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bad public speaking tipsI’ve been given plenty of bad advice about public speaking over the years.

In classrooms, workshops, Toastmasters meetings and from coaches, I’ve learned tips about public speaking that sounded reasonable at the time. But they were wrong.

The Five Worst Public Speaking Tips

Bad Tip #1: Imagine your audience in their underwear.

Doing so is supposed to build your confidence.

The reasoning behind this tip (such as it is) goes something like this: If you see people stripped of all dignity, you won’t be intimidated by them.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it demeans your audience, when you should respect and call out their best. And second, it assumes that you can only feel good about yourself when you think less of others.

Here’s what I suggest instead.

Identify with your audience members. See them as you see yourself–imperfect, but good willed, trying your best in a difficult situation, seeking a way to live a better life (if only in a small way).

Speak to them as you would to a friend.

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How Not to Begin a SpeechThe beginning of a speech is a tricky thing.

In a short amount of time, you have to gain the audience’s attention, make a connection with them, establish your credibility, and introduce your topic.

There are several good ways to begin a speech (check out How to Start a Speech), but there are three really bad ways to start one.

How NOT to Begin a Speech

1. Do Not Apologize

Beginning with an apology — “I’m really sorry I didn’t have time to prepare what I’m going to say today…” — is lame.

Such an apology doesn’t excuse your lack of preparation. It only calls attention to your lack of professionalism. And it lets the audience know they don’t have to pay attention. Why should they bother to listen when you didn’t bother to prepare?

2. Do Not Waste Time on Pleasantries

Thanking the meeting planner, the organization, or the audience for allowing you to speak is fluff. Telling them how honored you are or how happy you are to be able to speak to them is trite.

Show your appreciation by giving a great speech. Focus on one idea that will change how they think or feel or, more importantly, act. Make you idea vivid, memorable, and actionable.

3. Do Not Tell a Joke

Starting a speech with self-deprecating humor is fine. Starting with a joke invites disaster.

Unless you are a known comedian (not just in your own estimation) and unless the audience is primed to laugh, your opening joke will bomb. And it’ll be hard for you to regain your composure and the audience’s confidence.

What’s your experience with speech openings? What do you recommend not doing?

persuasionUsing reason and logic to counter Trump’s rhetoric — his tweets, off-the-cuff remarks, speeches — doesn’t work.

You can fact check his statements, and cite glaring errors. You can point to his tweets or video clips in which he made contradictory statements. You can punch gaping holes in the logic of his arguments.

All to no avail.

It’s as if reason and logic — the mainstays of traditional rhetoric — don’t apply to Trump. Nor do they sway his supporters.

Why not?

The knee-jerk response is to write off Trump and his supporters as illogical and irrational. Defective in some way.

But I don’t think that’s the case. And it doesn’t give us any insight into their behavior or how we might influence it.

For most of us — not just Trump and his supporters — reason and logic aren’t the main drivers that inform our thinking or guide our behavior.

At some primal level we function in a pre-rational — not an irrational — manner. We act not illogically, but without logic.

Logic is a mental discipline with its own rules and processes. Many of which are counter-intuitive.

Logic isn’t something we naturally pick up: it has to be learned. Usually later in life.

In our earliest, most formative years, our brains simply are not wired for logic.

There’s a reason why we use logic infrequently. It’s hard work. It takes time. It requires a detached, somewhat cool and calculating mind.

After all, it takes time and energy to think things through. To examine the evidence and weigh its validity. To make conscious our personal biases and account for how they influence our thinking. To formulate an argument and test its logic. To engage others in an open dialogue, with the willingness to change our thinking as a result.

Most of us don’t take the time, make the effort, or know how to think things through rationally and logically.

It is easier and faster to react to new people, events, or ideas reflexively, relying on a largely unconscious set of gut instincts, inherited beliefs, and deeply ingrained habits.

We can’t reason people out of beliefs, prejudices, erroneous assumptions that they didn’t reason themselves into.

If we want to influence people (like Trump supporters), if we want to change how they think and act, we have to take a different approach.

We can — and should — use reason and logic to develop our own positions, proposals, solutions. But in advocating for them, we need to present a message that speaks to people’s more basic, instinctual, gut-level fears, hopes, and attachments.

It’s fire in the belly that moves people, not the cold light of logic and reason.

 

Reason and logic in a speech do not rouse audiences, lift their spirits, set their hearts on fire.

Reason and logic do not shape the way people imagine the world or what is possible and desirable.

Reason and logic do not move audiences to action.

Doubt me?

Consider Donald Trump.

His speeches do not employ logic or reason, verifiable facts, or consistency of thought. And yet they have mobilized an army of true believers.

Trump’s opponents try valiantly to counter his rhetoric. They “fact check” his statements and show them to be demonstrably false. They quote him against himself, showing earlier video clips or tweets that contradict his later claims. They poke gaping holes in his reasoning, such as it is.

But all the well-reasoned and logical efforts of Trump’s opponents fail to dampen the appeal of his message, the fervor of his followers.

