Steward's Corner: Surviving Public Speaking—The Prepared Talk
It can be scary to speak at a union meeting, a rally, or the meeting of an organization allied to your union. Luckily, it’s a proven fact that everyone can improve their speaking and become a strong advocate for the cause they’re promoting. Even a motion to adjourn!
Here we’ll discuss how to prepare and deliver a short talk, and next month we’ll coach you in off-the-cuff remarks made in the heat of discussion.
FIRST ASK YOURSELF:
Who is the audience? This will determine your choice of language, your examples, and what things you have to explain. Fellow union members may know what a 63b grievance is, but the neighborhood group needs to hear “a protest against speedup.”
What do I want to accomplish with this talk? For the audience to: a) take a certain action, b) adopt a new position, c) learn a new point, or d) something else?
Which segment of the audience can you win over? Direct your talk to the perspective and experience of this “swing group.”
KEYS TO A STRONG SPEECH
Make a clear call to action, even if it’s just “vote for this motion.” Say this at the beginning and the end. In a short speech, you can usually make just one call to action. “Come to the bakers’ picket line with the rest of our local at 7 a.m. Tuesday.”
Introduce yourself through what you have to offer. You might offer practical experience, a success story, results of research, or a unique perspective.
Give evidence. Relate to the audience’s experience and bring in your personal experience if possible. “A lot of us came out for the steelworkers two years ago.” Quotes and statistics are good, but sharing more than a few may make the speech too abstract.
Identify a common adversary (perhaps management) who stands in the way of the group’s goals. Inoculate against your adversary’s arguments by naming them and giving a strong reply.
Prepare for obstacles (rain on the picket line, police hostility) by naming them honestly and showing how you can collectively overcome them, or overcame them in the past.
Build confidence. Show the strengths of the group, based on past successes. Show the importance of the group’s work and what it can win.
And there’s your outline!
WAYS TO ADD EMPHASIS
Spend extra time writing snappy beginning and ending lines. Don’t dilute these lines with extra padding before and after. “Medicare for All means everybody in, nobody out!”
Test out important lines with friends beforehand. See what feels natural and lands with a punch.
Use stories, including personal stories. Revealing something about yourself will keep the audience’s attention and be convincing. Why are you committed to this cause?
Use analogies. Compare the situation to another situation most of the group is familiar with.
Organize the talk around a key phrase: “We’re essential, not expendable.” “If they don’t satisfy, we don’t ratify.”
For rallies, crowd response lines can pick up the energy: “Are we going to let that stop us?”
PowerPoints/images are best for longer speeches with a strong educational purpose. Keep text minimal, graphs clear, and images exciting. Don’t just put text up and then read it. For shorter or persuasive speeches, keep the focus on your words, not visual aids.
Number your points. “First of all,” “Finally...” This helps the audience follow how your talk is organized. The note-takers will love you.
Don’t apologize. If you say your talk is bad, they might believe you. (“I didn’t have time to prepare, but.” “I’m not used to getting up in front of people, but.” “Let’s see if I can remember what I was going to say.” “I’ll try not to take too much of your time.”)
Almost everyone is nervous. Nervousness is natural. Take it as a given and go on from there. Redefine the feeling causing the nerves. It’s not fear, it’s excitement for what the group can win.
Be clear about your goal: to get your listeners to understand and act. If you’re focused on your goal—what you want for others—you won’t be distracted by worries about your image.
The audience is on your side. They expect and want you to speak well. They cannot hear your heart beating.
Write out your speech in advance if you need to, but do not read it. It’s very hard to make a read speech sound interesting. Practice aloud so many times that you’re familiar with your points; then all you’ll need is an outline, or your speech with highlighted main points to glance at. Say what comes in between from memory.
When you practice aloud, time yourself. Cut text so you can avoid rushing. The talk will always be longer in real life than when you practice it.
Don’t distract the audience. No handouts of reading material or clipboards during the talk.
Be humorous—not necessarily big jokes, but funny ways of saying things. A person who is smiling is receptive to your message. Sarcasm and making fun of management often work. “If Amazon workers unionize, Jeff Bezos might drop down from making $3,700 a second to just $3,000—maybe we could console him with a home-baked loaf of banana bread. Or a pie in the face.”
Make the audience feel appreciated and good about themselves. “Let’s get some applause for all our new faces at the organizing meeting—that’s how we win!” No shaming! (“A lot of you didn’t do your part last time. Some of us are tired of having to carry the load.”)
Ignore sleepers, latecomers, or distracted people. That’s about something in their life, not you.
If something goes wrong, collect yourself and restart strong. We all get a cough or lose our place sometimes. The audience doesn’t hold it against you, so don’t apologize. Just pause and when you’re set, pick up your next line with emphasis.
Check the facilities in advance. You want the podium at the right height. Can you be heard in the back? If you want water, get it. Check the lights and the positioning of any equipment.
Stand up. It brings and conveys energy.
Make eye contact in the audience. Find that interested person who nods at everything you say and focus on them. You can even ask a friend in advance to be your nodder.
Invite audience participation by asking them questions. Get your listeners to provide some of the content: “Has that ever happened to any of you?” “What does management call it when one of us defends someone else?” Tell them how to be called on: “Raise your hand and I’ll recognize you.” If they’re slow to respond, call on likely people. “Jill, how did that affect you?”
Get them to participate early on, to establish that behavior as the norm. If you use this technique, don’t talk for 20 minutes and then ask for comments.
Use people’s names when you call on them. Name tags or taking notes on names help to remind you. Names make people feel heard.
Look at just one or two supportive people in the Zoom gallery.
Have your written speech or outline pulled up in a side window. If you can’t do that, use a separate paper or device.
Keith Brower Brown is a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865. Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.