I’ve been seeing a new type of government proposal this year.

Traditional government contracts — especially in the federal arena — require a lengthy written proposal. The request for proposal (RFP) specifies the content to be addressed, things like past experience, pricing, resumes of key personnel. And much more.

Sometimes, the RFP requires an oral proposal as well. After submitting a written proposal, companies that are down selected are instructed to send in a team to present the highlights of their proposal in person, with PowerPoint slides.

In the past, oral proposals highlighted and elaborated on a few key issues already addressed in great detail in the written volume (or volumes).

This year I’ve worked on four proposals which follow a different format.

This new type of government proposal shifts most of the content from the written volumes to the oral proposal.

I’ve talked with other proposal professionals about why this is happening.

Why are written proposals (created in Word) being subordinated, if not replaced, by oral proposals (created in PowerPoint)?

Their consensus is: The new — and younger — crop of contracting officers is not accustomed to reading (or writing) lengthy volumes. They prefer having information presented in a simplified and visually appealing format. 

The PowerPoint deck for this type of government proposal must fulfill two requirements at the same time.

  1. It must present enough content — ideas, information, and explanations — to demonstrate how your approach (your people, processes, tools and technology) will give the customer more of what they want than the competition, addressing the specific issues addressed in the RFP; and

  2. It must make the main idea of each slide clear, concise, and obvious to reviewers who are more likely to skim than to read attentively.

As I review the slides that most teams prepare for this new type of proposal, I’m usually impressed with how well they address the first requirement. Their slides are typically rich in content, compliant with all the specifications spelled out in the RFP. 

The problem is that the good stuff –the ideas, information, explanations — obscures the main idea of each slide.

Meeting the second requirement requires more creativity.

The selection committee should be able to look at a slide and quickly understand its main point: what is being offered + how it benefits the customer. 

Do not hide that point on the slide. Do not bury it in the middle of a paragraph. Make it painfully obvious.

I’d be happy if that main point were no longer than 10 or 12 words. 


Speech, presentationThink of the most powerful speeches you’ve heard. What set them apart from all the rest? What made them persuasive, moving, memorable?

There are many elements that contribute to the success of a speech, but if I had to identify the three most important elements, I would name character, content, and context.


Your character — who you are as a person, what you value, your accomplishments and contributions and reputation, your personality — is your speech’s core message.

Who you are as a person determines how the audience interprets and how much they trust what you say.

Even if you’re working with a speechwriter — especially if you’re working with one — make sure that every idea, insight, image, principle, and story rings true to you and your experience.

Don’t simply surf the internet to figure out what you want to say or to find the perfect quote. Start with your own convictions and insights.

And don’t put distance between yourself and your message. (Less confident speakers do this all the time, when they stand off to the side of the stage in semi-darkness and force the audience to focus not on them, but on their PowerPoint slides.)


The content of your speech — its message— is made up of ideas, information, images, and stories, carefully pieced together and artfully worded in a way that changes how people think and feel and act.

Memorable speeches have a single, clear message. You can present a lot of information and cover a lot of ground (hopefully not too much) in a speech. But your audience should be able to sum up your message in a single sentence.

One of Winston Churchill’s most moving speeches, commonly titled “We shall fight on the beaches,” delivered in the early days of the Second World War, is quite a lengthy speech, conveying a lot of information. But its message can be summed up in one sentence: “We shall never surrender.”


The context of your speech covers a wide range of issues and elements: your audience (the group you are addressing as well as the individuals), the event (why they are gathering), the venue (where they’re gathering), the schedule, and the room layout.

The audience, of course, is the most crucial element in this instance. As a speaker you always have to ask who they are and why they should care about what you’re saying. What do they already know about your subject? How do they feel about it? How are they affected by it? What do you want them to do about it and why would they want to do it?

But don’t overlook the importance of the practical elements. A great speech can be sabotaged by poor planning. Pay special attention to the schedule. (Audiences are more alert and attentive in the morning than late in the afternoon or after dinner.) Make sure that the audience can see you (and your slides, if you’re using them) and, more importantly, hear you.

Other Elements

There are other elements, of course, that make or break a speech. If I were to mention one more element, I would add delivery. How about you? What would you say is an important element of a speech?

Improving a PowerPoint presentationMost PowerPoint presentations leave a lot to be desired.

Too often they are confusing (“what do you mean?”), pointless (“what do you want me to do?”), and/or boring (“who cares?”).

