Take a StandYears ago I provided consulting and speech writing for a local politician. At one point he asked me how he should address an issue that was sure to be raised during an upcoming event.

The issue was a hot topic in his district. It was on everyone’s mind. It had been discussed and dissected in depth. It was also controversial.

“Tell me where you stand on the issue,” I said, “and I’ll help you fashion a position statement.”

Without pausing, the politician turned to his chief adviser and asked, “Where do I stand on it?”

That was our final meeting.

Where do you stand?

When giving a speech there is no neutral ground, no objective position, no noncommittal perspective.

Speakers worth listening to take a stand. They don’t just state the facts as objectively as possible and let listeners make up their own mind. They stake out a position and advocate it passionately.

There are three basic ways of taking a stand during a speech.

  1. We can stand with.
    We can align ourselves with people or with a particular group of people — with their concerns, values, welfare. When President Kennedy spoke to the people of Berlin during the height of the Cold War, he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” staking out his solidarity with the citizens of the divided city.
  2. We can stand for.
    We can speak in favor or in defense of an issue, cause, policy,initiative or program. President Lyndon Johnson, a son of the segregated South, addressed Congress in 1965 and urged it to strike down laws that kept blacks from voting. “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” he said.
  3. We can stand against.
    We can oppose something — a policy, an accepted attitude, a way of doing business — refusing to tolerate what we consider wrongheaded or abhorrent. In President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, he stood with the grieving congregation, for racial justice, and against bigotry and its accompanying violence.

We stand on our principles, on our deep and abiding beliefs, on our gut-level predispositions.

Our audiences should never have to guess where we stand. And we should never have to turn to anyone else and ask, “Where do I stand?”

you are the messageThe most important element of a speech is you, the person creating and delivering the speech.

Of course your content is important. The central idea of your speech. The evidence, stories, and images that explain, substantiate, and illustrate that idea. And the words and phrases that bring it to life.

And so is your delivery. The way you present that content with your voice (your volume, tone and pitch, pacing) and your body (your movement and gestures, your facial expressions, your stillness and silence).

The audience is equally important. Who they are and why they’re gathering. What they know and feel about the idea you’re addressing. How they hear and interpret what you’re saying.

But the vital element of any speech is first and foremost the person who has crafted it and is presenting it: you.

That’s not to say that your needs trump everything else. Or that a speech is all about you, you, you.

It does mean that who you are — your insights and wisdom, values, beliefs, fundamental outlook — are the sine qua non of a speech: the element without which a speech can never be.

One of the best ways to give better speeches is to become a better person: more thoughtful, wise, and compassionate.

How do you do that? It’s up to you, but here are my suggestions:

  • Read more. Don’t just skim and scan.
  • Have in-depth conversations with people who matter to you.
  • Take long walks untethered to a mobile device.
  • Be still and quiet at least once a day.
  • Do something kind for others without expecting anything in return.
  • Know when and how to forgive.
  • Ask yourself, often, “Does this matter? Why?”

Being a better person won’t necessarily make you a better speaker. But your speeches can never be better than you are.

Agree or disagree? Any additions to my suggestions?

How often do these little indignities repeat in your professional life?

  • You give a presentation about something important, but everyone ignores it.
  • You are asked to propose a solution, but shy away from doing it because you lack the skills or confidence.
  • You get overlooked by everybody — including your boss — because other people sound like they know more than you do.
  • You get passed over for a promotion, because people don’t understand what you’re talking about.
  • You watch a colleague get credit for an idea you proposed earlier but with less poise.

You may have great ideas. You may know more than other people. You may be an expert in your field.

But what good is your experience and knowledge if you can’t communicate it? If you can’t make people pay attention? If you can’t make them value what you’re talking about and want to do something with it?

Knowledge isn’t power.

Putting knowledge to use is power.

And communicating knowledge — in writing and in speaking — in a way that lets people understand and act on it is one of the most valued skills in business today.

Simplify Technical Presentations“Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s quotation applies equally well to most technical presentations.  They waste an audience’s attention—they fritter it away—by delving into too much detail. And simplifying them almost always improves them.

Because you are the expert in the topic you’re addressing, you probably know way too much information to present in the time you have available.

Knowing so much is a good thing. It gives you confidence as a presenter. And it makes you credible to the audience.

Trying to present everything you know is a bad thing. Doing so confuses, bores, and turns off your audience.

How do you know which details to present and which to eliminate?

After identifying and validating all the details that are relevant to your topic, follow these…

Three Steps to Simplifying the Amount of Detail in a Technical Presentation

Step 1: Categorize

Sort the information you’ve assembled, placing similar items into a particular category. The kinds of categories will vary depending on the topic, your audience, and your objective.

