Founder & Principal of SmartMouth Communications, a consulting, coaching and training firm that creates better messages and messengers.
John Madden, the late great football player, coach, color commentator and video game inspiration passed away in late December at age 85. Universally acknowledged to be a stellar human being, he also had a unique appeal to his audiences and followers. This last statement is, perhaps, a huge understatement.
Madden is, without question, the North Star for a generation of sports broadcasters who seek to emulate his man-on-the-street way of offering conversational commentary, accessible explanations of game strategy and accompanying visual reinforcements. He is the gold standard for entertaining while informing, exuding passion over polish and drawing in and holding the attention of even the most casual viewer.
TV sports producer Fred Gaudelli, in a 2014 interview with Sports Illustrated, captured Madden’s gifts as a commentator best when he said that he could write a book on what broadcasters today can learn from Madden “including the ability to communicate the intricacies of football without a having to use technical jargon that less than one percent of the audience understands and putting the audience ahead of your preparation,” Gaudelli said. “That means having the ability to instantly change gears to report what is actually happening versus what you came in prepared to speak about. Also, constantly being aware, observant and curious.”
Not only are these attributes Madden’s gifts and secret sauce, but they also provide inspiration for some key public speaking tips—and not just for broadcasters but to professionals in any industry and in any role.
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Simplify complex material.
This is one of the most ubiquitous public speaking challenges, especially among engineers, scientists, tech people or anyone with deep knowledge and expertise on a topic. Taking the time to think through who your audience is, how sophisticated they are on your topic, and then tailoring your material to meet them where they are is mission-critical. Otherwise, you’ll be talking around them or over their heads, ultimately leading to a missed opportunity to connect.
How do you do this? One way is to think about your audience as the “little old lady next door” and selectively decide what she would understand and appreciate. Bottom line: Keep it simple, prioritize so you can deliver key takeaways and avoid jargon. As Madden seemed to know intuitively, jargon is “exclusive” language; it’s like an inside joke and leaves people out.
Being audience-centric means you put the needs and interests of your audience ahead of your own. So, even though you may be the invited speaker and all in attendance know what your topic is, you still need to meet them where they are rather than deciding to share everything you know on the topic. In other words, even though you may have an advanced degree in behavioral economics, you’re not trying to educate at the Ph.D. level when speaking to a general business audience.
Asking yourself two questions will help you get at your audience’s needs and interests: First, are they in the room by choice or by obligation? If by choice, you have more latitude with time and detail. And second, what does this audience really care about? Sure, they may care about your topic, but there’s probably some other self-interest that motivates or plagues them. If you don’t know the answers, then see if you can find out by asking the organizer, polling the room or simply reading the room.
Prepare to remain agile.
Paying attention to what’s happening in the room, despite all the other juggling you have to do as a speaker, does require some multitasking. Reading the room, or using what I call dynamic listening—“listening” with your eyes as well as your ears—will help you know when and if a pivot is necessary. It’s what Gaudelli meant by Madden “being aware, observant and curious.”
It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s essential to being an effective speaker. I have had to do it and so I understand the pain firsthand. I was once invited to speak, the organizers approved the topic and content of my presentation, but less than 15 minutes into my presentation, I could tell I was tanking. The audience was not with me. I pivoted by turning off my PowerPoint and opening up the room to discussion. The discussion ended up being a robust 30 minutes, in which everyone was engaged. Hard lesson learned.
When we prepare well to deliver on a set topic, especially when we come prepared with beautiful visuals, it’s hard to abandon ship or change directions. However, the drive to finish what you prepared, or the drive to deliver exactly as you prepared, ignores what’s happening in the room and leaves the audience out of the equation. The audience is actually central to the equation, as Madden teaches us, and your preparation should include strategies for remaining agile. Great ways to do this are to develop some opening questions for your audience so you’ll “know” them better and/or to develop some prompt questions for discussion. And always come prepared with some stories you can throw in for color. Madden loved a good story!
Football and sports broadcasting may have lost a great one, but he leaves a legacy for us all. You do your best, and reach the most people, by keeping it simple, putting your audience ahead of yourself and staying present.
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Author: Beth Noymer Levine, Forbes Councils Member