Good planning will improve most PowerPoint presentations.

  • Limit the scope of your presentation.
    Focused presentations are good. Focused, short presentations are better.
  • Know your audience.
    What do they already know and feel about your topic? What do you want them to know and feel about it?
  • Determine your presentation’s objective.
    What do you want the audience to do as a result of listening to you?
  • Organize your material in a clear and logical fashion.
    After a brief introduction, develop three main points that clarify what you’re talking about, why it matters, and how it works.

Designing good PowerPoint slides will improve your presentation.

  • Use fewer slides.
    Only use slides that will help your audience understand the point you’re making. Never use slides as your script.
  • Don’t rely on PowerPoint templates or graphics.
    They are amateurish. (Microsoft should be embarrassed by how tacky most of their design elements are.)
  • Make them legible.
    My least favorite line from a presenter is, “You probably can’t read this, but…”

Rehearing your presentation will also improve your presentation.

You don’t need to be highly polished or theatrical. But you do need to sound coherent, as if you’ve thought about what you’re going to say. And you need to sound interested in what you’re saying. So practice your presentation out loud at least once before you stand in front of an audience.

The Fastest, Easiest Way to Improve any PowerPoint Presentation is to Engage your Audience’s Participation.

Passive audiences are less likely to invest in your presentation, less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, less likely to care about or to adopt what you’re proposing.

Do not keep your audience passive. Do not make them sit quietly while you talk on and on. Do not talk for 40 minutes and give them 5 minutes at the end to ask questions.

The Best Way to Engage your Audience’s Participation Is to Encourage Discussion and Q&A.

Present a little, discuss a little. Present a little more, answer your audiences’ questions. Talk a little, listen a little, add to what you’ve said.

The Easiest Way to Encourage Discussion and Q&A Is to Black Out the Screen Periodically.

When you’re in presentation mode while using PowerPoint, simply tap the “B” key. Magically, the screen goes black. Tap any other key and your presentation comes back exactly where you left off.

Blacking out the screen is a non-verbal way of telling your audience that the presentation isn’t “up there” on the screen. The presentation is happening between you, the speaker, and them. It’s a way of saying, “let’s talk.”

(If you tap the “W” key, the screen goes white.)

Check out Making the Most of Q&A.

Using quotations in a speechThere are as many reasons not to use a quotation in a speech as there are to use one.

I’ll confess. I like using a quotation in a speech. And I do it quite often. Still, it’s perfectly permissible — and sometimes recommended — not to use a quotation.

Why Use a Quotation in a Speech

Quotations can add credibility to your speech. Quoting someone famous or important makes it seem like they’re agreeing with you or your idea.

Quotations can add poetry and punch to your speech, because they are often well phrased and to the point.

Quotations make your speech memorable, because (again) they are often well phrased and to the point.

Why Not Use a Quotation in a Speech

Using a quotation can lessen your credibility. Why do you have to call on some higher authority to back up what you’re saying? Don’t you have any authority of your own? Isn’t the idea you’re proposing clear, strong, and persuasive on its own merits?

Using a quotation to add poetry and punch to your speech is an admission that your own words are prosaic and uninspiring. Why not make your own words sing?

Using a quotation to drive home your point and make it memorable is lazy. I believe that, for the most part, you should be able to sum up your speech in a single sentence. But it should be your sentence. One that you’ve labored over and honed to a fine point.

How to Use a Quotation in a Speech

Use only one quotation per speech. You don’t strengthen your speech by citing several quotations; you weaken it. Be selective.

Get it right. Get the words right. A quotation is only a quotation if it is word-for-word accurate. And make sure you cite the right person as the source of the quotation. (Just because you see it on the internet doesn’t make it so.)

Know who you’re quoting. By quoting someone without qualification you are in essence endorsing that person and what they stand for.

Make sure the audience knows who you’re quoting. Most of the time it’s best to quote someone you know the audience knows: Einstein, Gandhi, Roosevelt, Steve Jobs (in certain fields). When quoting someone your audience may not know, you need to frame the quote, providing just enough information to give your audience reason to believe the quote.

Emphasize the quotation by pausing before and after saying it. Mark Twain said, [pause] “Loyalty to a petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.” [Pause]

Keep it short.

How Not to Use a Quotation in a Speech

Avoid opening or closing your speech with a quotation. The first and last words of your speech carry the most weight; make them your own.

