Rock Your Next Talk By Answering 5 "Essential" ?s

Convocation speakers can rarely resist the temptation to dispense advice to the gowned graduates in front of them. But, every once in a while, the ideas they share strike a chord with the world at large. Take the example of James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He urged his listeners to stop and ask themselves five "essential" questions. The answers, he promised, would help them achieve success and fulfillment in life. Then, communications blogger Garr Reynolds wrote about Ryan's thought provoking questions, bringing them to a wider audience. Reading the article on Reynold's blog Presentation Zen, it occurred to me that answering the questions could also make a speech or presentation successful and fulfilling to the audience.

Here are the questions and some suggestions about how to apply them to a talk.

1. Wait…What? Ryan says this question is a reminder to slowwww down and make sure you truly understand a situation or issue before you act. Part of your job is to help the audience understand the situation or issue at the heart of your talk. So, provide your listeners with a simple, clear explanation before you launch into your solution or proposal and ask for their support.

2. Asking I wonder why? makes us think about how things are organized Ryan says. Asking I wonder if? makes us think about ways to make those things better. So, ask and answer these powerful questions in your talk. Why are we facing a crisis in xyz today? What if we took a new approach to solving the problem? This is your opportunity to take your audience on a journey of discovery and possibilities.

3. Issues often divide people into enemy camps. If consensus isn’t possible, look for common ground that gets you beyond disagreement says Ryan. Posing the question Couldn’t we at least…? is one way to start prying apart the log jam. Highlight areas, no matter how small, where there is some agreement, and build out from there.

4. People are driven by a yearning to help and make a difference in the lives of others says Ryan. Asking How can I help? is a way to get direction on what might be useful. So, don’t just think of a talk as a chance to get your message across. Think: how can I help by acknowledging my listeners’ point of view? Then, include answers to their questions and concerns about your topic.

5. If everything is important to you, then nothing is important says Ryan. So, from time to time, ask yourself: What really matters? And be brave enough to make hard choices. The same principle applies to choosing your speech or presentation content. Overloading a talk with disparate topics and messages will bore your audience. Good speakers focus on one clear idea and drive it home — and into the consciousness of the audience.