I distinguish, somewhat arbitrarily, between a presentation and a speech.

Presentations and speeches both serve a purpose, but a different purpose. They are different beasts, and they deserve to be handled differently.

Presentations Are Informative

In the business world most people make presentations.

A presentation communicates information so that people understand it and can do something with or about it.

A presentation’s goal is to educate or inform audiences to take action.

Check out The 25 Best Slideshare Presentations of 2013 and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The top-rated presentation is titled Internet Trends. It is, according to the description, “filled with over 100 charts, stats and trends on digital, technology and economic issues that affect us all.”

An effective presentation is clear, accurate, and detailed. You want everyone in the audience to understand exactly what you mean.

A presentation is persuasive, if it is any good. You want people to do something — preferably what you want them to do — as a result of listening to you.

PowerPoint can be an effective presentation aid, because it allows you to display information…even “over 100 charts, stats and trends.”

Presentations tend to be matter-of-fact, prosaic, somewhat unimaginative almost by default. The title Internet Trends, for example, seems designed to elicit yawns.

Speeches are Influential and Inspirational

Few people these days give speeches.

Preachers, politicians, coaches at half-time, military leaders before a battle, and motivational speakers are the main practitioners of speeches today.

A speech shapes how people think and feel about an issue or topic, and changes their behavior as a result.

Churchill’s wartime speeches portrayed the war not as a doomed effort on the part of the British, but as a life-or-death contest between civilization (the British empire and way of life) and evil incarnate (Nazi Germany). His speeches steeled people’s resistance and gave them courage and hope to carry on.

An effective speech is evocative. It uses words and phrases to activate people’s imaginations, to call forth their memories, and to elicit the feelings associated with them.

Speakers don’t — or shouldn’t — project pictures for the audience to look at.

Speakers tell stories and create images that people picture in their minds.

Words — the right words — without pictures or external visual stimuli force the mind to supply its own images. On their own, words trigger the imagination, which in turn calls forth a flood of memories and emotions.

PowerPoint is not the friend of a speech. It keeps people in their heads, in their rational, conscious minds, divorced from their imaginations, emotions, and memories.

That’s why I titled my book Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint. What I really meant to say is that real leaders don’t make presentations (which use and should use PowerPoint); they give speeches.

Speakers play with words, the way a poet or playwright does. They’re not interested in pinning a concept down to a single meaning that is the same for each person in the audience. They know — and they are pleased by the fact — that each individual hears a different message (shaped by his or her experience, wisdom, and needs), draws his or her own conclusions, and resolves to take his or her own action as a result.

Presentations and speeches both serve a purpose, but a different purpose. They are different beasts, and they need to be handled differently.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

People who aren’t even in sales — project managers, engineers, analysts, programmers, construction workers, designers, architects — make sales presentations all the time.

They may not be the lead presenter. They’re often part of a presentation team.

And the presentation may not be called a sales presentation. It may be called an interview, or an oral proposal, or a pitch.

To prepare yourself or your team for a successful sales presentation (whatever it’s called), begin by answering three sets of questions:

  1. What does the customer/client want?
    Why do they want it?
    How acutely do they want it?
    How will you help them achieve or obtain what they want?
  2. What does the customer/client NOT want?
    Why do they not want it?
    How badly do they not want it?
    How will you help them avoid or minimize what they don’t want?
  3. How is your solution (your product or service) different from / better than the competition?
    What is the difference?
    How does the difference benefit the customer/client?
    What evidence proves both the difference and the benefit?

There are, of course, other questions to ask (and answer) when preparing for a sales presentation. (See How to Plan an Oral Proposal.)

But these three questions get at the heart of any successful sales pitch: knowing what prospects want and don’t want, how you will help them, and why you’re better than the alternatives.

How to plan a technical presentationWhen you prepare a technical presentation, there’s one question — the most important question — you need to address.

The single most important question for a technical presentation is: What will the audience do with the information or idea you’re presenting?

Answering that question will require you, of course, to understand your audience. What are their roles and responsibilities? What do the already know about your subject? What do they need to know? How are they are affected by it?

Answering that question will determine everything you say and show during your presentation.

Answering that question will determine the level of detail you present. Do you give a high-level overview (an executive summary), or a comprehensive and detailed analysis, or something in-between?

What will the audience do with the information or idea you’re presenting?

