Real Leaders

Lights, Camera, Action! How to Use Drama in Your Speech

Each week, speech coach and leadership mentor James Rosebush will answer a question on how to improve your public speaking

Jeff Haydon, CEO of Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, asks: “How can a speaker most effectively use production elements in a speech, such as lighting, music and visuals?

Dear Jeff,

What an exciting and stimulating question. Recently we attended an inspiring and impressive presentation that helps answer your question. It was given by the author, William McKeever, who published Emperors of the Deep, in June this year — a fascinating book about shrinking shark populations. 

William is a genial man, who took the stage after a very inadequate introduction from his host. He quickly gave the audience comfort that he knew his subject. After this, we were in for a treat. He began with a short introduction to the subject of his book and how he came to be enamored with sharks. Then, the lights dimmed, and he showed us a ten-minute video — a sort of companion to his book. The video, shot underwater, was high quality, beautiful and dramatic. It gave a sparkle to the evening. When it ended, the audience couldn’t wait to hear more from this intrepid explorer. Clearly, sharks are made for film, and this film made the talk more exciting and urgent.

On my recent book tour talks, I occasionally include a discussion of President Reagan’s love of church hymns. I cite his favorite hymn and then ask the audience if they would like to sing it — to which I always receive an enthusiastic response. On more than one occasion, when there was a piano available near the podium, I have accompanied the audience. All I can say is that it turns a speech into a memorable evening by adding a big dose of emotion. It’s also an excellent way to bring home your message. I always spot many in the audience with tears in their eyes as they sing.

Although I’m adamant about not using PowerPoint presentations, I do encourage speakers with a visual or musical angle to use it! If you’re discussing art, architecture, music, construction — even public policy — having graphic illustrations can significantly enhance your presentation. 

One of my favorite speakers, who I’ve now heard speak three times, uses a large and dramatic drawing of the world as a backdrop. He educates the audience on all the current world wars and future hot spots where war may break out. He also shows on this map the China Belt and Road Strategy, which can only really be understood on a map. 

I have another friend who has spoken alongside the well-known architect Addison Mizner, on his relationship to contemporary culture, art, and fashion. He uses illustrations very effectively, to rave reviews by his audience.

My only caution to this approach is to remember that technology is not perfect. Make sure you rehearse with your visual support tools and have a dedicated technician on hand if the link from your laptop to the projector fails. That is not only an embarrassment, but can become a real downer for your entire time on stage.

If you want to try something unique, test it first on family or friends. By all means, include some dramatic and supportive elements to your message. Yes! I can hear the music playing already.

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