The Power of Words
On August 15, Saudi Arabian security engineer Mohammed Qahtani won the title of Toastmasters International World Champion of Public Speaking. He survived seven rounds of a competition that lasted six months and included 33,000 competitors from around the world.
He and nine other finalists competed at the Toastmasters annual convention in Las Vegas, and he took home first place for his speech, “The Power of Words”
He immediately gets the audience on his side
Qahtani starts his speech with a sight gag, pretending to consider lighting up a cigarette before the audience’s reaction convinces him not to. He transitions from this into a sober defense of the tobacco industry before saying, straight-faced, that all of the facts and figures he cited were made up. The audience then roars with laughter.
“When you get an audience laughing, you’ve got them on your side,” Qahtani says.
However you choose to engage an audience, by getting them to laugh, cheer, gasp, or any other emotional reaction, it’s important to get them on your side from the beginning. Qahtani says it can be easy for a speaker to forget that an audience wants a performer to do well and is waiting to be entertained.
He doesn’t lose sight of his message
The punchline of his fake defence of Big Tobacco is that you can convince people of a lie, even an absurd one, if you deliver it in the proper way.
Every presentation needs to have a thesis — a message that the audience is convinced of and will take with them. Qahtani’s message is straightforward: We must be conscious of the power our words can have over other people, for better or worse.
His speech is a series of stories: Why a pseudo-defence of smoking can be convincing; how he taught his young son a lesson; why academics have a difficult time imparting the dangers of global warming, and how a single phone call ruined a friend’s life. These stories are variations on a theme, leading to a satisfying conclusion that ties them all together.
He makes it personal
A friend once told Qahtani, “When you’re on the stage, the most important thing is the audience. Don’t care about how you look; where you are on the stage; how you sound — just care about the audience.” Qahtani has used this advice to stay focused on how his audience reacts, and, rather than going through the motions, he adjusts his delivery depending on how his audience engages with his material.
In “The Power of Words,” he cheats a little bit with the story about a friend dying from an overdose. The story, about a promising young man’s tragic path to self-destruction partially due to an estranged relationship with his father, is real, but it’s a story Qahtani borrowed. He says that if he presented it as a second-hand story it would lose some of its immediacy.
If you’re giving a corporate presentation or TED Talk, you shouldn’t play with poetic license, but you definitely should use anecdotes that add life to your topic.
He uses his strengths to overcome his weaknesses
Qahtani grew up with a stutter and deals with it occasionally. He says that even though the stage empowers him and rids him of the impediment, his vocal delivery will never be his strong point, and neither will his stage presence. But that’s fine.
A fellow Toastmasters member once told Qahtani, “Some people are strong with their words. Some people are strong with their voice. Some people are strong with their stage presence. Your strength is humour. Use it.”
There were competitors who had better delivery and more refined movements on stage, but Qahtani got the audience to focus their attention on what he did well.
He ends on a hopeful note
Qahtani opened his speech with humour to get the audience laughing and relaxed, but he would have fallen into a stand-up act if he didn’t transition into moving personal anecdotes. Similarly, if he kept his entire speech heavy, his audience would have felt depressed or even bored rather than satisfied.
However you determine your speech will flow, Qahtani said, it’s important that you always leave your audience with a feeling of hope. They need to feel empowered by what you just told them.