  • Will they give or withhold permission for you to proceed with a project?
  • Will they decide whether to purchase your product or retain your services?
  • Will they make a report about it to their superiors or to a regulatory agency?
  • Will they implement a new process or carry out a new procedure?

Technical presenters often want to explain what they know in great detail and at great length. That’s what makes so many technical presentations confusing and boring to most audiences.

Most technical presentations — especially those in the business world — are not about educating audiences in-depth. They are about giving people in the organization the information and insight they need to get their jobs done.

The executives of a healthcare organization, for example, don’t want the IT director to educate them about the intricacies of the latest software update. They want to know just enough to be reassured that operations won’t be negatively affected, and to be able to reassure regulators that people’s medical records will remain confidential. The analysts in the IT department, on the other hand, may need detailed instructions about working with the update.

Knowing how the audience will use the information or idea you’re presenting will keep you on target. It’ll help you prepare your presentation. And it will help you determine whether you’ve been successful.

The success of a technical presentation can be determined relatively easily. Are people able to do what they need and want to do as a result of listening to you?

Check out How to Plan a Persuasive Technical Presentation.

Speech coaches and trainers often perpetuate myths and misconceptions about presentations and public speaking.

I begin with the assumption that giving a speech is both an art and a skill.

Public speaking an art in that it requires a certain amount of creativity.

You have to come up with (i.e. create) a good idea to begin with. You have to put it together in a logical and persuasive structure. You have to use words and phrases and, sometimes, stories in a clear and evocative manner. And you have to deliver your speech with at least a modicum of drama.

Public speaking, like any art, is also a skill.

It has its own somewhat complex, somewhat variable set of requirements, rules, guidelines, and principles to learn, practice, and master. To give a speech — a good one, at least — you have to be able to plan and create one, explain your idea clearly in a limited amount of time, connect with an audience, begin and end a speech, overcome fear and project confidence in front of an audience, answer questions, and think on your feet.

Public speaking isn’t as complex or demanding a skill as, say, performing brain surgery or rocket science. But then again it’s not as simple or easy as riding a bike.

Beginning with that assumption — public speaking is both an art and a skill — I’ve developed my list of…

5 Things Speech Coaches and Trainers Won’t Tell You about Public Speaking

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about PowerPointI’m the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Business), so you might think I’m always and everywhere opposed to its use.

I’d say I’m critical of it, but not opposed to it. Many of my clients–subject matter experts of all stripes–use PowerPoint, and they should.

But these days it’s assumed, at least in the business world, that everyone should use PowerPoint every time they give a presentation. And that’s a mistake.

I begin with the assumption that PowerPoint is a tool for organizing, formatting, and projecting information visually.

If that’s the case–you can disagree with me–then there are three questions you can and should ask about it.

1. Is PowerPoint a good tool?

Does it make organizing, formatting, and projecting information easy, efficient, and effective?

Opinions vary.

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Influence is the ability to bring about some change in people’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, perceptions, values, actions, or behavior.

Whenever you give a speech you are, essentially, trying to influence your audience.

The purpose of a speech is, after all, to change how your audience feels, thinks, or acts. (If you’re happy with the way they are and what they’re doing, for God’s sake don’t give them a speech. Leave them alone.)

How to Make Yourself More Influential when Giving a Speech

First, be the kind of person who inspires trust.

Who you are as a person — your character, experience, reputation, values — is, in large measure, the message you communicate.

Put yourself and your vision, your hopes and dreams on the line. Make yourself vulnerable. Invite, rather than command compliance.

Second, align yourself and the change you’re proposing with their deepest held values.

You’re not going to change what people care about most, and you shouldn’t try. Instead, show them how what you want them to feel, think, or do affirms, protects, or advances their loves, values, dreams.

Third, challenge them to be more or better than they are.

Making people feel guilty or inadequate or wrong won’t incline them to change their ways. If anything, it will make them resent and resist you.

But at the same time you don’t want them to remain complacent, satisfied with their status quo. Not if you want them to change. So ask them to go beyond, to grow bigger than, to love better than who or where they are already are.

President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma is the clearest recent example of a leader explicitly defining his moral vision that I know of.

In an earlier post I defined a moral vision as “sense of what matters and is meaningful, of what has value and worth, of what deserves respect and attention.”

And I claimed that leaders communicate their moral vision – implicitly or explicitly – every time they give a speech.

Not everyone would agree with Obama’s moral vision. Many would – and do – vehemently disagree.

