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.

Stories of Loss and HardshipStorytelling is one of the most effective tools in a speaker’s toolbox.

Without a story, a speech never takes flight. Or, to mix metaphors, it never takes root in the hearts and minds of your audience.

There are, of course, many types of stories you can tell.

My least favorite type of story to tell in a speech is the fable. You know the type: generic teaching stories about archetypal (fictional, one-dimensional) characters that have an obvious moral.

I find that stories and anecdotes from history are extremely effective, as long as they’re new to the audience and spot-on relevant to the audience. (I recently heard a story about the Wright brothers and Henry Ford, that I’m itching to work into a speech.)

I’m particularly partial to personal stories. They’re unique: the audience won’t have heard them before, unless they’ve heard them from you. And they forge a connection between you and the audience.

In the past couple of years I’ve had an easier job getting my clients — mostly business leaders — to incorporate personal stories into their speeches.

And the most powerful, the most moving stories they tell are not their success stories (“I was down. I worked hard. I succeeded.”), but their stories of struggle, loss, and failure.

Success stories serve an important function in a speech, but they have to be used judiciously, sparingly. If you only talk about your accomplishments, you risk sounding like a narcissist. You risk distancing yourself from your audience by setting yourself up on a pedestal.

Telling people about your hard times, your doubts, your regrets, the wrong turns you’ve taken, the bumps and bruises and (sometimes) the beatings you’ve survived…and the lessons you’ve learned from them…can be a powerful teaching tool.

Notice I said, “can be.” Wrongly told or told for the wrong reason a personal story of hardship can be disastrous.

Here’s how to use such a story well…

1. Create some emotional distance from the story.

Be sure that you’ve worked through the pain and come to some sort of peace before telling your story. Don’t use speaking as therapy. It’s okay — preferable, really — to let your emotions show, but don’t let them overwhelm you. You don’t want to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And you don’t want them to pity you.

2. Make your personal story a universal story.

The only reason to tell a personal story is to illuminate something deeply personal and significant in your audience. The reaction you want from them is, “I’ve been there too. He/she could be talking about me.” It’s not about you. It’s about them.

3. As with any story you tell in a speech, make sure its take-away truth ties directly into the point you’re making.

Any story you tell must advance the goal of your speech. (Of course, the same thing can be said of any point you make in your speech or any quotation you cite or any piece of information you share.)


Do you tell personal stories in your speeches? If so, what works for you?

Improved communicationsMore and more companies have been approaching me lately to help them improve their communications, internally and externally.

It’s hard to disagree with their desire for “improved communications,” even if what they’re asking for is vague and undefined.

When I do a bit more digging, I find that their real concern is more about solving problems than about improving their communications.

They have problems — with productivity, conflict, teamwork, turnover, customer retention, etc. — that they attribute, rightly or wrongly, to ineffective communications.

Improving communications is a means to an end. The end (or the goal) is what matters.

Improved communications doesn’t necessarily solve problems.

  • If you have an inferior product or service, talking about it more clearly to your prospects won’t help you sell more of it.
  • If you’ve hired the wrong people, helping them communicate more effectively won’t, in itself, improve morale or teamwork.
  • If you lack a coherent strategy and plan for implementing it, clear and consistent communications won’t get you on track.

Improved communications does, however, provide the means by which you can solve problems.

  • It allows you to identity, analyze, and remedy what’s wrong with your product or service.
  • It allows you to figure out why you’re hiring the wrong people in the first place and what you can do about it.
  • It allows you to develop a strategy and to put in place measures for implementing it.

Communication is a means to…

  1. Sharing information and ideas
  2. Building goodwill and trust
  3. Facilitating teamwork and collaboration
  4. Enabling decision making

And all those things are what make problem solving possible.

A failure in communications inevitably causes problems. Always and everywhere.

Improving communications doesn’t necessarily solve those problems. It does, however, make it possible solve them.


How to Demo a ProductGood sales reps know their product through and through. They know its capabilities, its features, and benefits.

Good sales reps know their prospects, their needs, goals, challenges, and hot buttons.

Good sales reps know how their product’s discriminators, how it is different from and better than the competition’s product.

But even good sales reps — the ones I’ve observed — could become better by making a slight change, a small shift in focus in how they demo their product.

Instead of demonstrating what their product can do, they should demonstrate how their product will help the prospect fix, solve, achieve, or improve something that matters to them.

Instead of demonstrating the product, demonstrate how your prospect can use the product to their benefit.


The ending of a speech — its conclusion — is its most important element.

A speech’s conclusion is even more important than its opening, because it’s what people remember most.

Ending a speech is, also, challenging.

I struggled for years trying to come up with powerful ways to end my speeches. And I often failed. Usually I just sat down. It was as if I had said everything I wanted to say and I ran out of steam.

Don’t let that happen to you.

