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Chapter 4: How to Be a Luncheon Speaker


In Chapter 6, we discuss the business lunch as it can work one-on-one. What about when you are invited to address a business or professional luncheon group? Asked to share your words of wisdom? Give a lift to the group? Can you speak on the subject of your expertise and send them back to work motivated?

Being asked to be a luncheon speaker is quite a compliment! Do it well and you are a hero. Do it poorly and you're like most luncheon food . . . soon to be forgotten.

First, Master the Obvious

For some reason the setting is never right, so your first concern is figuring out where to stand. It's not like a more formal meeting where the audience sits in one place and the rostrum or podium is set up so that the speaker is the center of attention. Sometimes ten or twenty people on the dais flank the speaker on both sides - which means you're trapped behind the lectern. At other times, the configuration of tables makes it difficult to find a central place to stand so that you are in command of the entire audience and room.

One good strategy is to let your host know in advance that you will be using slides or a PowerPoint presentation with a projector. That will force the room to have a focal point. That's where you will stand in order to use your visuals. And if you should decide you won't use visuals, don't tell anyone until the room has already been set up. Then you'll still have the spot you need.

If there are more than a hundred people, make sure you have a platform at least three feet high. You can't be at ground level with that big a crowd. They need to be able to see you for most of the talk. If you are one who likes to mingle with the masses, walking through the group as you talk, you can do so, but the opening and closing should always be delivered from a platform, where you are the center of attention.

What Kind of Microphone?

There is only one answer - a lavaliere mike. Don't accept the claim that they don't have one. Don't accept the statement that they only have corded lavaliere mikes. Don't accept a handheld mike. Tell them that you MUST have a cordless.

You might argue with me on the handheld. You might be one of those people who simply must have something to hold. OK, your choice. But it's a crutch, and it limits your impact. Handhelds also have their perils: Novice speakers sometimes forget to hold directional mikes up to their mouths and, whoops, there goes the volume.

Or perhaps you are thinking, "I don't care about impact, I'm thinking about survival. I would rather speak into the stationary mike while standing behind a lectern and feel I'm being protected by something. I don't want to walk anywhere or go anyplace. It's bad enough to be giving this talk in the first place. Please don't make it any worse."

OK. You win. Survival is more important than impact. Use the lectern mike if your confidence level needs a bit more support, but promise yourself you'll work up to using a lavaliere mike next time.

Should I Use Visuals?

Visuals help get and hold attention. They help register points. We are guided by that physical rule that 85 percent of all information stored in the brain gets there through the eye. Visuals make what we say more memorable.

And, just as visuals serve as notes for the audience, they also serve as notes for the speaker. You don't have to have a written script or handheld notes if you can read them off the PowerPoint slides on the screen. You should use visuals whenever possible.

Lights On or Off?

As soon as we show up with a projector, the audiovisual aide will want to turn the lights way down. Your job is to tell him or her, "I want the lights as bright as possible even if they have to squint to see the visuals."

It's important to say, "bright as possible." The one thing you don't want is darkness at noon. You don't want to be a shadow of yourself up there. If there is a choice between you being seen or the visuals being seen, you win, hands down.

Remember that you are not showing Rembrandt's paintings. You are showing graphs and bullet points and, hopefully, illustrations. They should be idea visuals, not artistic works. They don't deserve center stage. You do. The most important visual you will have working to make you successful is you. Don't compromise with the audiovisual people or let them intimidate you. You are the speaker, a featured attraction at this luncheon - the main event. You decide how bright the lights are. And the brighter the better.

How Long Do I Talk?

Brevity can be blessed. Length can be deadly. Twenty minutes is good. If they beg you to go thirty, give in gracefully. But longer than that, don't do it. Maybe at a seminar you could do it - but lunch is the wrong setting.

I recently conducted a training session for an investment banking house. We were working with sixty top producers. At noon we broke for lunch. At 12:45 the president was scheduled to speak for twenty minutes. He spoke (sitting down, no less) for one hour. It seemed interminable, even if it was the president. Then he asked for questions. Believe me, the sixty listeners had had enough (later on they were quite candid in telling us so), but if the president wanted questions, they were smart enough to supply them. The Q&A lasted another forty-five minutes.

That noontime break, which was supposed to be forty minutes for lunch and twenty minutes for the president, turned into two hours and forty-five minutes. But much more important, the sixty producers thought it was much too long and wasted a lot of time. So don't think that the audience is enthralled if your speech goes long. No matter who you are, or what your credentials, long is bad. The news media once criticized President Clinton when he addressed Congress for an hour and twenty minutes. Too long!

