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It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves every time we speak.

Maybe you saw Hillary Clinton’s essay in the New York Times

“Late one night in 1995, in a cramped airplane cabin high over the Pacific, Madeleine Albright put down a draft of a speech I was set to deliver in Beijing at the upcoming United Nations conference on women, fixed me with the firm stare that had made fearsome dictators shudder, and asked what I was really trying to accomplish with this address.”

“’I want to push the envelope as far as I can,’ I replied.”

“‘Then do it,’ she said. She proceeded to tell me how I could sharpen the speech’s argument that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

Maybe pushing the envelope is not your goal when you update your clients on your current project or propose a new one. When you introduce yourself at a networking meeting. Or when you tell your team about the company’s plans for expansion.

Certainly, you don’t have Madeleine Albright to prod you into clarifying your point, sharpening your argument, or inspiring your audience to act on what they hear.

It’s worth asking yourself the question Madeleine Albright asked Hillary Clinton.

What are you trying to accomplish with this update, introduction, or talk?

What, exactly, is your goal?

You’d better have one if you’re asking us to listen to you. Otherwise, it’s just noise in the air. And there’s too much of that already.

And your message will be much clearer to us if your goal is crystal clear to you first.

Sometimes, we wind up speaking because it’s expected. It’s our regular Tuesday morning meeting. Every project leader is supposed to say something, so without thinking too much about it, we put in our two-cents’ worth. Maybe we add a few slides that someone on our team put together.

Or we’re at a meeting where the format is 45-second introductions from everyone. We stand up when it’s our turn, stammer something about our business, and trail off, grateful to sit down again.

Or we’re going back to working in the office at least part of the time, and oh, by the way while everyone was working at home that office has been massively reconfigured. We’ve called a virtual meeting to lay out the plan for fewer individual offices, cubicles, and even desks … and more communal workspaces. We expect mixed reaction from the team, and we mainly want to get this out of the way so we can move on.

Each of those scenarios is a missed opportunity to communicate with purpose. You can probably make a long list of similar situations. They come up all the time.

It’s a mistake to muddle through them without much thought.

What to do instead?

Consider, well before you open your mouth to speak,  Madeleine Albright’s question to Hillary Clinton. What do you hope to accomplish with what you’re saying?

To flesh that out, you might ask yourself three more questions.

These people you hope are listening to you … what do you want them to think as a result of what you say?

What do you want them to feel about the issue at hand—or about you?

And what do you want them to do about what they’ve heard from you?

Your answers to those questions will inform what you say when you speak to them.

  • What information do they need?
  • Which evidence must you present for them to see things the way you want them to? How much detail are they willing or able to take in?
  • What story can you tell to evoke emotion about your subject?
  • What questions are they likely to ask?
  • And how will you answer them?

Your answers to the think-feel-do questions will also shape the way you speak.

  • How will you begin so that you capture their attention from the start?
  • How will your tone of voice shift with the words you’re saying?
  • How will your pace carry them along and make it easy for them to understand?
  • Will you be in a room with them or will some or all of your audience be virtual?
  • Will you use visual aids to make your point, or would they be a distraction?
  • Your call to action—is it a request? A command? A plea?

You can probably think of many more questions that could influence the content of your message and shape the way you deliver it. I’d love for you to add them in the comments.

The big point here is that you should be asking yourself those questions and considering the answers before every significant speaking opportunity. That’s how to increase the odds that you’ll achieve your objective.

The think-feel-do for your talk is a good place to start.