Why?

Because we are not primarily rational creatures.

Reason and logic aren’t built into us. We come into this world with hardwired urges, appetites, instincts, and emotional predispositions.

No one needs to teach us to fear or envy or covet or resent, or to love or enjoy or trust or hope. (To be sure, others may teach us who or what to fear, envy, etc. And they may distort or enrich our urges and desires.)

But we have to learn how to use reason and logic.

And it’s a tough slog.

For most of us, most of the time, reason and logic fail to sway us from what our guts tell us, from what feels right.

To counter Trump’s rhetoric, a more reasonable and logical counterargument isn’t sufficient.

I’m not sure what will work.

I’m playing around with the idea that an approach more persuasive than reason and logic is based on three principles:

  1. The importance of belonging and adhering to the rules and customs of a tribe.
  2. The power of stories to shape our understanding of the world and how it works.
  3. The appeal of magical thinking.

In future posts, I’ll try to tease out what I mean by tribe, stories, and magical thinking.

What do you think?

 

 

 

Master the art of small talkSmall talk is the foundation on which every other type of conversation builds.

It requires skill, especially—but not solely—for introverts.

Small talk is what most of us do most of the time. We simply talk to each other without an agenda. We chat. We converse. We shoot the breeze.

Here are seven guidelines to help you become better at small talk

1. Be Prepared

Just because there’s no agenda doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself for small talk.

Before going to dinner with friends or to a networking event or to drinks after work with colleagues, think of things you might talk about.

Who’s going to be there? What do you know about them, their interests, and their recent activities? What would you like to know about them? What would you be interested in talking to them about?

2. Start with a Greeting

Sounds simple, right? Because it is.

Say “hello” and shake hands. If you’re with other people, make room for the person who’s joining you and introduce them.

3. Remember Names

Calling someone by name is a great way to acknowledge them and make them feel important.

4. Know What to Talk About

Small talk deals with issues and concerns that are safe and easy for everyone to talk about. So steer away from topics that might be controversial, embarrassing, painful, or personally invasive.

At social gatherings, you can talk about what brought them there or if they know anyone.

In a business setting (but generally not in a social situation), you can talk about their jobs or your job, and what they or you are currently working on.

You can always talk about the weather, future or past travel, drink and food (if you’re sharing a meal), interests, and entertainment (sports, movies, books)

You can ask about any issue they raise first. For example, if they mention a daughter, you can ask about her. And you can ask them the same question they first asked you.

5. Maintain the Flow

Small talk—like any good conversation—has an easy give and take to it. You talk some. I talk. You talk. I talk. It requires everyone involved to contribute something (to have something to say) and to listen (to allow the other person or people to say something).

6. Keep it Light

Small talk is about enjoying your time with another person for a moment. It may or may not lead to anything more—to a deeper conversation, to shared intimacies, to an ongoing relationship. And that’s okay. Having a pleasant time with others is a worthy goal in and by itself.

7. End it Gracefully

All you need to do is look the other person in the eye and say something like, “It’s been a pleasure” or “Nice talking with you” or “Have a great day.

In this world where everyone seems stressed and in a hurry, where conversations all too often turn combative, where personal interactions are judged by how useful or productive they are, small talk is an overlooked kindness. Try it.

using acronyms in a presentationIt’s almost impossible to give a technical presentation without using acronyms.

It’s often difficult, ineffective, and unnecessary to eliminate acronyms when you’re giving a presentation as a technical expert to other technical experts in your own field.

But how about when you’re giving a technical presentation to a non-technical audience? Or to an audience that’s mixed: some technical experts in your field, some people who are experts in other technical fields, and some people who aren’t technical in a strict sense (sales and marketing, HR, finance, legal)?

Two general principles govern the use of acronyms in any technical presentation: 1) Clarity, and 2) Credibility.

First, you have to be clear.

If you confuse your audience, you lose them.

When you use an acronym that your audience doesn’t understand, they’ll try to figure it out. The problem is, while they’re parsing what you said, they stop listening to what you’re currently saying. Which is a bad thing.

If they can’t figure out what you mean and if you confuse them often enough, they’ll stop listening to you altogether. They may even resent you.

So, above all else, be clear.

Second, you have to be credible.

There are, of course, many ways to establish credibility in a technical presentation: being personally credible (shown by your experience, education, and reputation), an abundance of evidence, and well-reasoned logic.

(See my piece on How to Establish Credibility in a Speech or Presentation.)

A subtle, but effective way to sound credible as an expert in your technical field is to speak the language of that field.

And that’s where acronyms come into play.

Acronyms are the shorthand that technical experts use when speaking to each other.

A familiarity and ease with acronyms communicate to people in the field that “you’re one of us.”

Two rules govern using acronyms in a technical presentation: 1) Use acronyms everyone understands, and/or 2) Explain them as you use them.

If you’re sure that everyone in your audience knows an acronym, use it. Don’t pause. Don’t explain it. Simply use it as you’d use any other commonly understood word.

