PRWeek: There are a lot of serious issues we're dealing with right now – the economy, healthcare, and the environment are just a few examples. What's the line these days between good humor and bad?
Dan Gerstein: The propriety line really depends on the situation. One joke that brings down the house at a Matt Lauer roast could take down your reputation at a Davos keynote.
In general, there are two primary risks for serious public speakers in this challenging environment. The first is to say something insensitive that trivializes your company or, worse, the hardships your audience is experiencing. The second is to go to the other extreme and avoid saying anything funny at all, thereby cutting off the surest way to connect with your customers in good times and in bad. The safe solution is to be self-effacing and self-deprecating. Nothing humanizes a speaker and forges a bond with an audience more quickly and effectively than the ability to laugh at your own lot — especially in dark economic days like these. Misery loves company, but it absolutely adores empathy.
PRWeek: So much communicating is done in sound bites. How do you condense a long speech into a bite-sized message?
Gerstein: It may sound obvious, but a common mistake business leaders make is confusing short with superficial, and boiling down complex ideas to slick slogans that lack content, context, and, most importantly, relevance to the listener. The best way to avoid that trap, and to do justice to your speech in interview platforms, is to put as much thought into crafting the TV-friendly condensation as you do the speech itself. Once the speech is written, convert it into a three-to-five-minute script that you can internalize and then customize for any short-attention-span setting. Know the 60-second articulation of your core point, your supporting arguments and proof points, and the questions or criticisms you are likely to get.
PRWeek: Can you give us some tips for good public speaking?
Gerstein: The best piece of advice is to not underestimate your audience. Don't reflexively assume that your listeners have a short attention span and shorter is always better. As President Barack Obama has shown over and over again, the American public is ready, willing, and able to be spoken to like adults. In fact, millions of average Americans have sought out the 40- and 50-minute speeches Obama has given on major issues.
Business executives, especially those who aspire to be thought leaders, should not be afraid of length or complexity if the subject and occasion call for them. As long as your ideas are valuable, your arguments are relevant, and your language is resonant, that's as long as you can hold an audience's attention.