How to Put the “Fireworks” into Your Speaking And Keep Your Audience Hooked

After many years of coaching speakers, one of  the biggest challenges that I see most speakers face is how to ‘keep’ their audience tuned in throughout their speech.

They could sometimes get the ‘show on the road’ and have a decent start; but with every minute that passes, the speech gets less and less engaging and by the end, not only has the speech fizzled out, but the audience did as well.

These speakers typically find themselves challenged with  keeping the “fireworks” burning throughout their speech. Chances are, that as a speaker, you could also find yourself challenged by this.

Last week, we celebrated July 4th, the day in the year 1776  that we as Americans declared our independence from Great Britain and its king. But July 4th is also unique for another reason, because it’s a day when around the country a record breaking amount  of fireworks is lit.

Interestingly, If you’d gather all the fireworks around the country,  they’d weigh more than the Statue of Liberty, heavier than the Washington monument and 4 times the weight of the USS intrepid – that’s a lot of fireworks being lit!

As I was putting  my thoughts together for this article, images of the Macy’s July 4th fireworks display kept popping into my head. Partly to blame for this was the constant barraging and mentioning of it on the radio and television news broadcasts in the week leading up to Independence Day.

And while I now live In New Jersey, thinking about it, also brought back memories of when I used to live in Brooklyn and every year made my way into Manhattan across the Hudson River just to see the beautiful Macy’s July 4th fireworks display.

Chances are, that on July 4th, after  you were  done with a day of fun with family and friends, and after you’ve feasted with your delicious BBQ and the juicy watermelon had been eaten, that you found yourself making your way to some park in your town and looking forward to being a spectator to a beautiful fireworks show of your own.

So as I was sitting and writing this article, and since speaking is always on my mind, I couldn’t help but also  think about the strong similarities between how a spectacular fireworks show is designed and put on for a crowd and how an engaging impactful speech is designed and delivered for an audience.

Think about the Similarities

A great fireworks show has a powerful explosive opening that’s designed to hook in an audience. A mid section that’s designed to entertain, and an ending that builds into a climactic crescendo that not only is just as powerful and engaging as the opening, but has the audience walking away with an unforgettable feeling. Kind of sounds quite similar to what a great speech is supposed to do.

If you’ve ever experienced the kindling of a camp fire, you’d know that it takes quite a bit of energy to get the whole thing started and once you do, it only takes adding some wood every now and then to keep the fire burning. It’s the same with speaking.

So how do you put the fireworks into your speaking? How do you keep the pulse of your audience alive and healthy throughout your speech?

To help anchor and make it stick,  I’ve created  acronym (CLAP) that will  help you always remember  the key ingredients that will help make your speech have more “fire power”  for the audience. And if you follow this blueprint when creating and delivering your speeches, you will always be sure to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

Here is the acronym in detail; 

CConflict and Curiosity

L  – Laughs and Humor

A Activities

PPut the “Punch” in Your Opening

(C) Conflict  and Curiosity 

The greatest enemy of the speaker is being boring, and guess what? Conflict is the cure. Conflict is the most underused  tool  in speaking,  but yet it’s one of the most critical parts of speaking. Conflict is what keeps feeding the fire of your speech. And when used properly, conflict is the tool that will be the ultimate driving force behind your speeches and will  keep your audience hooked. 

So What is Conflict? 

For a moment, Reflect  back on some of the best movies you’ve watched over the years. For me some of the top movies that come to mind are Titanic, Braveheart, and Gladiator. Take the 2000 movie Gladiator for example. Without going through the full storyline and plot, the synopsis really tells it all. It’s a story about a General who became a slave, who then became a Gladiator, who then defied an Empire.  A movie about a slave who became more powerful than the emperor of Rome is a movie that I definitely want to see. In fact, it’s one of the few movies that I’ve watched over and over again. And it wasn’t just me who loved it; world-wide, Gladiator grossed $457.6 million dollars and went on to win 5 academy awards including “Best Picture.”  

Conflict makes us Curious 

One of the basic themes of good conflict in any story is “character change.” In Gladiator we saw the general Maximus turn into a slave, then became a Gladiator who ultimately defied the empire of Rome and became more loved and more powerful than the emperor himself. And throughout the story, as we see the character push up against insurmountable obstacles that are in his way, we are constantly put on the edge of our seats being curious about what’s going to happen next. And it’s this curiosity that keep us hooked. 

