Examples of Powerful Speakers

Wisdom for Speakers to Jumpstart Your New Year

“Improve my presentation skills” is a common New Year’s resolution. Finding the perfect example to follow on how to do that is a bit rare … that is, until you meet Jack Kornfield.

Jack Kornfield is one of the leading Buddhist teachers in America. I saw him speak a few days ago during the Monday Night Class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Wood Acre, California, just a short drive from where I live.

The Monday Night Class, now in its 27th year, serves as an introduction to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist practices of awareness and compassion, which are the heart of the Spirit Rock community. This weekly gathering also offers support and ongoing teachings to committed students many who have studied at the Center since its founding.

The room was packed Monday night with hundreds in the audience. When Jack asked how many first-timers were in the crowd, dozens of hands went up. Then someone called out, “Thanks, Oprah!” I learned that Oprah had interviewed Jack last fall and the interview aired December 15. The interview brought out people who had never been to Spirit Rock and were curious about Buddhist teachings. 

The Monday Night Class attracts serious students of Buddhism and appreciative newcomers alike and they have never have trouble filling the room. But if you want to exceed capacity with a standing room only crowd, you just need a little fairy dust from Oprah. It was a spirited group.

For Jack Kornfield, it didn’t matter if he was speaking to 2 or 200. He was his usual entertaining and enlightening self, delivering his teachings with Buddhist-style charisma and practicing what he preaches by sharing his stories with patience, compassion and kindness. He is a good speaker, a gifted storyteller and a teacher who knows how to stand on the shoulders of the giants before him, reading their poetry and quoting their wisdom. Watching him, you get the feeling that he takes it all very seriously yet has an infinite capacity for lightheartedness. That combination is his greatest appeal.

And that’s the lesson I want to pass on this New Year as you make your resolutions about public speaking. If you are going to speak with greater poise, power and passion, do so with intense seriousness and commitment, but remember to keep a light heart. Happy 2014!

Remembering John F. Kennedy – Speaking Lessons from a Heroic Orator

When asked to describe John F. Kennedy, many people mention the phrase “great speaker.” It’s true. Watch any of his speeches and you’ll see someone who looks natural and elegant in front of a crowd. He had a cunning wit and easy charm. He was articulate, intelligent, direct, and inspiring. Most of all, he looked comfortable.

But comfortable he was not. Over the last two weeks I have watched numerous documentaries about JFK’s life and realized once again that in addition to being a great speaker, he was also a very ill man, plagued with serious diseases from Crohn’s to Addison’s. As James Blight of The Daily Beast explained, “JFK—once believed to be the paragon of “vigah,” health, and vitality—was in reality one of the sickest, most physically compromised American presidents in U.S. history. He was given last rites by a priest at least four times, and possibly a fifth—the latter while he was president, in June 1961.” JFK’s various conditions were treated with steroids and other strong drugs that caused severe side effects and weakened his spine, resulting in chronic pain.

Now think about this: If JFK was in pain most of his life that would mean he was giving some of the best speeches of the 20th century while enduring extreme discomfort, debilitating illnesses, and numerous medication side effects. It’s challenging enough for most people to give a speech to a large crowd when they’re in perfect health and under ideal circumstances. Imagine having to give a critical speech when you are in extreme pain. Yes, it could be that he was carried along on pain killers, other drugs, and pure adrenaline, and that he may not have felt distressed while giving a speech. However, he certainly felt it after the adrenaline wore off and the “performance high” abated. Either way, it’s unimaginable.

Many of us have had the experience of having to give a presentation when we’ve not been at our best—either with a cold, a headache, or with some other physical or emotional challenge. And most of us can “rise to the occasion” in these stressful times and perform effectively. But these situations are infrequent. For JFK, on the other hand, coping with discomfort was a fact of everyday life. He not only rose to the occasion with every speech he gave, but he also set a new standard of leadership through his powerful and eloquent communication.

In a way, it’s a bit ironic. Here was a man who couldn’t even lift his own children due to his illnesses, yet he had the backbone to lead the American people through tumultuous times. Here was a man wracked with pain, yet when he stood in front of an audience of thousands he spoke with passion and certainty—as though he actually had the “vigah” he spoke of.

So, the next time you hear one of JFK’s speeches, listen with a new ear. Think not about just the content of his message; think about the content of his inner strength—of his ability to rise above his own pain so that he could uphold his duty as president and inspire others through his oratorical greatness.

Fortunately, most public speakers will never have to overcome such a challenge. However, if you’re ever in the situation when you have to present with a cold, a headache, or even a heartache, take a lesson from JFK. As he so eloquently said: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”

Click here to view some historic speeches from the JFK library.

