Public Speaking: Cut The Crap And Stay On Topic

Matt KramerPublic Speaking3 Comments

topic focus - public speaking

“Get to the freakin’ point!” or “Stay on topic!”

You’ve probably heard that before—it’s good advice. It takes some serious discipline, though.

The trouble is we might not even realize that we’re shifting off topic. I used to think every detail that I could remember about a situation, needed to be told!

My apologies to everyone who had to struggle through my crap-filled details before being able to hear the story. It’s like being forced to watch a 15 second ad on YouTube before you can watch the video. Doesn’t that piss you off? 🙂

Just to be clear, I don’t mean you shouldn’t give physical descriptions (of people, places, moods, feelings, etc.) although you can overdo that, too. A good way to think about it, if something you say stops your story from moving forward, take a closer look.

So, what causes us to start speaking zig-ziagonally?

The main causes are when we feel the need to add disclaimers, give facts in the name of “setting the scene,” or add details that aren’t very important, nor relevant.

When we do this, it’s hard to get the audience to re-focus back to our story or get back the interest they once had.

I have a tendency to overthink things and those “extra” thoughts like to crop up in my stories. A habit I’ve had to work on a ton.

Below is an example of a story I told during a speech to illustrate how making assumptions is a bad idea. First I’ll tell you the WHOLE story and then below that I’ll line-out what should have been taken out to the desert and shot.

ENTIRE STORY:

Several years back I was driving home from work one Wednesday evening. I was 18 years old. I worked at a warehouse that stocked medical supplies. I got off at 4:30 PM. I like turtles [added for dramatization]

I was pulling up to an intersection when a red light came barging into my life, so I stopped. And waited. As I’m sitting there waiting for the green light to come, I feel this “thud” at the back of my car.

Some jerk hit me! So I pop out of my car in a not-so-nice sorta way and the other guy follows suit. I throw my hands up and say, “What the heck, you hit me!”

He appeared to be in his 50’s, a rugged, stern kind of fellow. He looked back at me straight-faced and replied in a monotone voice, “You hit me.”

“Huh?” I shot back in a confused manner.

“You. . .hit. . .me” he repeated.

Apparently my car was slowly rolling back and he was trying to get my attention by honking his horn repeatedly. I didn’t hear it. I didn’t hear it because my music was exploding from every speaker in my car (just the way I like it).

The other thing I didn’t realize is that my car stalled. My car was a silver 2003 Honda Civic coupe. In case you didn’t already know, brakes don’t work too well when your car engine turns off, even if you press down on the brake pedal.

I ASSUMED he had hit me. I was wrong. I apologized to him and said: “I’m sorry man, I just assumed you had hit me because it happened at the back of my car.”

He looked at me with a half smile and said, “Only buffoons assume.” I deserved that.

We checked where my car had hit his and since there wasn’t any apparent damage he told me not to worry about it. I quickly got the heck out of there.

 

It was pretty embarrassing. Anyway, let’s take a look at the same story and see what we can get rid of. To keep it simple I’m not going to change anything, I’m just going to line out what we can do without. Here it is:

WITH CRAP REMOVED:

Several years back I was driving home from work one Wednesday evening. I was 18 years old. I worked at a warehouse that stocked medical supplies. I got off at 4:30 PM. I like turtles.

I was pulling up to an intersection when a red light came barging into my life, so I stopped. And waited. As I’m sitting there waiting for the green light to come, I feel this “thud” at the back of my car.

Some jerk hit me! So I pop out of my car in a not-so-nice sorta way and the other guy follows suit. I throw my hands up and say, “What the heck, you hit me!”

He looked to be in his 50’s, a rugged, stern kind of fellow. He looked back at me straight-faced and replied in a monotone voice, “You hit me.”

“Huh?” I shot back in a confused manner.

“You. . .hit. . .me” he repeated.

Apparently my car was slowly rolling back and he was trying to get my attention by honking his horn repeatedly. I didn’t hear it. I didn’t hear it because my music was exploding from every speaker in my car (just the way I like it).

The other thing I didn’t realize is that my car stalled. My car was a silver 2003 Honda Civic coupe with a manual transmission. In case you didn’t already know, brakes don’t work too well when your car engine turns off, even if you press down on the brake pedal.

I ASSUMED he had hit me. I was wrong. I apologized to him and said: “I’m sorry man, I just assumed you had hit me because it happened at the back of my car.”

He looked at me with a half smile and said, “Only buffoons assume.” I deserved that.

We checked where my car had hit his and since there wasn’t any apparent damage he told me not to worry about it. I quickly got the heck out of there.

 

You could argue that some other things could have been cut as well—to each their own I say!

At any rate, this is a very mild case of adding too much junk, but it still demonstrates the problem. The problem is that it slows down the story and dilutes the message. The audience starts to think about whatever unnecessary information you give them instead of staying on course with your story and its purpose.

So I urge you, don’t turn back or veer off course when telling a story. Don’t complicate things. Just tell the story like you would to a friend. Don’t say, “let me give you this side story real quick so you have all the information…” Please don’t. Some information may be useful to add, but not if it completely rips the audience out of the story that you’ve built momentum for.

Some other tips to help remove the clutter is to practice telling your stories to friends and family. Not an entire speech, just the individual stories.

And another thing, it’s crucial to say it out loud. We think we know everything in our heads, but recalling a story (even one that you experienced first hand) is not the same as articulating it. Not even close.

Clean ’em up and chop out the unnecessary details before bringing it to an audience near you. That’s it…

 

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Howdy! My name is Matt Kramer and I used to suffer excruciating death when speaking in front of a group, now I LOVE it. Overcoming this fear has changed my life and it can change yours, too. My focus is to help you overcome the fear of public speaking so you can build the confidence to go after what you want in life.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more no more excuses cut the crap talk get to the point. I love the examples you give and show before & after very easy to see it & avoid the same mistakes.

  • Bill Burns says:

    Thank you! I have a post of my own coming soon along the same topic. Great insight: the overall journey is the message that the story is helping to illustrate. If the story starts to water down or distract from the message (I’m GREAT at that mistake), chop it. As I learned the hard way, “It’s not about your metaphor, it’s about your message.”

    • Matt says:

      You’re not alone Bill! I “love” to add back stories, side stories, corner stories…It’s been hard to do, but I’ve managed to at least cut out the corner stories! I’d love to check that post out when it’s live.