5 Most Common Mistakes When Ending a Speech

Mistake #1:Popping the Ending on Your Audience

You gotta warn the audience that you’re coming to a conclusion. Doing so regains their attention (which sometimes wanders, even during a great speech) and prepares them emotionally.

It’s not hard to do. A simple, “In conclusion” or “Finally” or “Let me wrap up by…” will usually do.

Warning: Once you signal your intention to conclude, you have to finish talking relatively quickly.

Mistake #2: Ending with Q&A

You can schedule Q&A toward the end of your talk. That’s often a natural place for it. But don’t use your Q&A as your conclusion. (The last question you answer is usually the weakest. And you don’t want to have your audience leaving on a weak note.)

Conclude after you’ve answered the final question. Take a little more time to drive your main points home and to issue a call to action.

“Thank you for your questions. I hope you can see how [or why]…”

Mistake #3: Introducing New Material

Never, never, never bring up a new idea or add new information in your conclusion. This is the time to summarize your main points and hit them home. Introducing new material at this point will only diffuse or dilute your message.

Mistake #4: Failing to Issue a Call to Action

The purpose of giving a speech is to move people to action. Sure, you give them new information, new ideas to consider. Sure, you entertain them (meaning, you engage their emotions and imaginations). But you do all that because, ultimately, you want to get them to do something.

So don’t be coy or vague. Don’t make people guess. Tell them what you want them to do. Your speech up to this point has told them what you want them to do and why they would want to do it. Now give the one more reason — an emotional reason — to act.

Mistake #5: Letting the Audience Down Emotionally

A compelling speech takes the audience through a range of emotions, both high and low. But you don’t want to end on a low note.

End on a high note, not a downer. Appeal to people’s hopes and dreams, their aspirations, their courage, love, or faith, their community spirit or patriotism. Send them out energized, not depressed.

For more ideas check out In Conclusion: When to End a Speech and How to End a Speech.

When you’re in the business of providing a service — whether you’re in government contracting, architecture, construction, consulting, coaching, financial advising, or professional speaking — you are, in essence, giving advice.

You don’t have the final say in how a process is implemented, a project is executed, or an organization is structured. You research, you analyze, and you propose…which is to say you offer advice.

So your task, when selling a service, is to show prospects that you have the best advice for them.

To sell a service you need to know — and to demonstrate — four things:

1. You know what you know.

You have deep, focused, narrow knowledge.

You know what you know, and you know what you don’t know. You know what you’re best at. You’re constantly learning and improving your skills.

You know your blind spots. You know your values and you won’t compromise them. You know the kind of clients you want and work best with.

You would never say, “I’m a professional speaker, I can speak about anything.” Or “As a coach I have a process that can help anyone in any situation.” Or “My proprietary consulting approach has universal applicability.”

2. You know your clients.

You know the people and the companies that can profit from what you do. You know when there’s a good fit.

You know their problems. You know what ails them, where their pain is, and how to relieve it.

You may not share their perspective (you wouldn’t be much help to them if you did), but you do share their concerns. You speak their language.

3. You know how clients benefit from working with you.

You know how to help them solve a problem or achieve a goal that matters to them.

Your advice can help them solve, fix, improve, grow, gain, or avoid something, and in the process make their lives better.

You can help them in immediate and specific ways, when they’re in crisis mode. And you can help them with big picture, futuristic planning.

4. You know how you are different from the competition.

You don’t have to prove that your advice is the best in the world, just that it is best for this particular person or company in this situation, at this time, given their constraints.

To do so, you have to know how you — and your advice — stacks up against the competition. How are you different? And how does that difference benefit your clients?

In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt, the newly elected President of the United States, faced a daunting situation. A fearful nation was four years into its worst-ever depression.

To win popular support for his proposed social and economic reforms, he gave a radio address to the nation in March of that year. He explained his ideas in a casual, but comprehensive way. He came across as warm and friendly.

His address became known as a fireside chat. It was so popular that his advisors recommended he repeat the format every week.

He refused. He reasoned that speaking so often would lessen his impact. He did not want people to grow tired of hearing from him.

Although Roosevelt is perhaps best known for his fireside chats, he gave only 30 of them in 11 years.

Lesson Learned:
To influence and inspire your audience – your employees, customers, constituents, the general public – invest yourself fully into your speeches, but give fewer of them to have a greater impact.

3 Common Public Speaking MistakesI’m offering three lessons I learned from mistakes I’ve made giving speeches in the hope that you don’t have to make them yourself.

Public Speaking Mistake #1: Trying to Be Something Other than Who I Am

When I first started out speaking, I tried to be like speakers I admired.

At that time I admired one particular speaker. He was charismatic and dramatic. He had a deep, rich voice. And he could move an audience from laughter to tears in no time at all.

The first time I gave a speech imitating his style, the audience was moved to laughter. Just not in the way I had hoped. They were laughing at me, because my performance was so, well, laughable.

My speech teacher got me back on track. He made it my goal to become the best speaker I could be, not to become someone else.