Did Obama’s Speech Keep Dr. King’s Dream Alive?

I was an elementary student at Calvert School in Washington DC in 1963. Our school was connected to St. Matthews Cathedral, a prominent Catholic Church in the city noted for the fact it held the Catholic Funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy after he was killed. If you go to St. Matthew’s today you will see a large circular marble mosaic in the floor near the sanctuary with the words, “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem mass, November 25, 1963 before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.” Of the thousands of people in attendance at his funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them.

During those years of the civil rights struggle, St. Matthew’s was a voice for social justice. One of the younger priests in residence at the church took it upon himself to expose the Calvert School elementary students to the social issues of the day, particularly the Civil Rights movement. It was with him and a few of my classmates that I attended the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We heard numerous speakers throughout the day and to my young ears they were all loud and exciting. But Dr. King’s speech was thunderous and drove the already elated crowd to a state of rapture. Even though I could not comprehend the scope of the issues that drew people to the mall that day, I too was caught up in the magic of the moment.

As I watched the “Let Freedom Ring” speeches today I was stuck by how little and how much has changed since August 28, 1963. As Jimmy Carter, Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, Congressman John Lewis, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama summarized, today, as in 1963, we as a nation are still struggling with issues of discrimination and injustice such as entrenched poverty, homelessness, voting rights violations, racial profiling and the high rates of incarceration of young black men, just to name a few. Of course, there has been progress over the decades as well. According to Census reports, the percentage of blacks who graduated from high school jumped to 85 percent in 2012, from 25.7 percent in 1964, while the number of black Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree rose to 5.1 million from 365,000. Additionally, the percentage of blacks working in executive, administrative or managerial positions rose to more than 8 percent in 2011, from a little over 1 percent in 1960.

In the last fifty years leading up to today, there have been gains and there have been losses, all of which have been met with considerable debate if not troublesome disagreement. But throughout our 50 year legacy of the civil rights movement, there is one thing we all agree on: Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, which I heard again in its 17 minute entirety today, remains the greatest speech of the 21st century. As most scholars, historians and politicians agree, it holds this honor because of Dr. King’s immeasurable capacity to inspire hope.

So how did Obama, the new chronicler of hope, measure up to Dr. King? It seems unfair to compare the two men yet we can’t resist. King was a preacher who turned the steps of the Lincoln memorial into a pulpit and delivered a sermon to many. He used parables from the Bible, metaphors that everyone could understand. He began slowly, carefully, keeping the pace controlled, showing little physical or vocal emotion. It was like watching a jockey hold back a race horse until the turn into the home stretch. Because I’ve seen this speech many times I knew what was coming and when it did, when he released the phrase “Let Freedom Ring” with the thunder of his voice, the power of his cadence and the surety of his eloquence, I was just as moved as I was when listening as a young child 50 years ago.

Obama gave a great speech today, there is no question. He too began slowly, carefully, building his case step by step with an even tempo, controlled body language and earnest facial expression. He began to build energy with his phrase, “Because they marched,” which subtlety referenced—at least in technique—to the “I have a dream” phrase.

But then he receded and pulled back again. When I wanted him to drop into “storyteller tone,” he became cerebral. When I wanted metaphor, he delivered fact. He seemed to be speaking one level above his audience, more conceptually, using longer sentences and denser themes. I found myself working too hard to follow along.

I wanted him to make it easy for me so I could be swept up emotionally in the historical greatness of the day. After all, this wasn’t a speech to the government or congress. This was to us, the American people. I wanted him to bring it home. Yes, he crossed the finish line with force and power, ending on a high note, but still I wanted more. I wanted him to step into the skin of Dr. King and breathe in the vigor of his vision, expelling it back to us on fire.

Too much to ask? Impossible expectations? Yes, certainly. But I’m a speech coach. And when the greatest speech of your lifetime happens to you when you’re a child, your fantasies forever exceed reality.

How will the New Pope Fare as a Public Speaker?

Public speaking is an important success trait for anyone, including the person filling the Pontiff seat. After all, when you’re charged with leading 1.18 billion people around the world, you must be able to communicate effectively to keep the flock aligned. How will the new Pope fare? According to some in the media, newly elected Pope Francis doesn’t get high marks for charisma, but his relaxed and chatty style will put people at ease. His power comes from his authenticity. He is sincere and genuine, with no bells and whistles, and that will win the hearts and minds of his listeners.

The good news is that if we look at recent history, we can see many examples of various speaking styles of former Popes. So in other words, there’s no one right presentation style that makes for Papal success. Rather, it’s about using your inherent strengths and talents to create a unique Papal brand. Here are some noteworthy examples of past Popes who give us interesting insight into how speaking and leadership go hand-in-hand.

Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) was a prolific writer and lecturer. Amazingly, during his 19 year reign, he explained the Catholic faith in 41 encyclicals and almost 1,000 messages and speeches. That’s an average of 52 speeches a year, or 4 per month. He was one Pope who used the power of the spoken word to engage his followers. Had his papacy not been during World War II, he may be a more well-known Pope.

Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) was a charismatic church leader. Andreas Widmer, a former Swiss Guard who protected Pope John Paul II and author of the book The Pope & The CEO, wrote: “John Paul II had the ability as a communicator to at once address a huge crowd but do it in a way that every person present felt that he was talking in a direct way to them personally. That was one of his greatest gifts as a communicator. His ability to express the human experience was helped by his study of the great Catholic mystics such as Saint John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, as well as his love of poetry and theater. As a young man, John Paul II participated in a clandestine theater group that kept Polish poetry and theater alive by hosting readings and plays at private homes during the Nazi occupation.” It’s remarkable that a man with a theater background would later go on to use those speaking skills in the role of Pope.

Finally, Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013), was a quiet, reserved, and contemplative kind of speaker—quite different from his predecessor. However, as religion reporter John Allen said, “People came to see Pope John Paul II; they come to hear Pope Benedict.” Interestingly, the name Benedictus (which is where Benedict is derived from), literally means “good speaker” or “good speech,” referring to either one’s diction or intent. Since there were 15 other Popes who chose this name, it makes me wonder if these holy people realized how important communication skills are to their leadership success.

I wish Pope Francis well. He is leading the Catholic Church during a trying time, and his ability to powerfully present his messages and ideas will be vital to the success of his Papacy. In some respects, he’s not just the Pope; he’s also the Communicator in Chief for the entire Catholic faith. And that’s a big role for anyone to fill.

Oakland A’s Announcers Exemplify Passionate Speaking Skills

Those of you who know me know that I’m a huge Oakland A’s fan. Well, last night’s baseball game between the Oakland A’s and the Detroit Tigers left even me—a speech coach—speechless. Picture this: It’s game 4 of the American League Division Series. The Oakland A’s aren’t the favored team to win. In fact, they’re performing terribly. It’s the bottom of the ninth. The score is tied. The A’s are up to bat. It’s the final moments of the game, and then suddenly…against the odds…the A’s win on Coco Crisp's walk-off single. The crowd went wild! And so did the announcers. You can hear the announcers during the exhilarating final moments here. After the excitement died down and I replayed the footage in my head, I realized how the announcers Ken Korach, who does the play-by-play, and Ray Fosse, who does the color commentary, displayed their passion about the outcome yet maintained their professionalism throughout it all. It’s a classic lesson for public speakers everywhere.

I often tell my clients to let their passion guide their speaking. But really…what are the elements of passion? What does passion sound like from that vocal context?

As the clip of Korach and Fosse exemplifies, passion has two key parts. First, it’s the formal, technical, and mannered play-by-play of information. When you listen to Korach explain what’s going on, you hear every detail to the point where you can see it in your mind. It’s factual. It’s complete.

But the second part of passion is the free and unbridled response to what’s going on in the moment. That part of passion is incredibly clear in Fosse’s animated assessment of what’s happening in those key moments.

So as a speaker, you need to manage the characteristics of these two announcers during every presentation. You need to be the formal person with the details and the facts. But you also need to show your excitement, your enthusiasm, your zeal, and your passion for your topic.

It’s the combination of these two qualities in one person that ignites the spark of passion. That’s what ultimately captures the hearts and minds of your listeners and makes your message come alive.

The final game in this series is tonight. If the A’s win, we keep going on the road to the World Series. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my passion alive. Go A’s!

Clinton’s 48 Minutes of Magic Add to the Oratorical Feast at the Democratic National Convention

It has been an oratorical feast at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. Any aspiring or seasoned public speaker has a ringside seat to observe some of the best main stage political speakers in the world. As a speech coach, it has been delightful to witness such passionate oratory delivered via powerful performance techniques and heartfelt storytelling. Yesterday I wrote about Michelle Obama, Julian Castro, and Deval Patrick. If you missed it, you can read it here.

Last night, as I anxiously waited to hear former President Bill Clinton speak, I marveled at his “warm up act,” Elizabeth Warren.

Another great storyteller like those the night before, Elizabeth Warren began her speech by saying, “I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Within the first few minutes of her talk we learned a lot about her—she married at 19, went to college, had children, taught school and was “grateful down to my toes for every opportunity America gave me.”

