improve your speakingMost public speaking advice focuses on the strategies and skills of creating and delivering an effective speech.

What most public speaking advice overlooks is the importance of being a better speaker, of being in effect a good person.

And yet history and even, sadly, contemporary politics are filled with examples of the damage done by bad people who give powerful, even mesmerizing speeches.

By bad people I don’t necessarily mean that they’re evil people, although some of them are/were. (Is there any better way to describe Hitler, one of the most powerful speakers of the 20th century?)

Bad people may or may not be well meaning and sincere, but they are

  • bigoted, self-serving or willfully misinformed,
  • willing to skew the truth to advance their agenda, to pander to an audience’s less honorable instincts, or to shill for a dubious idea, or
  • lacking in discernment, compassion, or a sense of justice.

Cicero, ancient Rome’s greatest orator, knew only too well the harm that unprincipled, but effective speakers cause. Toward the end of his career he wrote De Oratorethe distillation of his experience.

Cicero wrote De Oratore to describe the ideal orator and imagine him as a moral guide of the state. Cicero understood that the power of persuasion—the ability to verbally manipulate opinion in crucial political decisions—was a key issue. The power of words in the hands of a man without scruples or principles would endanger the whole community. (Wikipedia)

To be a better speaker requires us not just to improve our public speaking skills and strategies.

Being a better speaker requires us, first, to be good people, to be the kind of people who

  • Read well and widely.
  • Listen respectfully, especially to those with whom we disagree.
  • Question both our own core beliefs and the inherited wisdom of our culture.
  • Care about other people’s well-being.
  • Do good works.
  • Are honest in our daily affairs and faithful to our commitments.
  • Contribute some small measure of beauty or laughter to the world.

What would you add to my list?

Important element of a speechThere are many elements that make a speech powerful, effective, memorable:

A message that has the power to change lives for the better, if only in a small way.

Images and stories, words and phrases that are both evocative and provocative.

A connection with the audience that communicates understanding, respect, and a desire to be of service.

A delivery that brings the message to life.

One of the most important elements of a speech is often missing: the person of the speaker.

Who you are as a person determines the audience’s interpretation of what you say, whether and to what extent they trust your message.

Who you are as a person shapes their response: their willingness to support, endorse, or implement your proposal.

Who you are as a person influences their engagement: their emotional and intellectual investment in your presentation.

Who you are as a person is perhaps the single most important element of a speech. And that element is too often missing.

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Good speakers tell storiesHuman beings have been telling stories probably since the invention of speech, itself. And speakers—good ones, at least—have been telling stories ever since.

“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal,” according to Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University.

I think stories are the single most powerful weapon in a speaker’s arsenal.

Why Tell Stories in a Speech? Here Are 8 Reasons…

  1. Stories are naturally appealing.
    Children as young as two or three years of age can listen to and understand a story. And adults never really lose their love of a good story.
  2. Stories give order and meaning to chaos.
    We live in a complex world that can seem random and meaningless. A good story, which has a beginning, middle, and end, gives a sense of order and meaning to things. It shows us how things fit together.
  3. Stories break down resistance.
    We don’t always see where a good story is heading. It isn’t linear or logical, so we tend not to analyze it or to oppose it. We listen to it, enter into it, and experience it. We use our imaginations, not our critical mindsets.
  4. Stories are energizing.
    For most us, listening to an analytic and logical presentation takes energy and concentration. We work our way through it, as we once worked our way through math or science homework. By contrast, a story captures our interest and attention. We experience new worlds, seeing things in new ways, and we’re more alive as a result.
  5. Stories change perceptions.
    A story “frames” how we see people, how we view their motives, how we understand causes and effects.
  6. Stories are memorable.
    Long after people have forgotten everything else about a speech, they remember the stories. And stories, if well-chosen, remind them of the main points of the speech.
  7. Stories engage our feelings.
    As we enter into a story, we identify with the characters and experience what they are going through. Their heightened emotions heighten ours. A good story often causes us to laugh, sigh, wipe away a tear, or cheer—and sometimes it does all of those things at the same time.
  8. Stories communicate something of the storyteller.
    Even if we tell someone else’s story, we invest something of ourselves in it. And if we tell our personal story we reveal even more of ourselves. A story is the quickest way to speak from our heart to the hearts of your audience.

I have undoubtedly left something out. But I hope I’ve adequately stress why I believing speakers should tell stories.

Problem/Solution FormatThe most common form of a presentation is both easy and effective: 1) identify and discuss a problem, and 2) propose a solution.

But there’s a problem with the problem-solution format. A big one.

I noticed it, again, as I sat through a recent presentation about climate change and alternative energies.

You already know from my brief description what the problem was: climate change. And the proposed solution is equally clear: alternative energies.