Don’t use a quotation that everyone already knows.

Don’t expect the quotation to prove anything. At best, a quotation adds credibility. Resorting to authority is a weak argument.


How about you? Any thoughts? When and how do you use quotes in your speeches?

How to Inspire Audiences

Christopher Witt —  January 23, 2018

how to inspire audiencesIn spite of what you might think as a result of witnessing motivational speakers at work, you don’t inspire people by jumping up and down excitedly, thumping your chest, and passionately proclaiming a slogan from a Successories™ poster.

You inspire people, not by being louder and more animated than you normally are, but by engaging their deepest values and most authentic emotions.

Inspiration means, literally, to “breathe into.” In this case, to breathe life and vitality into your audience. You do that not by giving them step-by-step instructions but by giving them a motive, a desire to act.

You give people the hope that they can achieve what they want and be the best self they can imagine.

First, you influence people. You shape how they look at their situation, how they envision it, how they think and feel about it. Then you show them what they can do about it.

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Great public speeches build on conflict — opposing ideas, values, or visions. But in today’s contentious environment, civility is essential.

In the past, I’ve argued that

Great speeches are born in conflict. They address matters of consequence, when the stakes are high. They are delivered with passion and they rouse passion in the audience.

The ingredients of a great speech are conflict, high stakes, passion.

Take the conflict out of a public speech and, more than likely, you’ll take the energy, excitement, and purpose out of it.

Think of it this way: If everyone agrees with what you’re proposing — if, in short, there’s no conflict, no disagreement, no opposition — you really have no reason to be speaking.

So, don’t shy away from conflict. Sharpen it. 

One of the best ways to highlight your idea is to contrast or juxtapose it to an opposing idea. “This, not that.”

But you have to be careful with conflict, because there is already too much acrimony — too little civility — in the public arena these days.

The point of a speech is to engage your audience in a conversation that allows them to change. To change their behavior, their thinking, or their feelings.

People will not change — at least, not in the way you want them to — if you make them feel angry, attacked, ridiculed, disrespected, or humiliated.

Public speaking, to be effective, must also be civil speaking. Respectful, courteous, considerate. 

Attack an idea all you want. Have at it. But don’t attack the people who hold that idea. And, above all, don’t attack anyone in your audience.

The more aggressively you attack an idea, the more courteously you have to speak.

In my opinion, the greatest speech in American history is Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As the Civil War was winding down, Lincoln contrasted the two sides — the North and the South — and why they fought. Making the strongest possible case for the North’s position (preserving the Union while abolishing slavery), he refrained from demonizing the South. Throughout his speech, he spoke “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Civility comes across in the words you use, your tone of voice, your attitude.

Civility does not …mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.

– Mahatma Gandhi



To win a contract for a large construction project these days, you have to show the customer how and why your company’s proposal gives them the best value.

Your written proposal begins the process. But contracts are often won or lost during the follow-up presentation or interview.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to make a formal presentation with a set agenda and PowerPoint slides. More and more frequently, your team will be asked to participate in an interview.

Both formats—the formal presentation and the interview—require the same amount of preparation and practice.

Three Rules for Making Persuasive Construction Proposal Interviews and Presentations

Rule #1: Begin With Them and Their Needs

Your written proposal has already established your capabilities to some degree. It got you to the next round: the interview or presentation.

So don’t begin by talking about yourself and how great your company is.

Start, instead, by telling the customer what you know about them, their needs, their projectwhat they want and why they want it. You’ll win extra brownie points by pointing out the project’s unique challenges and opportunities.

All you’re trying to do at the beginning is to establish your credibility and to win the customer’s confidence. You want them to let down their guard, to say in effect “You get me.”

Rule #2: Prove Your Value.

Once you and the customer are in agreement on what they want, how they want it, why they want it, it’s time to show them how you’ll give it to them.

Value is relative. The value of your proposal is always judged in relationship to the value offered by someone else.

You win a contract by convincing the customer that you’ll give them more of what they want and less of what they don’t want than the competition.

Rule #3: Show How You’re Different

Customers can often weed out proposals that fall short of what they’re looking for. But they sometimes struggle to choose between the top two contenders.

Your proposal and that of one other company may be similar in price and approach. Both of your companies may have comparable experience and capabilities.

A great way to make your company stand out is to talk about your differentiators or discriminators: things that make you different from the completion in a way that benefits the customer.