If I were an expert in wine (I’m not) and I were speaking about wine to a group of enthusiasts, I might group wines by type: red, white, blush, sparkling, and fortified. Or I might categorize them by price: cheap, moderate, expensive. I could sort them by country or region.

If I were making a proposal about adopting a new software system for my company, I might group my information into 1) the problems with the current system, 2) what has already been done to remedy those problems, 3) users’ complaints, 4) alternative systems, 5) their pluses and minuses, 6) transition risks, 7) implementation schedule, and 8) total cost of ownership.

Step 2: Prioritize

Rank the categories you’ve created in terms of importance.

All of the categories might be important, mind you. But given the audience’s needs and the time available, it’s your job as the expert to determine which are the most important.

Step 3: Eliminate entire categories

Begin by cutting the big stuff. Prune off whole limbs before snipping away at the leaves.

I recommend focusing on three to five categories.

So to the wine enthusiasts, I might speak about moderately priced red wines. Given more time, I might speak about cheap, moderately priced, or expensive red wines. Or I might speak about expensive red and white wines.

To the company seeking a new software system, I might speak about 1) the problems with the current system (including users’ complaints), 2) alternative systems, and 3) their pluses and minuses (including risks, implementation schedules, and total cost of ownership).

Don’t fritter away your time or the audience’s attention by presenting too much detail. Simplify. Simplify.

Don't Give Dumb PresentationsI work with smart people. With people who run businesses or lead universities. With engineers and with senior researchers who have doctorates in subjects I’ve never heard of. With authors and small business owners.

And I frequently (several times a month) observe other smart people giving presentations.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that smart people give dumb presentations…frequently.

I define a dumb presentation as one that is disjointed and confusing. It lacks a central theme. It leaves people wondering, “What was that about?” or “What am I supposed to do now?”

A dumb presentation is a wasted opportunity both for the audience and for the speaker.

Why do otherwise smart people give dumb presentations?

Continue Reading…

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, offer advice about storytelling that can help anyone creating a PowerPoint presentation.

Many Most PowerPoint presentations are ineffective, confusing, and/or boring because they lack cohesiveness and flow.

You know how it goes.

Presenters show a slide and discusses it. (You hope they don’t simply read it to you.) When they finish with that slide they say, “next slide.” Then they discuss it and say — you guessed it — “next slide.”

Entire presentations can be are a series of disconnected information and ideas: “There’s this and this and this and this and this…”

The unanswered question is: How does all of this hold together? How does one idea lead to another? Is there a logical connection?

The most important words in PowerPoint presentations aren’t on the slides: they’re between the slides.

The segues — the transition sentences — from one slide to another are what turn a series of disconnected information and ideas into an insight audiences can understand and use.

That’s where Parker and Stone come in.

In a lecture at NYU they describe how they create stories for South Park. On a large whiteboard they outline a series of “beats.” (A beat is the smallest unit of a story, a piece in which something happens.)

If the beats are linked by the words “and then,” Parker and Stone insist “You’ve got something pretty boring.”

They suggest eliminating every “and then” and replacing it with either “therefore” or “but.”

Not “this happened and then this happened,” but “this happened, therefore this happened” or “this happened, but then this happened.”

Try it the next time you prepare or practice a PowerPoint presentation. Every time you catch yourself saying “next slide,” substitute “therefore…” or “but…”

Figure out how the information or ideas on one slide lead into the information or ideas on the next. Do they build logically (“therefore…”)? Or do they logically raise an objection or another consideration (“but…”)?

As the expert you understand (I hope) how your material holds together. Don’t assume that your audience understands. Show them.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/barkbud/4906055297/

Courtesy of Bark at Flickr.com

The two deadly sins of public speaking are 1) confusing the audience, and 2) boring them.

Both are common. I’m not sure which is worse.

I’ve dealt with how not to confuse your audience elsewhere (7 Ways to Clarify Technical Material without Dumbing It Down). So let me suggest…

 

7 Ways Not to Bore Your Audience

1.Never talk about something that bores you.

If you’re assigned a topic that doesn’t excite you, either beg out of it or dig deep into it and find something interesting about it.

2. Never talk to an audience you don’t like.

If you don’t like the people you’re talking to, you’ll find them boring. And you’ll be boring in return, or peevish, which is just as bad. (Okay, you many not like everyone you talk to, but you can’t dislike them.)

3. Don’t give so many presentations.

A presentation is not the only way to communicate ideas or information. Often, it isn’t even the best way. Find other means of sharing what you know. Make people want to hear from you, not tire of listening to you.

4. Be brief.

It’s easier to maintain your enthusiasm and your audience’s interest in short installments. When’s the last time you wished a speaker had gone on longer? Exactly.