The speaker had impeccable credentials in the eyes of his audience. They knew him, respected him, and believed him. His knowledge was wide-ranging, in-depth, and substantiated by multiple, credible sources.

His presentation was well-structured and logical.

The picture he painted — the problem — was bleak. Really, really, really bleak.

He spent at least 45 minutes defining the problem, analyzing its causes, and spelling out its implications (i.e. impending doom in all its various forms).

Then — with only 15 minutes remaining — he turned to the solution.

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Speaking PowerPointThere are two basic approaches to designing PowerPoint slides these days.

1. The traditional approach produces the type of slides we’ve all grown accustomed to…and bored by.

This approach has its own set of rules. It emphasizes clarity and simplicity. It recommends limiting the amount of text on a slide (e.g., no more than 5 lines of 5 words each). It counsels against using animations and fancy fonts.

2. The newer approach creates a most artistic, visually appealing set of slides.

Its rules are simpler. Use images with a few words. Tell stories.

Both approaches to designing PowerPoint Slides have their merits. But a book I recommend (and wrote the foreword for) — Speaking PowerPoint: The New Language of Business — makes me question both approaches.

Bruce Gabrielle, the author of Speaking PowerPoint, distinguishes — rightly and wisely, in my opinion — between two different types of presentations:

  1. BallroomBallroom presentations are given at conferences and to general audiences by keynote speakers or at breakout sessions. The audiences may (or may not) be invested in what the speaker is addressing. They are easily distracted. They generally do not have an in-depth knowledge of the topic being addressed, nor do they want a detailed, in-depth presentation.

    The audiences are at a distance from the slides. They have trouble reading text and most graphics (charts and the like).

    The rules recommended by both the traditional and the newer approach apply, it seems, to ballroom presentations.

  2. BoardroomBoardroom presentations are for business meetings, where attendees do’t expect to be entertained. They don’t want to be bored or confused, mind you, but they want to be informed. They expect details, data, and in-depth analysis. They dislike fluff.

    The audiences are up close. They can see the screen. And, often, they have printed handouts to read. (They may have received and reviewed the “deck” in advance.)

    Boardroom-style PowerPoint decks, according to Bruce, have several uses. They can be used as 1) a stand-alone reading deck that is circulated, almost like a white paper, 2) a discussion deck, to spur a conversation among decision-makers, or 3) a briefing deck.

The slides used for a boardroom presentation — which includes most workplace presentations — require more detail, including text and statistical data. They are, necessarily, complex.

The PowerPoint slides used in business today — the most common type of presentation — require a new set of rules, different from those proposed by both the traditional and the newer approach.

Bruce proposes his own rules, which I find very helpful. (They’re too sophisticated for me to go into here.)

So let me ask you. Do you buy into the distinction? Does it make sense to you? What do you find works?

(By the way, I do not receive any compensation for recommending Bruce’s book.)



What is a good sales pitch?A good sales pitch isn’t a pitch at all. It isn’t something you throw at people, hoping to persuade them to buy your product or service.

When you pitch something at people, their natural inclination is to duck or to take a swing at it, not to engage it with an open mind.

A sales pitch — a winning one, at least — is more like a consultation, a collaborative conversation, a facilitated dialogue.

By doing your research, by asking questions and listening to the answers, by engaging the other person — before, during, and after your formal sales pitch — you discover whether there’s a good fit between what they want and need and what you offer.

A good sales pitch gives prospects confidence that your product or service best meets their needs (to fix, solve, improve, or achieve something that matters to them), given their unique situation and constraints.

A bad sales pitch is a one-size-fits-all presentation. It makes token references to your prospective clients and their concerns. It’s mostly about your company, your qualifications, your experience, and the generic features and benefits of your product or service.

A stupid sales pitch is a self-centered monologue, a rapid-fire recitation of every good point about you, your company, and your product or service. It demonstrates no knowledge of or concern for the prospect. None at all.

Whether you’re a one-person service provider — a consultant, coach, solopreneur — or a multinational corporation, you know that selling isn’t a bad thing. It’s a requirement.

And selling, from time to time, requires you to make a sales pitch. The only question is what kind.

Check out Differentiators/Discriminators Contribute to a Winning Proposal.

Making the Most of Q&A

Christopher Witt —  December 4, 2014 — 1 Comment

Encourage audiences to ask questionsQ&A is one of the most engaging, powerful, and effective elements of a presentation.

And yet many presenters (especially technical experts) avoid Q&A, mostly out of fear that they’ll be asked a question they can’t answer.

Addressing your audience’s questions makes them feel like participants, not passive recipients of your wisdom from on high. Their questions let you gauge how well they understand and accept your ideas.

