I often wax on about audiences and audience-centricity: that you need to put your audience’s needs and interests ahead of your own, that it’s all about them, that they need tons of “guidance” in order to be able follow your presentation and get the point. All true. Perhaps never truer, as audiences have hand-held alternatives for their fickle feed-me-now attention spans.

Guidance has always been a big one for me. Tell your audiences where you’re taking them, what you expect of them or want them to have at the end, when you’re digressing for a story, when you’re on main point #1, #2 or #3, and when you’re concluding. Don’t be afraid to speak your presentation structure out loud, so when an audience member’s attention drifts away, they’ll be able to track where you are when they bring their attention back to you.

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend an executive speechwriting conference in Washington, D.C. Given the location, a lot of the speakers were from government and politics, but corporate America, higher education and healthcare were also nicely represented. There was a great cross-section of perspectives, experiences and standards shared by speakers and attendees alike. Friends and colleagues who knew I was going to the conference asked if I was speaking or attending. When I replied that I was attending and really excited to go and learn, I got some raised eyebrows.

Well, learn I did! I’ll admit it was gratifying when many of my methods and principles were validated by what I heard. But I’ll also readily admit that I took copious notes and brought back all kinds of new ideas.

Among those was “verbal wayfinding.” Verbal wayfinding is the more sophisticated term for guidance and is, in my view, a more well-developed concept. The other terms used interchangeably with verbal wayfinding were “breadcrumbs” and “signposts” – more than guidance, these refer to weaving into a speech or presentation thematic reminders and reinforcements as well as the structural ones that my word guidance encourages.

The bottom line is this: Your audiences have not seen your notes or read your script, nor have they rehearsed with you. They are fresh-earred, first-time listeners, and they will only hear it that one time. You and your material have shared countless moments together, but your audiences will share only one moment. It’s your job to make that moment count, make the material stick. Drop breadcrumbs throughout, put up signposts, script in verbal wayfinding, because it’s all about them, your audience, and they need guidance!

Beth Levine