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Chapter 4: Fault #1: An Unclear Purpose


During the course of most speeches, the audience, as a rule, can figure out what the speech's subject is, but not the object.

- Anonymous

A well-thought-out purpose is so elemental it's often overlooked. Have you ever sat in an audience and asked yourself when the speaker was going to get to the point? Or heard a speech just drift - along with the audience? The subject may be compelling, the speaker even charismatic, but without determining a clear purpose, the speaker fails to lead the audience.

In front of an audience, speakers are leaders, in charge of moving that audience from one point to another. And you can only be a leader - and attain the power that goes with leadership - if you have a clear purpose in mind. No one should be in doubt for long as to your purpose unless you're saving some shock for the end, and even then, you had better make sure your audience can follow along.

The purpose of your speech is what you want to leave in the minds of those in your audience and what you want them to do as a result of hearing you. I pondered this issue. Why is this fault so prevalent? I realized that most speakers confuse the purpose with the subject. For example, when I ask my clients about the purpose of their presentations, I hear things like, "I'm going to talk about the new marketing program" or "the new guidelines for hiring." In other words, they tell me about the content of their presentations - not the purpose.

What does the speaker want his audience to do after hearing his presentation on hiring guidelines? He doesn't just want to give the audience information; he wants his listeners to hire the best people for the job.

In fact, every talk needs three elements: a title, a subject, and a purpose. For example:

How to Determine Your Purpose

You can zero in on your purpose by asking: What do I want to accomplish in the minds of those in my audience? What do I want them to do, feel, or know?

Knowing clearly how you want the members of your audience to feel will affect the mood of your speech, your choice of examples and stories, and how you build the argument: Every element is influenced by the effect of your overall purpose.

Start by Stating Your Purpose

It can be surprisingly tough to set down a clear-cut statement of your purpose. In my public-speaking classes I always ask people to state their purpose; usually the speaker is not too clear on this, even after giving a speech. That doubt can stem from an attempt to convey too much, to make sure an audience gets all the facts. Don't be an overloaded speaker who drifts and, at the end, can't get back to your original message. Your purpose should be so clear that no one is left in doubt. When your purpose is defined at the outset, you can make sure all that follows supports your aims and that no one ends up wondering what point you were trying to get across.

The 6 Main Purposes of Presentations

Most speeches fit into one of the six categories in the list that follows. Each requires a different tone, different types of stories, different examples, even a different choice of words. Of course, a speech can have more than one purpose, but there should be one overriding purpose that is absolutely clear to you and to your audience. The six main purposes are:

  1. To Inform. When NASA scientists show us photos of a comet hitting Jupiter and explain its effect, they don't want us to do anything as a result (such as evacuate planet Earth). Their purpose is to inform. You may not be called upon to discuss such planet-shattering topics, but you may be asked to announce a colleague's promotion or retirement, to let employees know that the company has adopted a new insurance policy, or that a specific sales goal has been reached. Millions of talks are made specifically to inform people - to tell them something they will find beneficial to know. This kind of speech is usually fairly short and to the point and concentrates on the facts of the situation. The information presented should not be too complicated; your audience should be able to fully comprehend the subject matter just by listening to you speak about it. Some topics for informative speeches might be: The History of Our Company, Our Products and Services, or Introducing the New Package Design.

    Most speeches in business fall into this category. If I were giving a one-hour talk on how to become a more effective speaker, I would be informing, but if I were to deliver a two-day workshop with six to eight people who would be videotaped, my purpose would fall under the next category, to instruct.

  2. To Instruct. Suppose, once again, you are asked to give a presentation about the company's new insurance policy. This time, instead of just being asked to announce that a new policy exists, you're asked to let employees know exactly how the plan works: how to fill out the forms, where to send them, how long to wait for reimbursement. Now your purpose is to instruct, to teach, to give specific directions or orders. This type of presentation is usually longer than an informational speech, but not necessarily. It must cover your topic thoroughly, so that your listeners absorb your instructions and come away with a new skill. Some sample topics include: Ten Steps to Being a Better Manager, What To Do in a Fire Emergency, and How to Use Your New Computerized Appointment Calendar.

