It’s that time of the year again. To some, making a toast at an office dinner party comes naturally, for others, it’s a yearly struggle. We spoke to Lars Duursma – expert on public speaking – for some advice on the perfect Christmas or New Years speech.
Meet Lars Duursma. He is the founder of Debatrix and coach of CEOs, government leaders and TED speakers. As an expert on communication, Lars regularly appears in the media to analyze speeches and debates. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, Lars is the one to talk to.
‘First of all,’he says, ‘it’s important to realize that a Christmas speech is usually different from a New Year speech. The first one typically looks back and reflects on the year past, the latter looks ahead and focuses on what’s to come.’
Of course, Lars says, nothing is set in stone. ‘Sometimes, the two tend to overlap. What’s most important, is that you’re sure about what it is you want to communicate.’
Here are a few things to consider.
Communicate feelings, not information
According to Lars, speeches are not suitable for plain information transfer. ‘Your audience is not listening with a voice recorder or bloc note in their hands. They are probably only going to remember two, max three of the things you said.’ That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, says Lars, as long as you’re aware of it.
He quotes the American poet and activist Maya Angelou, who said: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.
How do you communicate a feeling? Lars: ‘I usually advice people to take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line in the middle. On the left, you write down how your employees are feeling at the moment and ask yourself what’s currently concerning them. On the right, you write down how you would like your employees to feel. There’s usually a big difference between left and right.’
Of course, Lars says, just one speech won’t be enough to overcome that lap. ‘But at least you show that you’re aware of what’s going on in your company.’ It happens a lot, he says: CEOs that proudly tell how fantastic the year has been, while many beloved colleagues have lost their job.
Lars: ‘Don’t be that person. Sometimes, a speech means that you have to take a look in the mirror.’
Keep it short
It may seem obvious, but anyone who’s ever had to listen to an endless speech knows how easily some people keep on chatting away. Lars: ‘When it comes to a Christmas or New Years speech, I’d say: the shorter, the better.’
Of course, he says, it all depends on the occasion. ‘At a reception – where people are usually standing – you definitely want to keep it short. Speaking to people that are seated allows you to be a bit more elaborate, but don’t overdo it.’
Don’t be the hero
Stories are the main ingredient of a perfect speech, according to Lars. ‘Needless to say, you want to tell stories that support your message. If you want to evoke a sense of pride with your speech, then tell stories that show the difference your company has been making.’
Many CEOs tend to tell stories about themselves, but that should be avoided, Lars says. ‘Always ask yourself: who’s the hero in this story? You don’t want it to be you. Put your employees in the spotlight, especially the ones that are easily overlooked.’
Adding humor to your stories can be a great tool to make your speech a bit more fun, but don’t try too hard, says Lars. ‘If you tell a story, try to make it as vivid as possible. That’s fun enough in its own right.’
This may seem like an open door, but public speaking is a skill that needs practice – a lot of it. Lars compares public speaking with playing tennis. ‘If you’re only doing it once a year, you’re never going to be good at it.’
Lars: ‘Christmas and New Year are not the only occasions that ask for a speech. Try to give a little speech every once in a while, for example when it’s one of your employee’s birthday – just two minutes will do. You’ll notice that after some time, you’ll not only get used to it, you’ll even start to like it.’