It is October 2009. Imagine you are sitting at work. The phone rings. You answer it, and a counselor from your kids’ school is on the line. You might immediately conjure up images of a kid in trouble at school, but this was a different type of challenge. She was asking me to do the keynote speech on career day at a local middle school. I would have to deliver a speech to about 1,000 people, students, parents, and teachers in less than a month’s time. After saying yes, I used my list of questions to get some more information from the counselor. I put down the phone and thought to myself, “What can I speak to these students about? What will provide value to them? What will entertain them? Most importantly, what will they relate to?” The notes on my template question sheet provided me with a starting point.
For any professional speaker, speech customization is not just critical to success, it is essential to taking any presentation to the highest level. A critical part of the speech preparation process should be developing and honing your material for the specific audience’s needs.
While developing a framework for my speech using a simple Mind-Map, I asked myself, “If I was 11 to 14 years old on Career Day, what would be going through my mind?” I thought back to when I was 12 years old, what was I doing, what made me happy, what my challenges were, who were my friends, how well was I doing at school, what were other kids saying, and what were my career goals, among other questions.
As the keynote speech evolved, the images and stories from my childhood started to flow from my pen. Here are a few excerpts from my speech, and what I was conveying to the students:
My opening story was me at 12 years old, crashing a home made go-cart; I wanted them to see that I was once their age so I could engage them, I also wanted to sew the seed that “success is never giving up”:
“I was 12 years old, standing on the top of a steep hill with my two friends, Johnny and Padraig, and a home-made go-cart. The go-cart was made of pieces of scrap wood and some stroller wheels. I sat in the go-cart, as I was going to be the test pilot. I looked down the steep road and at the bottom was a sharp curve. I got in the go-cart, Padraig and Johnny put their hands on my back and pushed hard. Suddenly I was travelling at high speed. The corner came at me. I steered towards it while braking with the heels of my shoes. Then, a bad thing happened- one of the front wheels came off, and I went flying through the air. The next minute, I was limping and wiping blood off my knees and elbows. I needed a band-aid, a bandage, and a… bathroom.
The important thing about this event is that my friends and I did not give up; we took the broken cart back to my parent’s house and immediately started working on a plan to strengthen our design and increase our chances of success”.
My next story was my own Career Day back in a village in Ireland. I wanted the students to know that my parents were pushing me into a career I did not want, and my passion was elsewhere:
“At school a few days later, the teacher told us to take out a piece of paper and write out what we wanted to do for a career and write a page about why. I immediately wrote out hotel manager because that is what my dad had suggested, but then I crossed it out and wrote I want to be an engineer. I want to be an engineer because I like to make things and fix things like go-carts. I like to play with magnets, wires, and batteries, and once made an electric shocking machine to pester my brothers. My favorite toy is my chemistry set, and I can even make stink bombs; my best friends call me Stinky Hill.
The teacher then told us to take the page home and discuss it with our parents. My dad put the piece of paper on the kitchen table and then put all my progress reports beside it. Progress report was not a good name for these because I was failing many of my subjects. My dad pointed out that the grades I was getting did not point towards me being able to go to college to become an engineer.
So how did go-cart boy, Stinky Hill, with the bad grades end up being a successful engineer who has travelled to 75 countries and earns a healthy pay-check?
This morning, I am going to take you on a road trip, and we will get to see some road signs to give us direction, but we will also experience some sharp corners where bad things happen”.
From here on, I went through a few points with supporting stories that the students could relate to. I discussed:
□ Stepping up my game and slowly taking my school grades from dismal to good and getting a full engineering scholarship…
□ Changing careers a few times so that I could do more of what I have a passion for and less of what I dislike. I wanted them to know that if they get their career wrong the first time they could change…
□ Making mistakes in college that nearly ended my career…
□ Making mistakes as an engineer, but learning from them and laughing at some of them…
“I would like to tell you that I got through college without any trouble, but there was a time when my twisted sense of humor got me in trouble. We were doing gas welding classes where we sat on little metal chairs at the welding tables. The person beside me took a bathroom break and once he was gone I started heating up his metal seat with my gas welding torch. He came back sat down, and a few seconds later, he was running around slapping his smoking butt in pain. That episode got me in big trouble, and could easily have got me kicked out of college”.
My ending was structured to tie into the beginning story and also let them know that success feels really good:
“Before I finish, let me take you back to Ireland one week after I had the go-cart accident. My friends and I are back at the top of the hill with a reinforced go-cart and stronger wheels. The cuts on my elbows and knees are healing. This time, all three of us are sitting huddled together on the go-cart like squished peas in a pod getting ready to die. We lifted our feet, the cart gained speed, and we got to the corner. I steered around it, braking with the heels of my shoes. We leaned into the corner like bob-sled Olympians, and suddenly we were travelling at high speed around the bend, screaming and hollering with joy.
Success feels really good whether you are 12 years old or 50 years old”.
16 Preliminary Questions That You Can Ask People to Help Customize Your Presentation
1. What major needs or concerns are on the audiences mind at the moment? What are the top three?
2. What’s been going on in the industry or company in the last year?
3. What unique local characteristics could be incorporated into my presentation (sports team, meeting location etc.)
4. Why are the audience members attending?
5. Will they have any opinion on the subject?
6. What are the organization/group current events?
7. What is the audience size and age range?
8. What is the percentage of men to women?
9. What is the type of work that the audience is engaged in?
10. Is this a special occasion meeting?
11. Any other speakers before me or after me and what are the topics?
12. Has this subject been delivered before? What was the reaction?
13. What is the topic that was received the best and why?
14. What information should I stay away from?
15. What is the theme of your meeting?
16. Are there any special guests or dignitaries?