The most powerful question to ask when prepping for a speech or presentation: WHY YOU?

The most powerful question to ask when prepping for a speech or presentation: WHY YOU?

In one of our leadership communication programs, my team and I were coaching the sales managers of a financial institution. I was helping one particular mid-level manager prepare for an upcoming sales call when I asked her: “Why do you do what you do?”

She responded: “Well, I like serving others.”

“Why?”, I asked.

“Because service is important to me.” Me again: “Why?”

“Because that’s what my parents taught me.”

“Tell me more.”

“Growing up, my parents ran their own business. Every single day, I saw them get up early to serve their customers, putting others’ needs before their own. I think about that experience every day when I wake up, and I want to teach that to my children as well. That’s why I do what I do.”

A-hah!

It may seem surprising, but sometimes we get so caught up in our work and our busy day that, when put on the spot, we’re left digging for answers to basic questions like why we do the things we do. And while you might think you have the answer, as seen with my client, it can be tough to get past the generic answer to arrive at the underlying drivers of our behaviors.

But getting to that deeper truth is a critical step if you’re preparing to speak publicly, because Why you? is the single most powerful question you can ask yourself when preparing a speech or presentation. It’s one of the best tools for commanding rooms and influencing others. This is where you put aside the bureaucracy of your job, the politics of your cause, or the dysfunction of your office, and determine the sense of purpose that guides your actions.

Whether you’re a regular speaker within your workplace or you’re preparing to give your first company-wide presentation, centering on your answer to Why you? will provide the following advantages:

It helps you choose language that is authentic to you. It’s hard to sound authentic when you are parroting corporate jargon. Why you? brings out your natural language and makes your speech more genuine.

It animates your body and voice. Body language and vocal tone will complement your words. When you truly believe in your message, that sense of purpose naturally animates your body and voice.

It builds your confidence. Both young professionals and seasoned executives will confess to a lack of confidence when speaking. What if others in the room know more than I do? What if the audience is questioning my authority to speak? Connecting with your Why you? reinforces your credibility and your authority.

It helps you connect to your audience on a personal level and build trust. You might think it’s unprofessional to share a personal story in a business setting. But we are not robots; we are human beings doing business with other human beings. We are driven by personal motivations, and we have values that guide our actions. When you share those motivations with others, even in a business setting, you connect on a personal level and you build trust.

One of the best places to include your Why you? is in the beginning of your speech or presentation. Imagine using the story about growing up in a family-owned business when you are pitching a small business prospect. Using that story, the prospect might think “Yes, this person understands where I am coming from. I can trust this person.”

Take a moment right now and consider: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What made you choose your line of work? What made you volunteer for this particular cause? Why do you do what you do?

It’s not “So I can make more money” or “So I can get promoted” or “So I can look good in front of my boss.” It’s deeper than that. And you might have to ask yourself this question repeatedly to get the underlying answer.

If your response to Why you? has something to do with family, you might be on the right path. You’ll notice a lot of the Why you? comes back to family and early childhood. In another training program, one woman got straight to the point when she said “My father sold insurance, and every day he came home happy. When it was time to choose a career, I chose to follow in his footsteps. That’s why I do what I do.”

If you’re struggling to find an answer to Why you? that feels authentic while also sticking to your goals for the speech, consider the following questions: Why do you care about your audience or about the occasion of the speech? Why do you care about your subject or your organization? What are you proud of in your work?

One word of warning: be prepared to embrace the authentic answer to this question. Sometimes Why you? has ramifications that will follow you well beyond a speaking event.

For example, I remember coaching a man who worked in real estate development. I knew this was an engaged, passionate individual with a fabulous sense of humor. But as he stood up to practice a presentation to a community board, he changed completely. His shoulders slumped, his smile drooped into a grimace, and he sighed loudly while leaning on one hip and weakly gesturing at the slides behind him. He was afraid that he was a boring speaker. And actually, he was. So we worked through a few critical questions, and when we arrived at Why you? he came to a startling realization. I asked him why he was passionate about his work. It turns out, he wasn’t. He hated his job. He mistrusted his boss. He didn’t like the industry. He wasn’t a boring speaker, he was just bored.

If you are bored with your subject or if you hate your job, it’s going to be very difficult to give a powerful, authentic speech. And in those cases, you do have a couple of options. You can change careers, as my friend did. He wound up quitting his job and pursuing his dream to revitalize an abandoned building in his city. But maybe you have three kids to support, college bills, and a mortgage. So instead of searching for what you’re passionate about, think about what you like about your work.

The final question I always hear in relation to Why you? is: “How will I know when I’ve found the right answer?” This turns out to the be simplest part of the process. You’ll know, because you’ll feel it and think “Yes, that’s the thing I’m looking for.”

Once you’ve identified your Why You?, you can move on to the other two questions I coach all speakers to consider: “Who is your audience?” and “What is your goal?”. These questions also provide you with information that should shape the content of your speech. Select content that will resonate with your audience and steer the speech in a direction that connects to your ultimate goal. If you keep all three questions in mind, answer them honestly, and use those answers to inform your speech preparation, you’ll give an impactful presentation. Your Why You? is the key.

Allison Shapira

Allison Shapira is author of Speak With Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others. CEO and founder Global Public Speaking, LLC, Allison was trained as an opera singer and teaches public speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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