The trick here, of course, is being sure that everyone knows what the acronym means.

Explaining the acronym is more effective than spelling it out.

Simply spelling out an acronym doesn’t necessarily make it any clearer. Not to those who aren’t already in the know.

For example, saying a POA&M is a Plan of Actions and Milestones may not help someone unfamiliar with the term. It’s better to say something like, “A POA&M is a management tool for outlining and tracking a complex development or remediation project through its various steps.”

That short explanation may be enough, depending on the audience and the reason you’re using the acronym in the first place.

It’s up to you to know your audience and your presentation’s objective to determine how best to use acronyms. Don’t avoid using them. But don’t assume that everyone will understand them.

Above all else, be clear and be credible.

Storytelling Public SpeakingYou can strengthen just about any speech by telling a story. (Highly technical presentations may be an exception.)

I’ve written a lot about storytelling, because I believe stories are so important:

The Importance of Storytelling In Speeches

How to Tell a Story

Two Easy Ways to Introduce a Story

How to Tell Stories of Struggle, Loss, and Failure

The problem is, not just any story will do.

As a matter of fact, a lot of stories are lame or stale or juvenile. They make a speech less effective, not more powerful. And they weaken a speaker’s credibility.

The best stories to tell in a speech are wild.

Here’s what I mean.

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Don't confuse your audienceOne of the cardinal rules of public speaking is Never Confuse Your Audience.

There are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t confuse your audience.

First, if you confuse an audience, you lose them.

People will do their best — for a while, at least — to follow your logic, to ferret out your main point, to understand what you’re getting at.

But when they can’t make sense of what you’re saying, they’ll tune you out. They’ll stop listening. And you’ll have to do something dramatic to win back their attention.

Second, if you confuse an audience, you risk making them mad.

They’ll resent you for making them feel stupid or for wasting their time. And then there’s almost nothing you can do to win back their goodwill.

Third, if you confuse an audience, they’ll oppose you and whatever you’re proposing.

When you lose their attention and their goodwill, you lose their respect as well as their willingness to cooperate with you.

Fourth, if you confuse an audience unintentionally, you’re inept, but if you confuse them intentionally, you’re ethically challenged.

But intentionally confusing an audience can be an effective rhetorical strategy.

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Peggy Noonan's bookIn her excellent book, On Speaking Well, Peggy Noonan states,

“No speech is big without big policy to talk about. Trying to write a great speech without having great policy to work with, to assert and argue for, would be like trying to write a great play about nothing.”

In my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, I assert, Picture of book

“A speech develops one idea. But it’s got to be a good idea–a policy, a direction, an insight, a prescription. Something that provides clarity and meaning, something that’s both intellectually and emotionally engaging. It’s got to be what I call a Big Idea.”

The speech by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, explaining why the city was removing statues commemorating its Confederate past is a recent example of a big speech developing a big policy (in Noonan’s words) or a great speech developing a big idea (in my words).

Less recent but even more powerful examples of speeches (from American history) that advanced and advocated big ideas include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address, Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Address, and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech.

I still agree with everything I wrote about a speech needing a “Big Idea.”

But I now add the word juicy.

John Lemieux

Juicy–in surfer jargon–describes a wave that has power and speed and a clean face. It can lift and propel you forward.

(The opposite of juicy is mushy, a description of a wave that passes you by, no matter how large it is, without moving you along.)

A great speech promotes an idea that is both big (broad and deep in its implications) and juicy (capable of moving people to action).

That’s because the goal of a speech is always the same: action, action, action.

 

Photo used with permission by John Lemieux at Flickr.

 

It’s impossible to be neutral while evaluating a speech, especially a political speech.

A speech doesn’t simply report facts or make an objective assessment of things as they are.

A speech expresses the speaker’s values, vision, character.

Any speech worth listening to takes a stand. It develops an idea. It promotes an agenda.

A speech, if it is to have any impact at all, provokes a response from the audience. Consent or dissent. Cooperation or opposition. Support or resistance.

And that’s how it should be.

A speech shouldn’t be neutral.

It’s true for political speeches. And it’s true for corporate speeches.

(One of the reasons why so many corporate speeches are bland, boring, and instantly forgettable is because business speakers try so hard to avoid controversy of any sort.)

And people’s reactions to a speech reveal their values, vision, character.

For example, I think the speech by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, explaining why the city was removing the city’s Confederate monuments, is one of the best political speeches I’ve heard in months.

I found it thoughtful, courageous, and morally exigent.

Landrieu’s speech was well written. It asserted a thesis and defended it with logic, evidence, and passion. It employed several powerful rhetorical devices. It was clear, without being simplistic.

And it was well delivered.

I like Landrieu’s speech not simply because he articulated my beliefs and values, but also because he expanded my moral vision.

You know from his speech exactly where Landrieu stands on race. And the fact that I consider it such a good speech says a lot about where I stand on race as well.

In a similar vein, I hated President Trump’s speech, announcing his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change. And, again, my reaction reveals my values. As it should.

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