5. Use humor.

Laugh at yourself or at the absurdity of life as we know it or a peculiarity of your topic. Levity is always welcome, especially when it is least expected (as in a speech).

6. Tell a story.

I love stories. You love stories. We all love stories. So tell a story. It’ll help, of course, if it pertains to your topic and somehow illustrates it. But I’ve been known to tell a story just for the heck of it, and no one was the worst for it.

7. Promote a novel idea.

A speech is only as good or as interesting as the idea it proposes. So come up with a good idea, an original. Being original is hard work, especially in today’s business environment where everyone is too busy to think, which is one reason I suggest giving fewer presentations. If everyone already knows what you’re talking about, why talk about it?

What are your suggestions?

Check for comprehensinoCan you ever be sure people know what you’re talking about?

We often assume that people understand us – what we mean, what we intend, and what we want. But, sadly, it isn’t always the case.

People who are seemingly smart and good-willed all too frequently misinterpret what we say. And, to be honest, we aren’t always as clear as we think we are.

I learned this lesson from my parents. They were college professors. They were bright and articulate. They were married for 48 years, and even at the end they managed to misunderstand each other frequently.

So how can you know that you’ve got your point across and, furthermore, that people have understood you?

Continue Reading…

Who makes better presenters?You might think that extroverts, who are generally more at ease talking to groups of people, would have the advantage. But, it isn’t so.

I believe — feel free to disagree — we’re born one way or the other (introvert or extrovert) and our basic makeup doesn’t change much over the years.

The Difference between Extroverts and Introverts

Here is how I think of extroverts and introverts.

Extroverts are generally outward-facing. Their attention, interest, and energy are engaged — primarily — in and by the exterior world: the stuff that is “out there,” people, things, activities. They enjoy interacting with people, sometimes large numbers of people, and they get a charge out of doing so.

Extroverts tend to think out loud. It’s not that they think before they speak. They speak while they are thinking. What you hear isn’t necessarily their final thought on the matter at hand; it’s their thought process. Ask extroverts for their opinion, and they’re likely to open their mouths and begin speaking.

Introverts are, for the most part, inward-facing.Their attention, interest, and energy are engaged in and by their inner world: their thoughts, fantasies, and feelings. They prefer interacting with a few people at a time and especially with people they already know and trust. They recharge by seeking alone time.

Introverts tend to think before they talk. When you as their opinion, they don’t say anything. Not, at least, until they’ve had time to think it over.

Extroverts tend to think that introverts are slow or, at worst, stupid. They must not know anything, because they’re not saying anything.

Introverts tend to think that extroverts are glib and fickle. They talk all the time, and they say one thing at one time and something else at a later time.

(The world of work is organized in favor of extroverts. The way business conduct meetings, brain storming sessions, and presentations plays to the strength of extroverts, people who speak confidently and quickly in group settings. But that’s another issue.)

Why Aren’t Extroverts By Their Very Nature Better Presenters than Introverts?

Continue Reading…

Don't tell jokes in a speech.The stupidest piece of advice ever given speakers is “Always begin a speech with a joke.”

Don’t do it!

Unless you’re a professional comedian and the audience is already warmed up and primed to laugh, do not — I repeat, do not — start your speech with a joke.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll bomb. The other 1% of the time you’ll get a polite, halfhearted response. And where do you go from there?

Humor in a speech, on the other hand, is almost always appreciated.

When you tell a joke, you’re trying to make people laugh. When you use humor, you’re wanting to amuse them. You’re happy if they smile or chuckle.

Humor makes people more likely to like you. It weakens their resistance. It’s like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar: it helps the medicine go down.

To be humorous without trying too hard, follow these rules:

  1. Laugh at yourself, your foibles, your mistakes.
    Self-depreciating humor is the safest and surest way to win people’s hearts.
  2. Write it out.
    A sense of surprise, clever wordplay, exaggeration and embellishment, amusing anecdotes, and ironic twists get better with the kind of refinement and precision that comes from writing and rewriting.
  3. Rehearse.
    Paradoxically, it takes practice to use humor so well that it sounds spontaneous and unscripted.
  4. Keep it clean.
    Avoid embarrassing, insulting, or offending your audience. Don’t laugh at others or make them an object of ridicule.
  5. Don’t tell listeners what’s funny.
    Saying, “This is really funny” is a setup for failure. Simply tell your story or make your witty remark and allow the audience to respond. If they laugh, great. If they don’t, move on.
  6. Follow the AT&T rule.
    Is your humor Appropriate to the subject and the audience? Is it Tasteful? Is it Timely?

Even if your humor meets those criteria, remember: Less is more. So keep it short. Avoid long stories or complicated setups. And limit how often you use humor in a speech.

After all, as humorous as you may be, you still want to be taken seriously.

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