Now let’s bring it full circle to the world of speaking. Have you’ve heard a speaker who told a story, and the story just did not pull at you in any way? And you were simply bored by it?  Chances are, that there was no conflict in that story and the main character was never challenged and did not change in any way. 

When Bill Gove, the founder of the national speakers association said that great speaking is about “telling a story and making a point” I’m sure he didn’t include stories that were boring and did not have any conflict.

Telling A story without conflict is like telling no story at all. In fact, It’s probably worse.  Because the whole purpose of a story is to pull us into a scene, and make us curious about what comes next. And when a character is never “tested” they never change in any way; they’re the same person at the end of the story that they were at the beginning and in the end of it all, not only do we not have a good story, there’s nothing we as an audience can learn from a story where a character never changes. 

We’re not curious about anything about that character. We’re not curious about what’s going to happen next because there’s is nothing to be curious about. The story is just going nowhere and we’re bored. Better to not have told it in the first place, because having your audience bored is just  about the worst thing you can do as a speaker.  

(L) Laughs and Humor

It’s been said that “you shouldn’t include humor in your speaking – that is unless you want to get paid!” The truth is regardless of whether you’re getting paid to speak or not, humor is a critical aspect to your connection with your audience. And if you’re getting paid as a speaker, you should know that meeting planners when hiring a speaker will lookout out for this important criteria when deciding on the right person to speak  for their event. This is because they know that humor is  the magnet that pulls an audience back to the speaker.  So regardless of whether you’re looking to get hired as a speaker or not, humor is  a great way to recharge the batteries of your audience. And when  humor is uncovered in your speech by way of your stories and dialogue with the audience, it  becomes an indispensable tool in the speakers toolbox.

Humor gets Your Audience out of Their “FUNK”

Within your speaking, there will always be those moments when your audience is there with you, but they’re not exactly in that alert “peppy”  state. Maybe it’s when you’re going through some dry content,  or perhaps its during a serious point in your speech where you’re taking them through a trying time in your life.  What most speakers get wrong, is that they think that humor can’t be connected with the serious moments in their speech. In fact, humor that is uncovered during those times are more powerful because it’s unexpected. 

Humor comes from the “Reactions” in Your Story

In your “serious story”  you may uncover  the  humor  with your reactions to a line of dialogue given by you to one of your characters in  your story.  For example,  in one of my signature stories where I talk about my first solo flight where I mention having just been dumped by my ninth instructor.

In the scene,  I’m sitting at home feeling all depressed that I’m never going to accomplish my dream and get my pilots license and  then suddenly the phone rings; “it’s my best friend Chuckie and he says to me “Lewis you are not going to believe what just happened, I just got my flight instructors license – that means I can now teach people how to fly; (Then I immediately put the phone on mute – visually showing the audience so Chuckie can’t hear) and then I lean in and say to them ” I just got my 10th instructor”  The audience bursts out in laughter!

 keep in mind, this takes place  during a depressing moment in my speech. Why do they laugh when the moment was just serious? It’s because when we take our audience down to the depths of seriousness, our audience  is desperate to come up for a breath of fresh air. And humor does that for them. So never underestimate the power that humor does for your speaking.  

(A) Activities

Activities when used properly in speaking, can be quite powerful in not only getting the blood flowing again with your audience after a period of time being glued to their seats; but can also be a great way to anchor and drive  your points home to your audience.  

Activities are inherently kinesthetic in nature. And because of this, when the physical activity that you take your audience through is precisely matched  to the point you’re making, it can be quite powerful in anchoring it to your audience with long lasting effects.

When constructing an activity to anchor your points, remember these three rules.  

1. Never start off your speech with an activity.

Before you ask your audience to do anything, they need to get to know you, like you, and trust you first.  Starting off your speech with an activity is like meeting someone for the first time and then asking them,  “hey can you go down to the corner  grocery and pick up a gallon of milk for me?”  

If you haven’t built up any sense of rapport with someone yet, chances are that the person being asked to do a menial task like run down to the corner store for you and get a gallon of milk might do it. However, internally  they will still feel very weird about it and question your better judgment to be asking him of this. Whereas, once you’ve built up some trust and rapport and the person has a general liking towards you, they will mostly likely gladly volunteer.

