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When Giving a Commencement Address, Respect Your Audience

Some people should never be given a live microphone in front of a large audience. Even though many may say their greatest fear is public speaking, a tiny minority view the opportunity of speaking in front of an audience as occasion to tell everyone how important they are.

Some people should never be given a live microphone in front of a large audience. Even though many may say their greatest fear is public speaking, a tiny minority view the opportunity of speaking in front of an audience as occasion to tell everyone how important they are.

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I was thinking this as I was watching a parade of speakers at the University of Michigan Class of 2010 commencement at which President Barack Obama was the featured speaker.

Some of the speakers could have learned something from the student representative, who having been selected by his classmates, gave a delightful and warm-hearted speech that captured the spirit of the moment because he spoke to his audience, not at them.

Since commencement season is upon us once again, here are some things to consider if you have the honor of being invited to speak.

Be humble.  Commencement marks the beginning for the students who are graduating. It is their day of honor as well as of pride for their parents. Speakers need to realize that however important their titles are, most students do not care two hoots about them and simply want them to be brief. No one remembers a long speech anyway save for how uncomfortable they are.

Be brief. Commencement exercises are group speaking events. You are one of a handful or more of speakers. Therefore, take the podium, deliver your message, and sit down. Trust me the students will love you for being brief and not hitting their parents up for more money.

Be direct. Do not try to prove how accomplished you are or how you aced your speech class in college. You are not there to impress the faculty. You are there to cheer the graduates and maybe share some advice imparted to you or lessons you have learned along your life’s path. Very important, get to the point of the story quickly.

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Be human. Tell a joke on yourself. President Obama drove this point home when he spoke of how every night he liked to read letters people had sent him. He acknowledged that one third of those told him that he was doing a poor job, to which he later said that wife Michelle offered no comfort since he had “signed on” to be president. Audiences like it when speakers share something of themselves. In other words, be real.

These lessons apply equally well to any event where there are more than one speaker. Whether you are speaking to employees, franchise dealers, vendors or the public, keep in mind that you do not own the stage. You share it with your fellow presenters. Be concise. Be courteous. And above all be brief.

One of my favorite speaker stories is that of a retiring auto executive who was addressing a dealer group. A lengthy speech had been prepared for him, but as he took the stage he looked at the group and said something like “You know me, you know the product, see you in the bar.” It was all over in less than a minute. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

Remember, the audience has invited you to speak. You are their guest. Behave like one. And if you treat them well, they just might invite you back, or better yet remember something of what you said.

 

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is 12 Steps to Power Presence: How to Assert Your Authority to Lead (Amacom 2010). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website, www.johnbaldoni.com

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