Those things may be your people (their experience, expertise, values), your processes (especially if they’re proprietary), or your tools and technology.

By following these three rules, you will make the best of your construction proposal interviews and presentations.

Check out What Is an Oral Proposal?

Photo courtesy of Adam. at Flickr.com

Wedding Speech TipsWedding speeches are easier to pull off if you follow a few basic rules.

Wedding Speech Tips: Dos

#1: Do Show Your Love

Whether you’re making a toast or giving a speech, whether you’re the best man or maid of honor, the father or mother, the bride or the groom, the reason you’re speaking is because you have a special relationship with someone–with the bride or the groom.

Let your love for that person show, and people will love you for it.

This is one of those occasions when it’s not only okay, but expected for you to gush. Be authentic. Put yourself and your feelings out there for people to see.

#2: Celebrate the Bride or Groom (or both)

Your job is to speak from your unique perspective–sharing your knowledge and love–to honor the couple and to express everyone else’s love and hopes for them.

Make the couple and the other guests–families and friends–feel warm and happy.

#3: Do Tell a Story

Tell a story (or maybe two) that shows what you find loveable about the person you’re honoring.

#4: Do Keep It Short

People may be eating and drinking or they may be waiting to eat. There are a lot of distractions. There will be any number of speeches.

To maintain people’s attention and goodwill, keep your remarks focused and to the point.

#5: Do Use Humor

Humor is a good way to keep your speech from becoming overly sentimental. And it adds to people’s enjoyment…as long as it’s appropriate. (See below.)

Wedding Speech Tips: Don’ts

#1: Don’t Embarrass Anyone

Save your embarrassing stories for the bachelor or bachelorette party.

Remember, your goal is to show your love and to celebrate the bride or groom. It is not to embarrass them. And it is not to embarrass the guests who may include children and grandparents.

#2: Don’t Make It About You

Yes, you are to show your love. Yes, you are to keep it personal. But keep the focus on the person you’re honoring.

You want people to love and appreciate the bride or groom, not you.

#3: Don’t Wing It

Short speeches require more preparation than long speeches. Write it out. Rehearse it a number of times. Then speak from notes. Don’t read it word for word.

#4: Don’t Get Drunk

Using alcohol to calm your nerves is a risky proposition.

Do this instead: 1) Prepare your speech. 2) Practice it. 3) Focus on the person you’re honoring and on your love for him/her, not on yourself.

#5: Don’t Embarrass Anyone

Did I already make this point?

Weddings have a certain formality. There are rules of decorum that sometimes make people feel the need to rebel or to be a little bit crude. Resist that urge.

People at a wedding are a receptive, appreciative audience. They want to have a good time. They want to celebrate their love of the bride and groom. They want you to succeed. So be prepared. Be yourself. And have a good time.

Avoid this mistake when writing a speechThere are many advantages to writing out a speech.

But there are mistakes, too, that you can make, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro.

Writing your speech (not just outlining it, but writing it word for word) allows you to:

  • Clarify in your own mind what you want to say, what’s important
  • Make your speech tighter, more focused, more logical
  • Strengthen the transitions from one point to the next
  • Eliminate redundancies, digressions and tangential material, unnecessary phrases and sentences
  • Create emotionally engaging and memorable passages
  • Craft a story that builds through tension and suspense to a satisfying and insightful conclusion

Check out Should You Write Out Your Speech?

You may not have the time to write out every speech you give, but you owe it to your audience and to yourself to write out those speeches that have a lot riding on them.

(Or–shameless plug–you could have me or some other speechwriter help you.)

When writing a speech, there is one mistake you’ll want to avoid.

The most glaring speechwriting mistake is to make it sound like it’s written.

A written speech is, of course, written. But it should be written in a way that doesn’t sound as if it has been written. It should be written for the ear, not for the eye, to be heard, not to be read.

It should sound natural, almost conversational, like the dialogue in a well-written movie or play.

Most people will tell you to keep your sentences short and to avoid big words. It’s as if they want you to sound like a bad imitation of Ernest Hemingway.

I think you should sound like yourself at your wittiest, most articulate, most authentic moments. 

Your aim is first to make yourself understood, second to engage your audience’s hearts and minds in a way that wins them to your way of thinking, and third–if possible–to beguile them.

As you write your speech, speak it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it sound like something you might actually say? Does it flow out of your mouth effortlessly? If so, great.

If not, if your speech sounds like writing, not like speech, rewrite it.

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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