Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of the department-store chain Debenhams, was talking on the radio about why profits are down. He said one of the reasons is the shops have been offering too many items for customers to buy. A lot of choice may seem like a good thing but customers are overwhelmed by the amount of stock and struggle to sift through it all to find what they want. They prefer less stuff, clearly displayed.
When I heard this, I was immediately struck by the parallel with public speaking. To give our message the best chance of being heard, understood and remembered, here are three lessons we can learn from the retail industry:
- It is not the audience’s responsibility to rummage through a lot of waffle to discover the message that’s in there somewhere. It is the speaker’s responsibility to identify what is most interesting and relevant to this audience and to present it clearly. Be focused and concise: less is more!
- In order to perceive and appreciate what’s on offer, people need time, space and the right environment. Make sure conditions are right for your audience to be able to concentrate on what you’re saying (they can easily hear you, no distractions, etc), then speak slowly and pause between your points. If a shop is overstuffed with goods, customers can’t properly see what’s for sale and will soon get fed up. A tightly packed talk delivered at high speed will have the same effect.
- Present your message with confidence and enthusiasm. Look at the difference between a charity shop and a car-boot sale. Second-hand products are second-hand products, but the charity shop makes them seem so much more attractive. The purpose of your talk is not to off-load a pile of stuff you want to get rid of (although to listen to some speakers, one suspects this is indeed their primary aim) but to give your audience a positive experience and something worthwhile to take home with them.