I recently gave the commencement address at Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota. On a perfect spring day, 800+ graduates and 3500 family and friends packed the Sanford Events Center. Robes and colors, marching and music, but eventually we platform guests took our seats that looked down on a sea of people. Gradually, after this and that announcement, my time came to take the podium.
I had been fretting about this speech for weeks. An audience of close to 5000 people creates its own, unique demands. For example, research showed that a 12-15 minute commencement address was the ideal length. Okay, that’s helpful. I am used to speaking longer, so I had to make some serious cuts to my remarks. And, unlike much of my speaking, I knew I had to stick close to the written speech, yet present it without seeming to read the words. I also had concerns about tone and content: what, exactly, did college graduates need (or want) to hear on this special day?
For a public speaker, the larger event the more preparation is required. The goal is leave nothing to chance. To that end, though I have done endless speaking gigs over the years, I engaged a professional speech coach. I practiced my commencement address with her. I told her to be “brutal,” and she was.
“It’s not empowering enough,” Laura said. “It sounds like you’re lecturing the students on how to live.”
Ouch. But she was right.
I went back to the drawing board. I front-loaded the speech with examples of student success. Airline pilots. Teachers. Business owners. Creative, professional people who had made their mark–and all had come from this very school. It was content well taken by the graduates as well as their parents! By some serious rewriting, I was able to make the tone far uplifting and positive.
I also worked on a few enunciations issues (try to avoid potential tongue twister phrases), plus made adjustments to the delivery cadence and overall pace. The payoff for all this prep? When I took the podium, when I looked out at the audience, a remarkable sense of calm come over me. I was prepared. I had this. And I did. The reviews have been great, and I couldn’t feel better about the day.
Lesson? It was all about the prep. The deeper your preparation, the more confident–and successful–you’ll be. It’s that simple.