But that’s what makes Obama’s speech a refreshing counterpoint to the tepid posturing of many leaders: his willingness to take a stand.

There are three elements of a moral vision: 1) identity, 2) values, and 3) mission. And Obama addressed all three.

The Three Elements of a Leader’s Moral Vision

1. Identity: Who are we?

Obama’s speech is, in essence, a definition of what America means and of what it means to be an American.

“It [the Selma march] was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills: a contest to determine the meaning of America.”

The last third of Obama’s speech identified who we are, beginning with the phrase, “We are Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea,” and continuing on for ten more “We are…” phrases.

In a 3,500-word speech, Obama used “we” 119 times, “our” or “ours” 45 times, and “America” or “American” 48 times.

2. Values: What principles guide and define us?

A large part of who we are as a people – of our identity – is shaped by the principles that guide our actions, the values that we espouse, the standards by which we judge ourselves.

For Obama, the principles that exemplify America at its best are justice, fairness, inclusivity, and generosity.

3. Mission: What course of actions are we to take?

Leaders don’t defend the status quo or inaction. They stir people to an ongoing course of action in order to achieve some desired goal.

Here is where Obama circles back to his initial campaign theme: Change.

In Obama’s moral vision American is “a work in progress.”

American ideas and ideals have not been fully realized. They must be advanced, expanded, and realized anew in each generation, just as they were by those who marched in Selma 50 years ago.

Things have certainly changed for the better, but things still need to change: “For we were born of change.”

If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.

Obama calls out three specific actions we must take – reform the criminal justice system, roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity, and protect the right to vote – but only as a part of his more far-reaching moral vision “…to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”

Maybe you agree with Obama’s moral vision. (I do.) Maybe you reject it. But you have to admit this: he stakes out his position boldly and unequivocally. I think that takes courage. And I applaud him for it.

Chris Witt Speaking to the UK Speechwriters Guild

Chris Witt Speaking to the UK Speechwriters Guild

Ask any author.

One of the hardest parts of being an author is selling your book.

Yes, writing it was taxing and time consuming. But selling it can be even more challenging.

Selling your book means bringing it to people’s attention, making them interested in it, and finally moving them to buy it.

Other people—with some prompting on your part—will make your book available. They may even take people’s money in exchange (and give you a percentage of their take). But they won’t publicize it and they won’t market it, unless you give them a lot—and I mean a lot—of money. They won’t make people want to buy it. They won’t, in short, sell your book.

That’s your job.

There are many ways to make people aware of your book, to make them want it, refer it to others, and buy it.

Here are some of the most effective strategies:

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Expect more of an audienceWe don’t make enough demands on our audiences.

We assume, with ample justification, that audiences have a limited attention span. They are easily distracted and quickly bored.

We assume, rightly, that it is our responsibility as speakers to prepare, rehearse, and deliver a speech that engages our audience’s interest and involvement.

But we assume, wrongly in my opinion, that a speech’s success depends entirely on our efforts.

A speech is like a conversation. It only “works” if both parties participate.

Yes, as speakers, we work harder than the audience does. We’re the ones, after all, who did the research, formulated the message, rehearsed, and–if you’re like me–obsessed about it and lost sleep over it in the days (sometimes weeks) before. We’re the ones who put ourselves on display, risking an anxiety attack and rejection.

But we have the right to expect something of our audiences in return. As speakers we do more of the work, but for a speech to succeed audiences have to do some of the work.

Two things happen when we expect little or nothing from an audience. And they’re both disastrous.

First, as speakers we tie ourselves up in knots. We work way too hard. And the strain makes us less spontaneous, less engaging, less alert and able to respond to what’s happening in the moment.

Second, we allow audiences to stay disengaged, making them less willing to take action.

The goal of any speech is, after all, to move the audience to act. If they’re not willing to give you their attention at the start, they surely won’t give you their cooperation at the end.

I expect a lot of myself as a speaker. I’ve noticed, over the years, that I get a better response from audiences when I expect more from them.

What’s your experience?

To improve a speech keep it sortThe single best way to improve just about any speech is to make it shorter.

5 Reasons Shorter Speeches Are Better

1. Shorter speeches have a better chance of maintaining your audience’s attention.

Today’s audiences have the attention span of a gnat. They have too many distractions. And they’re trained not to sit still and listen.

Even a masterful speaker with a well-prepared speech will have trouble keeping an audience engaged for long. So keep your speech short.

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