    Whenever you are providing opportunities to hear, understand, practice, or apply, that is instructing. Instructing and informing are often joined together.

  3. To Entertain. Unless you're a professional stand-up comic, you probably won't be making speeches solely to entertain. For most business speakers this is a rarity, and a very difficult type of speech to deliver. However, you do want to deliver your subject and message in an entertaining, interesting way. So if you're delivering a talk on reducing stress in the workplace, you can add an entertaining slant to it, and a funny title, like "Tickle Your Funny Bone and Live Longer." A topic like that would lend itself to funny props and stories. Even a more serious topic, such as safety, can benefit from amusing cartoons. The basic features of this type of speech are vivid language, sincerity, and enthusiasm.

  4. To Inspire / Motivate. There are many ways to inspire and/or motivate people. Some people inspire others by talking about how they have personally triumphed over hardships, such as Gerald Coffee, who spent seven years in solitary confinement in a prison camp; or Lance Armstrong, who overcame cancer to reclaim his championship at the Tour de France. They share their stories to let others know that no matter what tragedies may happen in life, it is possible to get beyond them successfully.

    Motivational speeches do not necessarily focus in on personal hardships. Susan B. Anthony motivated many in her generation to stand up for a woman's right to vote. Martin Luther King spoke to us all about his dreams of a glorious future and motivated many to become involved in the civil rights movement. These kinds of speakers desire to pull the best out of their listeners.

  5. To Activate / Stimulate. Maybe you don't just want to inspire people, but you want to stimulate them to take action. A speech designed to activate presents ideas, suggestions, and arguments in such a way that the audience will believe so strongly what you tell them that they will actually carry out your suggestions. A fundraising speech is a perfect example: Your purpose is to get people to open their wallets and make a contribution. Other sample topics might be: Vote for Proposition 21! Save the Whales! and Follow the New Safety Regulations!

    To get people to act on your ideas, you must tell them what to do and stress that this action should be taken. You might point out what will happen if they do take this action, and what will happen if they don't. In order for this speech to be effective, you yourself must be firmly convinced that the course of action you are urging is the right one.

  6. To Persuade. Capitol Punishment Should Be Abolished! Multi-culturalism Is Good for Our Business! Sex Education Should Be Taught Early! These are all topics for presentations whose purpose is to persuade. This type of speech causes your audience to willingly accept your proposal through logic, evidence, and emotion. A persuasive speech offers a solution to a controversial problem, presenting sufficient logic, evidence, and emotion to sway the audience to your belief.

Once you know your general purpose, you need to develop a more specific, related purpose. In seminars, my general purpose is to inform or instruct based on the length of the presentation. My specific purpose is to give people tools and techniques so that they can be more interesting and powerful communicators. The more specific your purpose, the more powerful your presentation will be.

So how do you state your purpose? The first step is to figure out which type of purpose yours is. Will you be speaking to entertain or to impart information? Or do you need to go beyond informing and actually persuade, or even rouse your audience to action? It's quite possible your purpose will involve a combination of these goals. If it does, which one is paramount?

A good purpose is a specific one. Your general purpose may be to inform, but you must focus on exactly what you are going to get across. Do you get loads of mail on executive seminars? Look at the descriptions of courses offered: Each objective is spelled out clearly. Speaking of this resource, I could say my purpose is to teach you about public speaking, but that's vague. It would be more specific to say that I want to teach you how to be a powerful speaker by avoiding the six major speaking faults.

Don't Just Inform - Persuade!

Even though we just discussed the fact that there are six major purposes, one stands out among the rest: to persuade.