Formatting Your Talk

Obviously, you were asked to speak because you have credentials and recognized expertise. You know the subject or you wouldn't be there. The temptation for you, or any speaker so flattered, is to stuff the luncheon audience with information, drown them with facts. There's no question you should provide a lot of information, but please don't think that's everything. No speaker was ever serenaded because he or she broke a world record for providing data.

What we get serenaded for is being interesting. By and large, facts and statistics are not interesting by themselves. We use that form of evidence to increase our credibility and to support our viewpoint. We all gravitate to it because that's the way business is run. But audiences don't pay attention enough to track statistics. An audience is much more moved by a story. That is what piques their attention and sways their thinking. That is what impresses them. If you want the audience to love you, tell a story.

A much loved truism:

Tell me a fact and I'll learn.

Tell me a truth and I'll believe.

Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.

- Indian proverb

All the World Loves a Story

So find one. You won't have to look that hard. You do have to look inside yourself, and decide you are willing to share. A story is always appropriate. The entire world loves a story - as long as it's a good one and it's well told. The story needs to support your viewpoint, but it doesn't have to be a business story. As a matter of fact, it's better if it's not. But the point of the story should be consistent with the point of your talk.

Here's what to look for in reaching for a story:

An event you lived through or studied about that moved you. The more impact it had on you, the more impact it will have on your audience. If your story involves kids, yours or someone else's, you can't miss. Why? Kids are universal, part of everyone's experience. And they're cute. The story can't be a travelogue or merely a reminiscence. It must have tension, drama, and a "moment of truth" where someone's decision causes success or failure.

How to Tell a Story

There is a right way and a wrong way to tell a story. The right way is to start at a point in time. Take your cue from the most memorable stories in any culture. They all start with some variation of "once upon a time," the same way a fairy tale begins. Then let it flow.

Don't explain the story (wrong way). Re-create it the way it happened (right way). Use dialogue. Add rich detail so the audience will see what you saw, hear what you heard, and feel what you felt. Then make your point, tying it back to your overall message.

Below is an example of the same story told both ways so that you can see the difference. It is the story of a father and his daughter. To make it easier to follow, it is written in the first person, as though you, the reader, are the father telling the story.

The Story - The Right Way

The occasion was a luncheon meeting of one hundred and fifty new employees of IBM. The featured speaker was an executive vice president of the company. The purpose of the talk was to welcome the new people and give them an insight into the history and the culture of the company. The executive vice president (EVP) accomplished most of that in the first half of his twenty-minute talk. Then he segued into a story to dramatize what he felt was one of the guiding principles of the company:

The Segue

Now that you're a member of our company, you are one of us and we value you as we would a family member. Let me share a story with you about my own family that shows you what I mean.

Setting the Place and Time

It was 8 o'clock on a Friday night and my daughter, Liz, was sixteen years old. She had a date with Mark, her boyfriend. While she was waiting in the family room for her date to arrive, I asked, "What time will you be home, Liz?"

Launching into Action and Dialogue

"Twelve o'clock," she replied.

I said, "You know the rules. Eleven o'clock is your curfew."

Reluctantly, she said, "OK, Daddy, but sometimes problems come up and I can't make it at exactly eleven."

"Problems? What kinds of problems?" I asked.

Liz looked up at me and said, "Like a flat tire."

I said, "OK, if you have a flat tire, you can get home at 11:30. Otherwise it is 11 o'clock."

Mark came to the door. I told him, "Take good care of my daughter. Make sure she is home by 11." I kissed Liz good-bye and out she went, into the night.

At 11 o'clock, I was sitting in the family room in my pajamas and bathrobe, watching TV. No Liz. At 11:15 I thought, "Maybe she had a flat tire." By 11:45, I was angry.

Liz came through the door at 12:15. I could hear the car tires screech as Mark backed out of the driveway as fast as he could. That was smart on his part. He escaped feeling my hands around his throat. With hands on hips, I said to Liz, "Well, where have you been?"

"Daddy, you probably won't believe this. We had a flat. Weput on the spare and then had another flat tire. We had no second spare so we had to get help before we could get home. That's why I am so late."

I stared down at my beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter. I didn't buy the story of the two flats, and I think she knew I didn't buy it. She knew she was wrong. I knew she was wrong. But we both were going to have to live together in this house, as father and daughter, for a lot more years yet.


I wasn't sure an argument would get either of us anyplace. It was after midnight, and we were both tired. It was no time to start the Father-Daughter War of the Century. I would talk to her in the morning. I put my arms around her and said, "Next time, no flats, OK?"

Liz pulled her head back, looked up at me with her beautiful green eyes, and said, "OK, Daddy, I love you." She ran off to bed. The next morning we had a talk. I didn't accuse her of lying - nothing to be gained there. I didn't say the flats were a made-up story, or that she was being irresponsible, or that she was thoughtless. Nothing gained there either.

