“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them, and then tell them what you told them.” Virtually every speaker and debater has received this advice at some point in their career. The above line is specifically talking about the presentation of your ideas (Road map, main points, summary), and it’s demonstrative of a greater principle: “over explain” what you’re trying to say by making it excruciatingly clear.
As speakers, we often forget that we’re burdened with the curse of knowledge– we know exactly what we’re trying to say, so we assume our audience understands better than they actually do. I’m going to address the how and why of three methods for improving the effectiveness of your speeches by improving clarity: stressing your main points, using a barebones approach, and testing your material.
Before that, one general comment on this topic as a whole: following the upcoming principles may feel painful and unnecessary. You may feel like you’re talking down to your audience, or that it’s so simple that you’re really saying nothing. Obviously, I’m not asking you to treat your judges like they are children, but rather I’m making the argument that what feels oversimplified is going to be different for you than it is for your audience. I’ll circle back to this during my third point, but for now let’s look at the first method:
1. Stress the Main Points
Giving your audience a speech with no structure is like handing someone a box of puzzle pieces that they have to assemble themselves to understand your argument. A 5-10 minute speech with no coherent structure would be a jumble of arguments, example, testimony, refutation, and personal story all mixed together, which would be practically impossible to understand. Having a structure is essential to delivering an effective speech, but I’d like to take this idea a step further by challenging you to not just have that structure but to use it to your advantage.
In other words, create or identify your main points, and stress them. Eliminate any room for confusion or potential uncertainty. If your speech is a mental train ride, you need to be keeping your audience on the tracks at all times. In practice, this begins with a road map: an outline or preview of the main points so that the audience knows what to expect. Sure, you could jump right in and try to communicate the structure along the way, but that creates potential for misunderstanding– a potential that must be eliminated.
The road map gets your audience on the train, but it doesn’t keep them on the tracks. To do that, each point needs to be clearly introduced, and transitions between them should be obvious. This kind of signposting may not seem elegant, but the truth is that it will leave you with a crystal clear and highly effective speech. And finally, the ride should be concluded with a summary of your points (“tell them what you told them”) to tie up any loose ends, successfully bringing the train to a stop. Once again, this may seem redundant, but it’s worth it. Stress your main points, and your audience will thank you.
2. Take a Barebones Approach
There’s a reason why many people prefer old pickup trucks to newer ones: there’s simply less that can go wrong, and they’re simpler to fix. With the high levels of complexity in newer models, including more and more computerized systems, it’s more difficult to locate the point of failure. Plus, once you’ve found it, it’s more expensive to fix.
How do trucks help us? The applicable lesson for the speaker is to reduce the amount of things that can “go wrong” in your speech, which really means to cut out anything that could distract your audience from your main point, or draw them off the path. Only leave in the content that is doing the best job of bolstering your argument, and cut out everything else.
The barebones approach is necessary because speakers will often fill their speeches so full of analysis, that it’s difficult to see the forest (the main points) for the trees (analysis). Some amount of analysis is essential to delivering a speech with any kind of weight, but you very quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. Leave only enough analysis to make your point effectively, and utilize your leftover time to make analogies and tell stories that will keep your audience engaged and also help them understand better. Taking the barebones approach may mean the sacrifice of some of your lengthy and verbose quotes in favor of a simple but relatable story.
3. Test Your Material
In my opinion, nothing demonstrates true mastery of a subject like the ability to accurately but clearly explain your idea to a child. It requires not only a high level understanding of the concepts you’re dealing with, but additionally the wisdom to distinguish the most important parts of the material. Your audience is not going to primarily consist of children (in most cases), so don’t feel like every part of your speech must be easily comprehensible by a child. But, it is a good idea to test your material by making sure that the biggest takeaways can be understood by a wide variety of people– including children.
Personally, I like to test my material by delivering my speech to friends with little to no experience with the topic. In a best case scenario, they would know less than the target demographic for my speech. This is extremely helpful because I know that if my test audience was able to comprehend it, my target audience easily will as well. On the other hand, if I notice that I’m losing my audience, I’m able to identify what needs to be edited.
Another useful aspect of testing your material (tying back into what I discussed in the introduction) is that you can ensure that you have not oversimplified. As I said previously, there is a large gap between what you as the speaker think is oversimplifying and what your audience thinks is oversimplifying. It’s very rare if ever that you will be called out for explaining something too much, but if you don’t feel good about it a test run will typically alleviate those concerns.
In conclusion, a good speaker is a clear speaker. By stressing the main points, cutting out unnecessary content, and testing your material, you can guarantee that your ideas are being communicated effectively to your audience. Even if you feel like you’re talking down to your audience, they are far happier than they would be if they were struggling to stay on the path you’re leading them down.
Jeremiah Mosbey is a current NCFCA-er who competes at the national level. Formerly a policy debater, he made the switch and is enjoying the new challenge of value debate. Debate aside, he competes in a variety of speech events with an emphasis on Platform and Limited Prep. He’s extremely involved in the speech and debate community, crediting much of his growth as a high school-er to the lessons learned and relationships made through NCFCA. Jeremiah loves helping younger competitors and watching them gain the same love for the activity that he has.