Take the salesperson at a large Canadian communications company who told me about a presentation he was going to give. He'd been asked to observe a new telemarketers' training program for three months, then present an evaluation to company executives. When I asked him what the purpose of his presentation was, he said it was to inform the company executives on the status of the program. But as we spoke, he came to realize that he really wanted the executives to sign up for a long-term commitment to the program. His real purpose was to activate, not just inform. When his purpose changed, so did his entire presentation.

The speaker's task is seldom as simple as imparting information. Granted, informing is central to the job; speaking is an efficient way of conveying timely information to large groups. But chances are your objectives as a speaker are to persuade, to give your audience new information in such a way that it sees things your way. This is the purpose behind the purpose, the end result that speakers seek.

You can see these two goals - informing and persuading - at work in business and technical presentations, where the topics, the facts, and the statistics are presented with a clear objective in sight: to win that account, reorganize that department, or revamp that computer system. As tools of persuasion, speeches and presentations are everyday events. But it's not enough to be clear; you need to be compelling too.

I once heard a principal speak to the parents of his students about drunk driving, a subject of such inherent seriousness that he should have been able to lead the parents with ease. But he never made his purpose clear: His facts and presentation were jumbled; his stories weren't focused; and up until the very end, the parents were left wondering what the point was.

In fact, he had a very specific point. He wanted the audience to write letters to the legislature supporting tougher laws. But because he waited until the last few sentences to spring this request on them - instead of weaving the effect concerned citizens can have throughout his talk - his audience felt more put upon than activated.

He made the mistake of thinking that informing is the same as persuading. It's not. Informing is a preliminary step to getting people to act, but facts need support, organization, and clear communication of benefits to get results from an audience.

Don't Let Your Subject Be Too Broad

When the purpose gets too broad, it gets confused with the subject. Keep these two separate and you're well on your way to focusing your talk. You may have to speak on "Corporate Leadership in the 21st Century"; if you think of that as the purpose of your talk, any panic is justified. A topic like that is just a broad subject; your purpose is to make a specific point about leadership - maybe even in a specific company - through examples, anecdotes, and various facts. So tackle some key trees, not the whole forest. Your purpose in such a speech could be to inform the audience of the skills necessary to achieve leadership in a corporation. Or it could be to convince people to start preparing now for changing leadership roles in the 21st century. The possibilities in the subject are vast, so you must be very clear and specific about your purpose.

The more focused and specific your talk, the better your chances that some words will resonate. Speak vividly about the leadership of one person, and your audience can glean much about leadership in general. Let people make the leap from the specific to the general, while you continue to be vivid. Broad subjects can be wonderful assignments if you give them a narrow - and therefore memorable - purpose and focus.

Analyze the Audience

Always ask yourself how the purpose of your talk relates to your audience's interests. Knowing your audience is the only way to understand its attitudes and anticipate its objections. A dentist addressing a group of parents would talk about preventing tooth decay in their children, not about the latest equipment installed in his office. Study those in your audience; think of their needs. You must link the beliefs you are trying to impart with their existing concerns. Chapter 9 ("Not Meeting the Real Needs of Your Audience") goes into this crucial analysis in detail.

Let Purpose Lead the Argument

If you titled your leadership speech "A Group Without a Leader Is Like a Boat Without a Rudder," that title would lead naturally into your general purpose: to get those in your audience to act, to change their behavior, and adopt and use the five leadership strategies you are about to introduce. You could go on to support your purpose by explaining what could happen if they don't use them and what will happen if they do.

Get Mileage out of Your Title

Titles lend a professional air and are an opportunity to be more creative. Titles help the audience to focus, make it easier for your introducer, and look better in the program. Many speakers either omit the title altogether or tack on something at the last minute. But the title is the first thing about your speech an audience sees or hears, and it deserves a lot of care. Good speakers use titles as part of their strategy; nothing communicates creativity quicker than a well-worded title. A lively title will also help the meeting planner, who frequently will print them on whatever he or she is using to summarize or sell the meeting. A client once hired me to help them develop more interesting titles for the annual managers meeting.