Lesson Learned: Learn from others, but don’t imitate them. Be yourself – your best self – when giving a speech. Bring all of who you are — your unique personality, interests, values, knowledge, life experience, humor – to your speaking.

Public Speaking Mistake #2: Thinking It’s All about ME

After one of my early speeches, my teacher asked me what I thought of it.

I was pretty pleased with myself and how I had done. I said something like, “My message was good. It was focused, clear, and persuasive. I remembered everything I wanted to say. I delivered it well. I didn’t use a lot of ums and ers.” And I went on.

When I finished, he said, “That’s a lot of I and me and my. What do you think the audience got out of it?”

I hadn’t even though of the audience at the time. I had only thought about what I wanted to accomplish, what I planned to say, how I hoped to come across.

Lesson Learned: Focus on your audience. A speech is about giving them information and insight they can use to their benefit. Be yourself (see above), but be yourself in service of others.

Public Speaking Mistake #3: Over-preparing Can Be as Disastrous as Under-preparing

I used to be so terrified of making a fool of myself in front on an audience that I over-prepared my speeches.

I spent hours and hours, sometimes days, doing research. I spent even more time cramming everything I learned into what was supposed to be a brief speech. Then I practiced it over and over again and memorized it word for word.

As a result, I presented too much information. And I came across as mechanical and aloof.

If you get up in front of an audience without being adequately prepared, you deserve to fail. Big time.

A speech requires research, thought, and planning. You have to understand your audience and their needs, the event itself, and your goals. You have to formulate a message. And you have to practice it.

But if you over-prepare, you risk coming across as packaged, self-contained, unreal.

Lesson Learned: Preparation is key, but don’t overdo it. Depending on your audience and on what’s at stake, prepare just enough – not too little, not too much – to be clear, persuasive, spontaneous, and real.

What have your mistakes taught you about giving a speech?

What could a late-night comic teach a beginning public speaking? As it turns out, quite a lot.

I had a hard time getting started as a public speaker.

I was terrified, stiff, and awkward. I made embarrassing verbal blunders, which made me more terrified, stiff, and awkward.

I would prepare and rehearse — over-prepare and over-rehearse — my speeches.

I would deliver them from memory. And I was happy if I got through the whole thing without some major mishap.

At the time I thought a speech was a transfer of content from me (the person who knows) to the audience (the passive recipients).

As long as I had good stuff to present and got it all said, I thought my speech was a success.

One of my speech teachers turned my thinking around.

He helped me realize that my saying that I thought needed to be said wasn’t as important as the audience hearing what they needed to know.

And he taught me that lesson in a strange way.

He asked me who my favorite comedian was. I said Johnny Carson. (Obviously, this was many, many years ago.)

He told me to watch Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show for a week, and see what I learned.

What did Johnny Carson do that made him so funny?

Here’s what I learned: It wasn’t his material. His jokes were sometimes very funny, sometimes not.

What made him funny was his interplay with the audience.

He’d throw out a joke. If people laughed, he smiled. If they didn’t laugh, he’d look pained. If they groaned, that’s when he would come into his own.

Carson played with the audience. And together he and audience often created something much funnier than before.

Johnny Carson taught me the importance of interacting with the audience. He taught me

  1. To present an idea, one piece at a time.
  2. To watch how my audience reacted to what I said. Did they get it? Were they with me? Did they smile and nod, or cross their arms and crease their foreheads?
  3. To respond to their response. If they didn’t get or didn’t agree with what I said, I couldn’t simply plunge on with my prepared remarks. I had to acknowledge and engage them.
  4. To treat a monologue (i.e. a speech) always as a dialogue, and to keep it lively.

A speech isn’t the content you deliver to the audience. A speech is how the audience interacts with you and your ideas in order to come to their own understanding.

Learn from, but don't imitate another speaker.The worst piece of advice anyone can give you—about speaking, at least—begins with the phrase, “Here’s what I would do, if I were you…”

You can learn from watching and analyzing masterful speakers. But don’t imitate them.

Some of my favorite speakers—people I consider masters of the craft—are casual and conversational. Some are heady and professorial. Some have a dry wit. Some use no humor at all. Some have a flat, almost deadpan delivery. Some are animated, bordering on melodramatic.

The only thing they have in common is this: they are completely, distinctly, unapologetically themselves.

Bob Newhart, the comedian known for his deadpan delivery and for playing the “straight man” surrounded by bizarre cast members and even more bizarre events, told an interviewer about one of his most frustrating professional experiences. A guest director for the long-running Bob Newhart Show kept pressing him to speed up his delivery and show more emotion. Finally, in exasperation he said, “Look, I do Bob Newhart That’s what I do. And that’s all I do.”

Study speakers you admire. Analyze how they look and sound in front of an audience. Join Toastmasters. Take a public speaking course. Maybe even work with a coach. But never do anyone other than yourself.

Your task is to work out how to bring your best self to your speeches and presentations.

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