Attending the season’s gaggle of graduations and listening to various other prepared remarks has reminded me of the agony and the ecstasy of a good speech.

I have a few suggestions for you toastmaster types out there because, as a veteran listener, it is my observation that speeches across the board tend to stumble over the same bumpy thinking. Here are a few points that I hope you’ll consider. They seem obvious, but I think in the rush of creativity and panic, speakers forget to check them off before the big moment.

  1. Target your audience. Even a tour de force of a speech won’t land well if it’s aimed at the wrong target. I once attended a graduation where the publisher of a national newspaper offered rousing words for newly minted lawyers at a university with no law school, for example. The crowd was polite but got a little surly by the end.
  2. Make it shorter than your audience’s attention span. For example, in the case of graduation crowds, you can expect about a 15-second attention span. Everyone is jockeying for a good photo and they probably won’t even glance in your direction, let alone listen. You are just holding up the big moment and their arms are tired from holding their cameras in the air. We sat through a cloudburst while a former alcoholic recounted his odyssey to redemption. We all could have used a drink afterward.
  3. Do not begin with a definition from the dictionary. My guess is that at least 40% of all graduates begin with, “What does _______ really mean? The dictionary defines it as…” You might as well start with a definition of tedium.
  4. Picture yourself in the audience. Are you checking your watch, looking for an escape route? I suspect that one of the main reasons people are always texting is they’re just trying to stay awake.
  5. Make it pithy. Don’t pith away your big moment with “your future beckons.” Generalizations don’t make an impact – give people something useful, a real take-away. Your audience is spending time with you; make it worth the cost.

Here is my suggestion for the perfect speech, checking off all of the above points. Approach the mic. Stare out purposefully, controlling the space. Say, “Always remember, ‘righty tighty, lefty loosey.'” The amount of time your minions will save not turning screwdrivers and jar lids the wrong direction may add years to their productive lives – plus it reverberates with political overtones. It’s helpful. It’s layered. It’s really short.