I used to be happy with my presentations when the audience didn’t ask any questions. Their silence, I thought, meant that they understood and agreed with what I had said.

Now I think that an audience’s lack of questions means that they are so confused or so uninterested that they can’t be bothered.

Stirring the audience up and making them want to ask questions is a good thing. Knowing how to respond in a way that feeds their interest and drives home your message is even better.

Guidelines for Handling Q&A Effectively

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Don't set your presenters up to failI often get called in to help individuals improve their public speaking and presentation skills.

And often there is much work to be done with those individuals.

Through inexperience or lack of training, people — even highly-placed, successful professionals — need help:

  • Developing a strategy that identifies their goal (what to accomplish in the time they have available with a particular audience) and ways of accomplishing it.
  • Creating a compelling message that engages the audience’s hearts and minds and moves them to take action.
  • Delivering that message with the right amount of drama to bring it alive.

But quite often the problem isn’t all the individual speaker’s fault.

Often individual speakers are set up to fail — to give a mediocre talk — by the organization, by its systems, culture, or processes.

Even proficient speakers have a hard time giving a winning presentation when:

  • They’re given too little time to prepare.
  • They’re told to present a PowerPoint slide deck that was developed by someone else, and that they don’t understand or — worse — agree with.
  • They’re scheduled to speak to an audience they know nothing about.
  • They’re notified of significant changes in the agenda — the topic to be addressed or the time they’re assigned to speak — at the last moment.
  • They’re interrupted early and often by people in authority who have an agenda of their own, which they haven’t previously communicated.
  • They’re expected to sell an idea, product, or service that is fundamentally flawed.

There are, of course, strategies and techniques that individuals can master in order to cope with such situations. (Which isn’t to say that every situation can be salvaged or that every presentation can be a winner.)

And, at the same time, there are systemic issues that organizations need to address.

How do you think organizations can help their people give better presentations?

Promote yourselfDo you want to win the recognition and respect that you deserve? To get noticed and taken seriously when new opportunities arise? To have your ideas and contributions valued?

And do you want to do so in a way that is both authentic and respectful?

To promote yourself without being shameless or self-centered…

1. Take responsibility.
You can’t control how people think or feel about you. But you can take responsibility for the impression you make – your reputation – and correct it if it’s distorted or add to it if it’s incomplete.

2. Be yourself.
Being someone other than you are in order to get noticed is counterproductive. You’ll feel like a fraud. And other people will have misgivings about you, which is the opposite of what you want.

3. Do something notable.
Simply doing what’s required, meeting expectations, and showing up won’t get you noticed. And it shouldn’t. You have two options: 1) excel at what you do or 2) exceed expectations and your job description…consistently.

4. Help others.
Be interested in people and their welfare. Introduce them to people, ideas, or resources they will find valuable. Notice their successes and make those successes known to others.

5. Avoid extremes.
Bragging about yourself and your accomplishments turns people off. Downplaying your value and contributions does yourself and others a disservice.

6. Listen more or talk more, depending…
If you talk a lot around others, listen more. Pay attention to them, and they’ll give you their attention. If you listen to others a lot, speak up. Make your thoughts and feelings known. Don’t expect people to read your mind.

7. Tell your story.
Give examples of what you do and of its value. Don’t say, for example, “I’m good at leading meetings.” Talk about a time you lead a meeting well, and describe the (positive) outcome.

8. Practice.
Respectful self-promotion takes practice. Try it and see how it works. Try it again, differently, and make adjustments, if necessary. Allow yourself to fail…and try again.

Don’t be pushy or obnoxious. Don’t talk on and on about yourself. The world already has enough narcissists.

Be the best you that you can be. Develop and use your skills to be of service to others. Let your actions speak for you. And don’t be afraid — at the right time and in the right way — to speak up for yourself.

Aspiring writers are often told to “kill your darlings.”

In other words, you have to cut out the passages you’re most attached to when they get in the way of your goal.

The same advice applies when you write a speech or prepare a presentation.

To keep your speeches short and to the point, you have to eliminate – ruthlessly – anything that doesn’t clarify your point and drive it home.

Sometimes the hardest thing to cut from a speech – the darling you have to kill – is a story.

Stories are the most effective tool in a speaker’s toolbox. And I can’t imagine giving a speech without telling at least one story.

But there are times when the story I’m fondest of, the story I’ve built my speech around, is the very thing that I have to eliminate.

When a story dominates your speech either in length of time or in emotional impact, kill it.

When a story distorts the point you want to make, kill it.

When a story creates an image in people’s minds at odds with everything else you’re saying, kill it.

Tell stories to give your speech power, to engage your audience’s imaginations and emotions, to make it memorable.

But if the story you want to tell gets in the way, kill it.

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