Steward's Corner: Surviving Public Speaking—The Off-the-Cuff Speech
Whether you’re making your point in your union meeting or with a reporter on the picket line, a lot of crucial public speaking has to be improvised on the spot. No need to panic: off-the-cuff speaking is a skill that can be learned by anyone, like every other tool in your organizing kit.
Following last month’s tips on prepared speeches and presentation skills, here we’ll discuss how to give short improvised speeches and comments that come through loud and clear.
It’s easier to improvise if you “fill in the blanks” on a structure, like the one below. With experience, you can personalize it, but try starting from this template first. It’s ideal to memorize each step, so you can quickly plan your speech and find your place on the fly.
Introduce yourself briefly. In one sentence, share only the essentials: name and what establishes your relationship to the topic. “I’m Jamie Lopez, I’m a steward in maintenance, and this is the third contract campaign I’ve helped on.”
Main argument up front. In one sentence, share your main argument plainly. Keep it simple. In a speech under five minutes, you will usually be able to convince your audience of just one point. “Ending the two-tier system should be a higher priority than a bigger raise for Tier A. Ending tiers will make us stronger to win even more next time.”
What’s your shared goal with the “swing group”? Think about your audience—who’s on the fence that you can persuade to shift positions or take a new action? That’s your swing group, and they’re your target, not the people far to the other side.
In one or two sentences, show how you share a common goal with the swing group. “We should all get raises that can keep us ahead of the rent. Everyone deserves that.”
What’s your different approach to reach the goal? In one or two sentences, restate your main argument as a way to reach the shared goal. “The best way to win big is to build a bigger army. If we get rid of tiers, we’ll all be in this fight equally, and our army gets twice as big.”
Why is your approach the best way to the goal? In a few sentences, share one or two points of evidence about why your proposed approach is the strongest. Draw contrasts with other approaches respectfully.
“Most of us here are in Tier A. We all know our Tier B coworkers work just as hard, but don’t get the job security or benefits that make them want to build our union. When we were all one tier not that long ago, we had much more attendance at union meetings, and more participation on committees by members of all different seniority.
“If we try for a raise but don’t end tiers, management will be able to keep dividing us. But if we all get on the same team, with no tiers, that’s a down payment on winning bigger raises in the future and from here on out.”
Recap the main argument. In one or two sentences, restate your argument in terms of the shared goal. When you close strong, they’ll remember! “Let’s put tiers behind us for good. We’ll make our union twice as strong to win what we all deserve.”
Want more tips? Last month the authors discussed how to prepare and deliver a short talk, such as at a union meeting or rally.
Keith Brower Brown is a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865. Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.