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The Risk of Being Amazing
As CEO of Ireland-based ecoLegacy, Tony Ennis delivered a speech in Oxford with the support of veteran speechwriter and author Charles Crawford—“Why? The Future of the Funeral Services Sector”—that won a 2017 Cicero Speechwriting Award in the category Environment/Energy/Sustainability
Ennis, now managing director of the consultancy Ombre Services Ltd., describes how he came to deliver it and what he learned about public speaking in the process. —ed.
I remember my first presentation. I shoe-horned information into PowerPoint slides, each with at least 10 bullet points. To tell everyone everything on my subject in 30 minutes. In later years ditched some density of PowerPoint. But I still saw a speech as all about information.
Then I met Charles Crawford.
Charles’ rule book is to throw the rule book away.
Charles didn't ask about what I wanted to say. He asked about the issues. He tapped into my passion buried deep under stuffy years of management. He challenged me to identify a speech’s “real” message. It was difficult. Great speeches “reach us.” We don’t think how exactly they did that.
The approach was utterly new. As Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, I had to let go. To throw out all I thought I knew about public speaking. Look at it differently: content, structure, delivery, pace, emotion and (above all) silence. Delivering messages on different levels simultaneously: logical/rational, and emotional/primal.
I learned two big things.
First, don’t tell the entire story. Break an audience’s natural anticipation. Most people know how a presentation will unfold. When they don’t know what’s coming next, they pay attention—childlike almost.
Second: leave people wanting more. The speech introduces you and your ideas. Include just enough detail to get them interested. Don’t give them the blueprints!
Saying those things is easy. Crafting and delivering a speech like that are not.
By far the most uncomfortable yet powerful technique I learned was silence. The loooooong pause. Silence gives an audience time to let an idea take root; to wonder what will happen next.
My first outing after working with Charles was an international industry speech in Sweden.
The speech we prepared was not “safe.” Not one bullet point. Big unexpected images. Slightly abstract. It was controversial—or could be if delivered incorrectly. A great speech—or a professional death sentence! I was scared.
My team hated the speech we’d prepared: "You’re not seriously going to say these things??” They were shocked—scared of the break from “normal” expectations. They pressed me to give a traditional speech: cover the main points, head off the usual objections, explain the details of the environmental impact. Lots of information.
I went with Charles' recommendations. I wanted to give the speech that people would be talking about after the conference.
I rehearsed that speech 200 times, to win the space to look people in the eye and see reactions.
The pauses seemed to me much too long. But they worked. People were unsettled, if not slightly offended. They were intrigued.
The speech succeeded beyond anything I’d imagined. I was overwhelmed afterwards. Over dinner replying to all the interest I scarcely ate anything!
This led to my Oxford speech. I’m 46. I’ve been presenting since my 20's at industry events, sometimes to hundreds of people. Oxford was the first time that I enjoyed public speaking.
The major change was the opening. Charles asked me how much risk I’d take. I was ready to be bold.
We used the idea of the Mars Attacks speech, where the doomed US President appeals to the Martians. I was very nervous about this. But it wasn’t shock for the sake of shock. Everyone would be gripped from the first word: they’d have no idea where this speech was going.
Word from my success in Stockholm was spreading. Our technology was different and controversial. By the time I got to the stage, it was standing-room only. To listen to me.
There are times when you go for it. This was one of them:
Why… are you doing this? Why?
Isn’t the universe big enough… for both of us?
… Think how strong we would be
Earth… and Mars… together!
There is nothing that we could not accomplish!
Think about it. Think about it
I saw slack-jawed mouths gawking back at me. Other faces amused, confused, but curious. A few recognized the quote, but were bewildered to hear it in this setting.
My father always said that radio had the best images. I never grasped what he meant until that day in Oxford. I found myself enjoying the awkward silences. Not one person moved, not one interruption. Perfect silence other than my words: I could have heard a pin drop.
Charles helped me weave the stark Mars Attacks question Why? throughout the speech, a braid of consciousness like a fine Hollywood courtroom summation. Everything came together in a beautiful conclusion.
I ran to the wire of my time. The event organiser promptly changed the conference running order. I took forty minutes(!) of questions. They wanted more. A lot more.
Charles and I had worked on Q&A to get that part too just right: a strong coherent message at every stage.
I didn’t tell them why they needed my company’s invention. Telling isn't selling! They needed to realize new things for themselves. It was gratifying to see hundreds of faces come with me on a journey they’d never expected when they got up that morning.
That speech was one of the most enjoyable moments in my whole professional life.
Most of us think that knowing our subject and being able to talk qualifies us to give a good speech. It took a personal crisis—being embarrassed by being asked to leave a podium—for me to seek help.
My one recommendation to anyone fretting over an upcoming speech? Get an expert in. This is not a DIY discipline.
Change your ambition. Don't try to give a “good” speech. Go for outstanding. You want this reaction:
Wow—that was the best speech I've heard in a long time. I need to talk to that guy. I want to do business with him!
Too many people settle for “good enough.” Open yourself to the risk of being amazing.