City Slickers is one of my favourite movies. It’s a 1991 Western comedy starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby and Jack Palance. It received critical claim and won several awards. It is frequently hilarious but also contains some deep truths about life. Well worth watching.
The movie is about three men who have been friends from childhood. They live in New York City and each, for his own reasons, is going through a midlife crisis. In order to give themselves a boost, they decide to take a vacation together. They go to a dude ranch in the western US and participate in a supervised cattle drive.
At one point in the movie, Mitch from New York (Billy Crystal) is riding alone with Curly, the imposing cowboy (Jack Palance). The following discussion ensues:
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No, what?
Curly (holding up one finger): This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: That’s great but, what’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.
It’s a powerful scene and a fundamental message upon which everyone should reflect. (As an aside, if you want to read an excellent book on this topic, I recommend The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller.)
The one thing for public speakers
Your speech or presentation should have a single, unifying message; something that holds it together. When I work with clients in my presentation skills training courses, I often see presentations where it is hard to know what the message is. Typically, it is because the speaker is trying to do too much.
And so we have a conversation that goes something like this:
Me: Give me the presentation in a single sentence.
Participant: What do you mean?
Me: In one sentence, what is the message of your presentation?
Participant (often in a meandering fashion): Well, it’s about x and y and z.
Me: No, I don’t want to know what it’s about. I want to know what the message is. In one sentence.
Participant: Well, it’s not that easy.
Me: That’s not my problem; it’s your problem.
Sometimes the participant is able to come up with the message, and sometimes they need to think about it and work on it. It is always worth the effort because the result is ultimately much better for the audience.
Have you ever sat in the audience listening to a speaker and at some point you asked yourself, “Where is he going with this?” or “What’s her point?” In such cases, it is usually because the speaker has not thought clearly about the “one thing” that should tie the presentation together.
When you can boil down your speech or presentation into a single sentence, the message will be clear in your mind. That will help make it clear in the minds of the people in the audience. Of course, your talk can have different parts, but it should have a single, unifying message.
If you cannot articulate your message – the one thing – simply and clearly, you need to spend more time thinking about it. As Albert Einstein said, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. And as Curly said in City Slickers, it’s up to you to figure it out. Once you have the message, build your talk around it.
Everything else don’t mean shit.