Delivery Lesson Ten: Changing The Play


Today during class, we dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with the help of Clarence Jones’ NPR interview.  In the interview, Jones, one of Dr. King’s speechwriters, explains that during King’s “Dream” speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouts out for MLK to “tell them about the dream, Martin!”  The course of the speech completely changes, and Dr. King pushes back his pre-written speech notes and gives the “I Have a Dream” portion of the speech extemporaneously from the top of his head.

What happens when you see that your audience isn’t connecting to your presentation?  Would you be prepared enough to completely change the direction of your speech?  Our tenth delivery lesson reminds us of the importance of being able to change the play.

Garr Reynolds wrote, “Calling an audible: The art of changing the play.”  Reynolds reminds us, “Good presenters are like good quarterbacks: they are good at reading the situation live and making adjustments on the spot” (Source).  But how can we make sure we can do this in a live, nerve-wracking presentation environment?  And how can we best “read” our audience to determine if we need to make last-minute play changes?

The three tools to help you with changing the play include preparation, audience analysis, and pre-presentation mingling.

Preparation means knowing your speech content so well that you can focus on more important things when you are presenting: your delivery and your connection with your audience.  Nancy Duarte suggests that a great presentation requires 36-90 hours of prep time.  How long does it take you to feel truly prepared to give a speech?  For me, it’s closer to 90 than 36 hours…

Preparation is an essential first step, but so is audience analysis.  Some people (including some public speaking instructors I’ve worked with) believe that audience analysis is “easy” or “obvious.”  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Even seasoned presenters should take the time to analyze their audience.

Nancy Duarte created an exceptional tool for audience analysis: The Audience Needs Map.  I believe this is an essential part of preparation that should be completed before you begin working on content.  After all, how do you know what type of message to create if you haven’t taken the time to find out what your audience needs from that message?


Audience analysis is key on the day of the presentation, too.  Before you speak, pre-presentation mingling (PPM) is important.  Get a feel for your audience members’ personalities, needs, and wants.  This allows you to determine their chronemics and see if you need to make any last-minute adjustments to speech content.  If the crowd is filled with no-nonsense, super serious folk, your humor may fall flat with them.  If the crowd is wired and buzzing, you may have to work to calm them down to focus on your message.

For example, on the first day of every new class, I greet each student with a warm smile, a “good morning,” and a handshake along with name introductions.  This is essential PPM before the first day of a public speaking class because students are nervous.  Trust me: no one goes into a public speaking class feeling confident and excited!  PPM goes a long way to help ease the audience’s tension and make them feel a little better about the scary public speaking journey they’re about to take with me.

Preparation, audience analysis, and PPM blend together to help you change the play when your audience needs it most.  Garr Reynolds compares the presenter to a quarterback and explains, “The QB uses ‘the facts’ before him to make adjustments, but sometimes the decision to ‘call an audible’ is based on a ‘gut feel’ for the situation. Some of the greatest plays ever have resulted from the QB calling an audible and changing the play” (Source).  Consider MLK’s power play: he changed the entire course of his “Dream” speech based upon one audience member’s shouted request.  Imagine what the “Dream” speech would have been like without King’s quick decision to speak from the heart.  As presenters, we must learn how to read our audience more effectively so we can best connect with them in every single speech we deliver.

Have you ever “changed the play” in the middle of a presentation?  How did you know your original speech content wasn’t going to work?  What did you decide to do instead?


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