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The Secret Weapon of the Most Successful Speakers

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Imagine that you’ve been engaged to coach a senior speaker for an upcoming keynote presentation. You get up in the morning, put on your second best suit, polish your shoes and get on the train or plane to travel to your client’s place of work. You’re nervous, of course, because every day depends on your ability to work with a person, tune in to their communication style and help them to face this challenging experience.

More often than not you’re hired to work with the less capable public speakers among the senior exec population. Even more often, they come to you because their CEO or immediate boss has suggested that they ‘get help’ after their last presentation failed to deliver the (unspecified) results that were required by the business.

So the poor soul, who may be an extremely competent CFO or Director of Engineering, comes to you embarrassed by their boss, unclear on their faults, and desperate for you to help them become ‘a bit more like Sally from Marketing’’ or ‘less boring’.

The structure for a day like this is simple: chat for understanding; examination of the upcoming speech and occasion; first run through of their speech with a very nervous person and then the swift identification of strengths to build on and weaknesses to hide or fix. That’s the challenge of days like this.

But when you’re working with (particularly senior) speakers from a corporate world, you have to be realistic in what you can achieve in such a short space of time.

A speech is a subtle combination of:

  • audience and environment
  • the quality, relevance and suitability of the message to be delivered to that audience on that day
  • then, and only then, the speaker’s ability to deliver that message to that audience on that day etc.

It’s seldom just about the speaker. More often than you might think, the message is so poorly constructed, badly written and incoherent that Robert De Niro, supported by a squadron of Navy Seals for impact couldn’t achieve much with it. I often find myself focusing on fixing the ‘story’ with a client rather than working on their voice, or posture or ‘presence’. In my opinion the biggest problem with most corporate presentations is simple:

  • there’s no ‘story’
  • it’s too long
  • it’s essentially pointless

And now, Sims Wyeth identifies his approach to the ‘poor client with a terrible story’ conundrum and offers some really helpful areas of focus to fix the biggest problem:


When I’m coaching a client, the focus is usually on content structure. Sure, it’s important to know how to deliver a presentation. But, too often, I find that people would be far more successful as speakers if they concentrated on how to organize their talk.

There are many templates for content, but I favour the storytelling model – it’s like a secret weapon. We never get tired of stories. We read them, watch them, listen to them and tell them every day of our lives. We even tell them to ourselves.

And as a business leader and public speaker, you should tap into our yearning for tales, because wrapping your messages in a story will almost guarantee that your listeners will hear, understand, and remember your ideas.

Telling stories in conversation comes naturally. But writing and using stories in our business presentations is a little harder.

To do this, try using a story to structure a talk. Here’s how.


Understand the Parts that Make Up the Whole

Knowing the parts of a story will make it easy for you to plug in your information.

Storytelling is a craft in which the broad outline is given. The basic structure of a story is three acts: the set-up, the development, and the resolution.

Understand that the template for storytelling – the structure and nature of stories – is pretty straight forward, but finding one that reaches your audience, engages their emotions, and helps you make your point is hard.


Learn the Questions

To figure out the set-up, development, and resolution, answer these questions. They will guide you as you weave the facts into an interesting tale.

  1. Who is/are the “character(s)”? – This doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a product, or a team, or a research project, etc.
  2. What do they want? – or, what do the people involved with the product, team, project, etc., want? What would make everyone “live happily ever after”?
  3. And why can’t they have it? – Again, focus on the people. Even if the answer to this question is complicated, try to break it down into generalities that are easy to understand.
  4. Who are the “good guys” and who – or what – are the “bad guys”?


Spark interest with Suspense

Keep people guessing. When people aren’t sure what is going to happen next, they are more interested in what is going to happen next.

Suspense is the essential ingredient of story, even a short personal one. It drives the narrative, and its most basic form is, “How does the story turn out?” Here’s how to create it:

  • Set up an expectation for your listeners, an expectation that isn’t satisfied. That’s surprising, and it creates suspense.
  • Do the exact opposite by describing something mundane and then reveal a ticking bomb within the situation. That also creates suspense.
  • Ask a question and then fail to answer it. For instance: “The question we need to answer is: How can we launch a product in one year, when it usually takes at least two? Let me know if you have any ideas. And now, let me walk you through the manufacturing schedule.”


Make the Abstract Concrete

Don’t just dump a bunch of dry data on your listeners. Build a story around the whys, when, hows, etc., of the data. That will help your listeners grasp what all those numbers, graphs, and charts mean. Also, they will be able to put them into a context because you’ll be giving them a framework.


Stick a Toe Outside Your Comfort Zone

You can’t learn to be a good storyteller from reading a book or a blog. You have to try your stories out on people. Comedians go to out-of-the-way comedy clubs to try out their new material, and we, as business presenters who are eager to capture and hold the attention of our own audiences, need to beta-test our stories just as we beta-test our products.

Why not have a go at structuring your next talk around a story and see what effect it has on your audience. How did you spark their interest? Did they hang on your every word? How did you make the data more meaningful to them? We’d love to know so feel free to share your experiences in the Comments section below.

Sims Wyeth
Sims Wyeth is the president of Sims Wyeth & Co., an executive development firm devoted to the art and science of speaking persuasively. Sims specializes in 1:1 coaching and small group workshops. He believes that while the delivery of a presentation is key, the structure of it is often more important. Sims is also the author of The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking.
Sims Wyeth
Sims Wyeth
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