John F. Kennedy is often reported to have said "The only reason to give a speech is to change the world." Over the years this has been paraphrased by many speaking and training professionals. Not surprisingly, people occasionally mock this kind of statement as being just so much hubris or pomposity. "Surely," they proclaim, "not every presentation or speech is important enough to even make the slightest difference." However, when we say "change the world," we do not mean necessarily to change the world in a monumental, earth-altering, life-changing way. The operative word in that phrase is change. Affecting a change is a necessary condition of an effective speech. "A presentation that doesn’t seek to make change is a waste of time and energy," says business guru Seth Godin.
We do not have to make a speech like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, or Churchill, etc. But we do have to think long and hard—before our speech—of just what kind of change we are aiming for with our particular audience. Presentations and talks are usually a mix of information, inspiration, and motivation. To really affect a change we need to do more than just give information. If information were all that was required to make a change, we could send an email or a document for people to read and cancel the talk. A live talk must impact the heart as well as the mind.
The little victories that you win
Making a small difference is reason enough to get out of bed every day. We do not always need—or even want—to make such a grand impact. Often we are just lucky to make a small change, perhaps influencing or making a difference in a few people's lives that day. The speech (or presentation) itself is ephemeral and will soon be forgotten, but if we can make even a tiny influence, we can take satisfaction in that. If your presentation gets people talking—not about you necessarily, but about your idea—then this is at least a small victory. I was reminded of this while researching the legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder. At the end of the documentary Billy Wilder Speaks, Wilder says something relevant to all storytellers, from filmmakers to the guy making a speech at his local business group:
"You tell them something they can take home with them....the kind of film that people see and then go to a drug store to talk about it for half an hour. If you pull that off, it's great." Wilder continues. "It's very gratifying if your have a successful picture and it tells them a little something new that they did not know about it, or it makes them interested in a subject that was strange to them. These are the little victories that you win."
We will not impact everyone in even our greatest presentations. But if we can get enough people talking about the content in the hours or days after our time on stage, that may be enough. That's something. That's a small victory. Maybe we have lit a spark or motivated someone just a little to explore our message more deeply in future. That is change. It may not be a big change, but it is a change...and that is making a difference.