Your audience will have the same kind of weird feeling if you throw an activity on them before you’ve  built some rapport with them and that they got to know you a bit. In order for you to get complete “buy in” from the audience, they first need to “buy in” to you as the speaker. 

So unless you are a famous speaker  where  rapport is already built in before you take the stage, don’t throw an activity on your audience at the start of your speech until you’ve built some rapport with them.

2. Balance the length of your activities with your content.

The length of any activity will be relative to the length of your speech. If you are conducting a full-day program, doing two or three 10-15 minute activities spread out through the day will fit well. However, doing a 15-minute activity in a 25-minute speech will not. Remember that the purpose of an activity is to anchor a point, not just to take up air time.

3. Always test your activity before taking it prime time.

I once remember being at a popular two day motivational  seminar. On the 2nd day of the program  the seminar leader began an activity by asking everyone to close their eyes and imagine a time in their life when they were bullied, mocked, or laughed at.

Within seconds, a recording of  sounds of people laughing  started coming out of the loudspeakers. The idea was to ‘mimic’ real sounds of people laughing in order to enhance the experience of the exercise and make us feel like we were being mocked and laughed at. The activity backfired! What the seminar leaders did not realize was the effects of laughter being contagious. Even when it is just being heard from a loud speaker.

 It started with a few people catching the “laughing fever,” and within a few minutes, almost everyone in the room was laughing. The intended  effect completely backfired, and the exercise had to be stopped in its tracks.

Most likely the seminar leaders never tested this out with smaller “test groups”  before implementing it in a big way. So the lesson here is to always test out your activity with smaller audiences first before taking it to the big stage.

(P)  Put the “Punch” in Your Opening

Did you know that within the first 15-30 seconds of your speech, the audience is already sizing you up and deciding if they should stick around (mentally) or if they should “check out.”

On page 12 of the bestselling book  Blink,  Author Malcom Gladwell  talks about  a remarkable study done by psychologist Nalini  Ambady who gave students three -10 second videos clips of a teacher – with the sound turned off and found that they all had no problem coming up with a rating of the teachers effectiveness. Then  Ambady cut the tapes back to 5 seconds and the students still had no problem coming up with the same conclusions. In fact, even when the clips were cut back to 2 seconds they were remarkably consistent. 

Then Ambady compared those “snap judgments” of teachers effectiveness with evaluations made by students of  those same professors after a full semester of class and she found that they were essentially the same.

This power of us being able to be accurate with our  “snap judgments”  after  only watching 2 seconds of a muted video comes from what Malcom Gladwell  says is the “adaptive unconscious.” And without going into too much  depth on this concept, what it basically comes down to, is being able to tap into and  trust our own “intuition.”

The Second You take the Stage People are Already Sizing You Up.

After 30  seconds of you speaking, If people in the front rows of your audience are sitting there thinking “I wish I would have taken a seat in the back row so I would not have to been seen pulling out my phone and surfing the Internet and messaging my friends.” If that’s what they’re thinking, your speech is in deep trouble. And you can forget about those in the middle and especially in the back rows as they’ve already checked out!

How you prevent this from happening is by coming out of the gate “punching.”  Like a  boxer who first comes into the ring, you need to come out of the gate punching. Your first 30 seconds should be so strong and powerful, that the audience will only have one thought “I NEED to stick around for this because it looks like it’s going to be a great one” that’s what you want them thinking. Just like a great fireworks display, where the opening is so powerful that it gets you to want to stick around (sometimes even in the smelting  heat) and you’re  happily standing on your feet and won’t leave until the whole thing is over. That’s the same kind of feeling you want your audience to have when you’re speaking, and it starts with a powerful opening that comes out  of the gate “Punching.”  

Final Thoughts 

When your audience comes to hear you speak they don’t just want a speech they want an experience. They want to stay tuned into your speech  from  the start until the very end. As speakers,  it’s our job to keep the “fireworks”  burning throughout our speech  and make sure that the audience gets what they came for. An experience.  And when you use  and implement the tools outlined in  CLAP  that’s exactly what they will get!



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