There are only two times in life when you’re really alone – just before you die and when you have to make a five-minute speech.  Studies have found many people would rather die.

You may know Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.  “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Do leaders still sweat it out in the arena?  You bet!  At least that’s the way I feel every time I make a speech – and I make 30 to 40 speeches every year!

I have a very useful tool to make speech-making easier.  It’s called the Mackay 35 to Stay AliveIt’s one of many handouts that are available free on my website. Here are some of the most important points.

The most important are the first three:

  1. Room size.
  2. Room size.
  3. Room size!

If 100 people are going to attend, the room should seat 75.  If 500 people are expected, the room should hold 400.  You want the excitement of a standing room only, bumper-to-bumper crowd.  I could put the world’s two best speakers in the wrong-size room, or in a room laid out the wrong way, and they would only rate a B.

Another hint:  Set the podium back a few feet from the audience so you can walk in front of it.  You want to create intimacy with the group at critical moments.

Let’s say you are addressing a breakfast, lunch, or dinner audience.  Ask your introducer to request politely that the people with their backs to the stage stand up and turn their chairs forward so they can see you better without distractions.  And the rest of the audience doesn’t have to deal with them bobbing and stretching throughout your talk.

Bring your toolkit:  your speech, a ruler and masking tape – in case the lip of the podium is not high enough to accommodate your papers . . . then build your own lip.  Masking tape has another use too:  to strap down any creaking door latches that might shut with a bang while you are talking.   Your goal is to override noise-makers.

Introducers are critical. Always try to have a real pro introduce you.  Be wary of someone who is a poor speaker being given the honor.   The stage must be set.

Outside noise from the adjoining rooms and hallways is the #1 killer of meetings.  Is another event being held in the rooms adjacent to your talk?  If you can’t hear a pin drop, you’re in the wrong room.  A quick phone call to the catering manager will help ensure total quiet.

Never, never, never end your program with a question and answer session.  You cannot control the agenda or the quality of the questions.  The fireworks of your topic can end with a fizzle.  Start the Q&A five minutes before the end of your talk.  Then transition from one of your answers to a dramatic close.

If you have a questionable story, try it out first.  Try it out on the person who invited you to speak and at least two others before using it.  Better yet:  If in doubt, don’t tell it at all.  I once asked a friend if I could run a joke by her to make sure it was appropriate.  She turned to me and said, “If you have to ask, you already know the answer.”

Find out who the group’s last three to five speakers were and how they were accepted.  Probe as to why they were successful or why they failed.

Never check a room out with any of the audience present.  If the audience has already started to arrive you’re already too late to make substantive changes.  Sweating over a malfunctioning microphone demolishes your image.  You want the first impression to be you, on stage and in control – unless it is greeting all the people as they come into the room, which I find makes a great impression.

Debrief yourself within a couple hours of a speech.  Take 10 minutes to write down what you could do better the next time.  With so many unknowns, the amount to be learned is infinite.  Try something new every time you speak and you’ll never become stale.


Mackay’s Moral:  The best way to sound like you know what you’re talking about is to know what you’re talking about.

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About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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