I did say I was worried about her as I waited there. I told her that I had complete confidence in her, that I knew she would always do what was right. I said that was why I was so worried. I knew she would call if she were detained for any reason. I knew she wouldn't be that late knowing her father was sitting up waiting for her. Liz looked at me and said, "Daddy, I'm sorry. It won't happen again."


And, you know what, I felt good about what I had done, and I think Liz did, too. She also taught me a lesson. There's no question that giving her a fine reputation to live up to was much more effective than catching her doing something wrong and berating her for it.


We try to do the same thing in our company. We consider it one of our guiding principles to trust our people and give them a fine reputation to live up to. And we have discovered over the years that almost all of us will reach higher when expectations are higher. We go out of our way to demonstrate that we are all equals as people, regardless of our titles. So if you ever wondered what differentiates our company from other companies, what makes our company great, it's that fundamental principle that will never change . . . respect for the individual.

The Story - The Wrong Way

I want to tell you a story that happened to me. It is about my daughter not coming home when she was supposed to, and I decided that you can't always resolve problems right when they happen. I always set a curfew, and my kids know that I stick by it. The curfew is 11 o'clock on weekends. My daughter had a date on a Friday night and missed the curfew by one hour and fifteen minutes. She came in knowing she'd be in big trouble and told me a cockamamie story about getting two flat tires. That was her excuse. I didn't buy it for a minute, and I think she knew it. But I let her get away with it because I thought it was too late to confront her with the obvious. And actually it worked out pretty well, because I showed her I trusted her, and she was pretty good living up to that reputation in the future. We do the same thing in our company now, and it works.

The wrong-way version is not as powerful, is it? Compare the two and you can see what it is lacking. It has no time or place established in the first sentence. This makes it hard for the audience to draw a mental picture of the situation.

There is no dialogue, so it is devoid of personality. The audience doesn't really get any impression, good or bad, of the daughter, the boyfriend, or the father who is giving the speech. There are no details that would allow you to experience the story. Even though the moral of the story is the same, we don't feel the same impact. This means that the audience is less likely to remember the point. The story is forgettable - and so is the speaker.

The Story Supports Your Message

Make sure the story supports the key message you want to leave with your audience. The only exception to this is if you are a fabulous joke teller. Then you can tell a joke story to the group even if it doesn't fit too well. But most of us aren't in that category. And it makes no sense to practice at a luncheon presentation before a large audience. As a matter of fact, unless Jerry Seinfeld has personally laid his hands on you and welcomed you into his fraternity of joke tellers, it would be prudent to drop the whole idea of going for the big laugh.

Make It Memorable

People generally forget jokes once they leave the luncheon room. They do remember a good story. If you were to tell that father/daughter story as a part of a luncheon talk you were giving, and let's say the whole talk lasted thirty minutes and that story lasted five, what do you think people would remember about your talk? Probably the story, right?

Members of the audience would probably come up to you afterward and say things like: "I loved the story about your daughter." "I think you handled your daughter just right." "Your daughter is lucky to have a father like you." "I wish our company respected the individual the way your company does." The reason they would say those things is that you would have gotten inside their heads and their hearts. You moved the audience, because you made your point come alive for them in the form of a story. You expanded their life experience. Audiences love that. It makes the talk special.

Shock Them with Headlines

One very effective way to get the attention of an audience, especially at a luncheon, is to shock them with a headline. Make a statement that surprises, startles, or challenges them. Teenagers are great at this. My son Ryan, who is sixteen, said this in the car the other day: "I've done an experiment at school, and I've discovered that girls prefer it if I treat them badly."

Imagine my reaction. My stomach tightened, and my lips clamped shut. Does he really believe this? What kind of experiment? Where did we parents go wrong?

Ryan accomplished his objective. He had my full attention. And that's the purpose of shocking your audience with headlines.

Examples of Headlines

Here are some business examples that I have seen work effectively:

"The organization is going to change in ways you can hardly imagine over the next six months."

"The compensation plan, as you know it, no longer exists and never will again."

"I have a message from our customers that negates everything we once thought was true - and you'll never guess what it is!"

There are three rules to make this technique work effectively.

  1. The headline should be just that, one sentence.

  2. It should hint at information that intrigues or shocks the listener and makes them want to hear more.

  3. It should dramatize the topic of the discussion.

End with Enthusiasm

Don't let the audience down at the end. The end of your presentation needs to feel like the dessert they have just eaten, sweet and satisfying. Show your enthusiasm through animation and volume. Restate your viewpoint. Send them back to work with a lift.

Key Learnings for a Luncheon Presentation



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