A weak title is better than no title at all - barely. Compare "Safety" to "Be Safe and Live Longer: 10 Steps to a Healthy Workplace" and "Managing Well" to "How to Be a Super Boss."

Always use titles - even for a meeting you're running in your own corporation. It's your first chance to catch your audience's attention.

Fine-Tune Your Tone

Establishing your purpose is the beginning of the fine-tuning all good speakers do. And the same purpose can lend itself to talks with very different thrusts, depending on your audience. For example, a talk on leadership to senior executives will differ from one to new managers. The thrust may change from reinforcing to introducing; the examples relevant to the audience's business life will be different. Other shifts would occur if you prepared a talk on the same topic to laypeople and technical experts.

Should speeches be entertaining, strictly technical, or a little of both? Speeches have their own tenors that can either be inappropriate to the subject at hand or just fight. The twist you put on the facts will guide much of your audience's reaction to the information you're imparting.

A plea for humor: Even if your purpose and your tone are extremely serious, you shouldn't neglect the saving grace of humor. An amusing example or story is still one of the best ways to be memorable; even Shakespeare had comedy in the midst of his most tragic plays. I am not suggesting you work at being a stand-up comic, but that you take advantage of the bond created when speakers get audiences to laugh with them.

Compel Through Commitment

The key to being compelling lies in your own commitment to and connection to your topic. And it comes from knowing exactly what you want to say. Sound familiar? We're back to the original task of defining your purpose - knowing what you want to say. But that second step - persuading - needs a commitment from you to your topic. Funny stories, slides, and startling statistics all may help you make your case, but your own commitment as a speaker - the passion and the tangible belief that you can summon - is hard to beat when you combine it with a logical, informative presentation.

In 1976, Norman Vincent Peale (famous for his book The Power of Positive Thinking) wrote another book called Enthusiasm Makes the Difference, in which he stated that enthusiasm can not only help you cope with any problem you may face, it can help you harness the power to motive yourself and others. To be the excited - and exciting - kind of speaker people remember, you must believe in your material. This is especially true when your purpose is to convince or motivate. Your enthusiasm must be genuine and palpable; anything contrived will seem just that.

Was Your Purpose Clear? Get Feedback

Get in the habit of asking people who have heard you whether your purpose was clear. Before you give your next talk or chair a meeting, write a sentence that you feel describes your purpose. After you deliver your presentation, ask the participants what your purpose was. They should be able to tell you - easily. See how closely what they say matches what you wrote. If it doesn't, you need to work harder on making the content support and evoke the purpose you have in mind. Without feedback, you can only assume your purpose was clear - you'll never know for sure.

Focused, committed, invigorated - isn't that the kind of speaker you enjoy hearing? It is the kind you can become, and the first step is that firm grasp of purpose. Determining your purpose really is an easy step, and it makes everything that follows, including organization and selecting good supporting material, much easier. When you communicate a strong purpose, people see you as a leader with vision, which can't help but add power to your presentations.

Another Perk of a Clear Purpose: Cut Your Prep Time in Half

One of the greatest benefits of having a clear purpose is that it helps you cut down on your preparation time. I worked with an endocrinologist who was working on a speech he was going to present to other doctors. He spent a lot of preparation time gathering technical information he thought he would use. But when he realized that his real purpose was to persuade these doctors to treat diabetes more aggressively, he also realized he didn't need as much technical information as he originally thought. Had he stated his purpose in the beginning, he would have saved himself hours of prep time.

Professional Projects: Concentrate on Purpose
  1. Listen to some politicians and see if you can write down a clear, one-sentence summation of the purpose of the speech you are listening to.

  2. Think about your next meeting with your boss and clearly write out a purpose that will help keep you focused and assure you of better results.

  3. Practice with your next voice mails by clearly stating your purpose and then listing your key points. This is a good way to build the purpose habit.

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