How to ruin your status in one minute

The space in which I am sitting is quite large. A hushed silence falls on the room. All eyes are fixed to the front as the presenter tears open an envelope and announces the award winner.

Applause fills the air as the proud selectee stands up, smiles, nods and navigates between the tables and chairs to the podium. On receiving the prize, they pose for the photographer and begin to move hesitantly towards the microphone. At this point, the personal brand of the award winner—and that of their organisation—begins to disintegrate.

With the glazed look of a deer caught in headlights, the speaker contemplates a crowded room full of searching, quizzical faces. Their throat seems suddenly parched, like the Sahara, as they struggle to get the words out. Their legs are weak, their mind a blank slate.

What does emerge from their mouth are pathetic ums and ahs. Strained and embarrassing silences mark an obvious struggle, as the winner thinks about what it is they wish to say. Their speech shows nervousness; it is incoherent, unconvincing and clearly killing them.

In one minute in front of their industry peers, they have been reduced from hero to zero. Some cowards even run from the microphone, declaring they will not take the opportunity to make any comment. Their general demeanour screams fear: “Get me out of here!”

A one-minute acceptance speech should be an opportunity to promote your organisation as well as yourself, thank the troops, and so on. Why are so many people poorly prepared to represent their organisation in a public setting, particularly when there is every likelihood that they will have to get up and speak, and no excuse not to do so?

During the same event mentioned above, however, one speaker took the podium radiating confidence, stood up straight, and spoke with energy and clarity. While the speech was short—maybe two minutes maximum—it sounded professional and competent. It can be done. So, what is the difference between the two styles?

The most telling point was that the majority of speakers had obviously done zero preparation, while this competent speaker had worked out what needed to be said. Most selectees had not considered what they might say until they swung their torso towards the podium. Now, that is not a lot of preparation time.

A short one- or two-minute speech is probably the most difficult talk we will ever give. As it is very brief, we have to really plan it well. We also need to rehearse beforehand what to say. Be sure not to ramble on, and do not practice on your audience.

There are only a few points we can make when forced to be so brief, so select the most powerful and dump the rest: there is no time for dross. The content has to be “all killer, no filler”.

We need to project extreme confidence, even if we feel we are dying from anxiety. Should that be the case, it is most important that only we should know. Choose not to show it to the crowd; keep that information to yourself.

We should hit the first word we speak hard, to eliminate any hesitancy. With that same energy, we should maintain the power of our voice to project to everyone in the room the fact that we deserve to be getting this award.

Remember that the audience will make judgements regarding your entire organisation based on you. If you are great, they will think your organisation is great; if you are a dud, they will assume everyone at your firm is equally hopeless.

When speaking to the audience, single out specific individuals at each table to speak to directly, as if having a friendly chat over the backyard fence. About six seconds is ideal. More than six seconds becomes intrusive; less does not allow engagement with that person.

Then, switch to another table across the room and repeat the process, engaging someone sitting there. In a one-minute speech we can do this with about 10 tables in a room. With around eight to 10 guests per table, that is pretty good coverage.

Rather than waste the chance in the limelight by applying a vice-like grip on the lectern, free up hands for gestures and to accentuate particular thoughts and points. We should definitely slip in a pause after a key point, to really let it sink in.

Adding strength to the voice for selected words will give them extra emphasis, while animation in our face will really drive the key message.

If there is even the remotest chance you will have to get up and speak, be prepared, be ready for your “A game”, be organised and be great. Do not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on the award dais. Make your speech a triumph.