If you lose their imagination, you lose their attention, and off they go daydreaming or something else. So stories are the language of the imagination. You’re speaking to their imagination, which means you need to think in terms of pictures and images and visuals and videos and all those things. So think hard about your main point when you’re getting a talk ready, and come up with a story to illustrate it, or several.
Many ask, “Where do I get a story? I don’t know how to come up with a story. I’m teaching them to brush their teeth more often, or whatever, how can there be a story for that?” Well, find some story of somebody who was a really good example of teeth brushing, or someone who was a really bad example of teeth brushing. Show some pictures of people who never brushed – I don’t know, come up with something that will provide memorable images. You can do it from your own experience, you can do it from something you’ve read, you can do it from something you’ve heard, or you can even make one up. Is there a parable from the bible, is there a fable from Aesop’s Fables, is there a nursery rhyme, is there a Doctor Seuss story, is there a cartoon? Or, obviously, you could feel free to show photographs or film clips to literally illustrate your point. Or maybe use diagrams, or come up with some kind of a drawing or something that would show it, or come up with a chart or a graph - some way to reinforce what you’re saying. Other places you can go to add that color might be poetry, or song lyrics, or maybe a scene from a favorite movie, or some really gripping dialogue from a play. Another great source is famous quotes. Probably Winston Churchill or Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln said something that you could use to illustrate your point (and by the way, those 3 guys get credited with saying more things that they didn’t say than almost anybody in the world). So make sure, before you assign a quote to someone, that you’ve got the right author behind the quote. Anther thing you could do is utilize similes or metaphors. A simile is where you say “this thing is as that thing.” A metaphor is where you say “this thing is like that thing.” So you could say, “Life is a game,” that’s a simile. Or you could say, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” that’s a metaphor. But you could use those kind of colors and illustrations, and by the way, don’t be afraid to use humor too. And you can use several – this is an important point, you can use several illustrations, one-liners, quote and stuff, pictures, whatever, you can use several stories to illustrate a point. You can mix them in. I’ve done several already just so far.
Now let’s move on to the third one: Apply. Remember we had state, illustrate, and apply, and actually I really think it should go like this: state, ILLUSTRATE, and apply. But let’s consider this third and final step of applying your information to the listener. This is what makes it relevant to the listener. This is where you tell them why it’s important for them. And by the way, you can state things all throughout your talk, you can illustrate all throughout, and you can make application to their life and why it’s relevant to them all throughout what you say. But here’s one of the keys: connect it to their interests. This is why the nightmare that we talked about at the beginning of you standing on stage and not knowing what to say, not knowing the context, not knowing who that audience is, not knowing what you’re expected to say, this is why that’s so terrifying, is because there’s no connection. There’s no context. But the more you understand your audience, the more you understand your point or your material that you’re going to convey, the more you can connect the two together, and there’s less reason to be afraid.
When considering the application step, always remember what’s in it for the listener. This is also where you tell them what you would like them to do as a result of your information. When we talk about application, we’re talking about action. What action should the listener be taking as a result of the information you’re conveying to them? What is the action? Should they be making a purchase, should they be joining a team, should they be making a change in their life, or all of the above? Whatever. Make sure that it’s explicit.
All right, remember this: it’s better to make one point very well than several poorly or not at all.