Warren has a wonderful quirky style, soft and quiet at times, but more often quick paced and urgent. She asks a lot of pointed rhetorical questions, “Does anyone have a problem with that?” She uses repetition effectively, “No-one, no-one can stop us.” And she understands the importance of the applause pause. A highly convincing speaker, Warren tells us with everything she’s got not only what she believes is important, but what she wants us to believe. It was a joy to watch her work the crowd.

And then there was Bill…

After all these years of hearing Bill Clinton speak, I shouldn’t be amazed, but I was. Actually, I was blown away. How did he manage to give a long policy speech packed with complicated ideas and details that was also light, entertaining and fully digestible? Leave it to his folksy style to make sure we were clearly following every step of the way.

With his alluring invitations, “Now listen to this” or “Consider this” or “Now wait” he kept us on track.  He had an agenda, and I felt like we were on a long train moving from car to car, staying in each one just long enough to hear the facts, comparisons and contrasts before moving on as he methodically and forcefully built his case.

Clinton is undeniably the best public speaker we have today, and I wrote about him when he spoke at the 2008 DNC. Just as last time on this stage, he did everything right—from his conversational and engaging delivery, his irresistible smile and inviting eyes, and his graceful gestures and relaxed torso to his musical vocal cadence, pitch, inflection and pauses. He gave us the medicine—a meaty, informative and convincing message—with a spoonful of sugar.

I don’t know how Barack Obama will top this…but I’m sure he will. And I can’t wait!

Michelle Obama, Julian Castro, & Deval Patrick: A Slew of Great Speakers Kick Off the DNC

What fun to watch the speeches last night at the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte NC. I was delighted to see such passionate oratory delivered via powerful technique and heartfelt storytelling. The “story” has always been a strategic ally of political speech-making, and last night gave us many good examples of how it helps speakers reach right into every heart and mind to create connection. Michelle Obama’s speech was striking because of her ease and accessibility, as if this was just another of the tasks she did that day as wife, mother and first lady. She is a unique communicator—comfortable and personal—who elegantly used stories to connect to each of us. We heard the story of her early life, the story of her early life with her husband, the story of her early feelings about being the First Lady, and the story of her current life with her family.

In addition to talking about her life, she made simple statements about her husband’s accomplishments—nothing grand or grandiose. It felt like she was talking to us in the intimacy of our living room. And the section on why she loves her husband was to me the most touching and effective I’ve heard. She was truly connecting with people, not reading lines from the teleprompter. The speech was beautifully written and beautifully delivered by someone who, as people say, is “the real deal.”

Julian Castro told a great story as well. His was one of those “only in America” stories, complete with lingering images of his grandmother making the sign of the cross and blessing the young twin brothers as they left for school in the morning. In this story, every detail added to the impact. We saw his grandmother, the two young boys, and the daily morning ritual that happened many years ago.

I was also impressed with Castro’s ability to try a range of delivery techniques. You could clearly see the techniques at work. And although they didn’t always work for him, he gave it his all. I was impressed watching this budding political speech-maker. As he gains experience on the main stage he will certainly be successful. Even though he hasn’t perfected every stage technique, he has mastered one—the story.

Governor Deval Patrick was equally profound. If you didn’t have a chance to see his speech, I recommend you watch it now. Don’t wait! I had never seen Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, although I have heard that he is an excellent speaker. Along with the rest of America, I was riveted. Charismatic in the style of the traditional Southern Baptist Preacher, he brought it on—it was the WOW factor in abundance.

His resounding voice and intonation, coupled with his use of the dramatic pause, made for a forceful and motivating speech. He used the repeated phrase “we believe” as he laid out the democratic platform. But like any great political speech, it wasn’t just his delivery. His message combined substance and structure with bursts of gut-felt sticky phrases, such as “Turn to each other, not on each other” and “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe in.” And he gave direction, as in, “Don’t allow Obama to be bullied out of office.”

He, too, told a difficult to hear story about the Orchard Gardens School and their struggle to survive in the midst of extreme poverty and limited resources.

There were many more speeches yesterday from key players and unknown citizens, but these three powerful speakers were in the prime time spotlight. Tonight we will hear from the master speech-maker: Former President Bill Clinton. I can’t imagine how he will top last night’s oratorical feast—but I’m sure he will.

Obama “On Fire” in Iowa

If you’re looking for an example of someone who knows how to create a fire in the belly of an audience, look no further than President Obama’s speech last Friday in Urbandale, Iowa. There, Obama launched The Road to Charlotte Tour with a rousing rebuttal to the GOP convention platform last week.

There are numerous best practices to note in this speech, but the one I want to emphasize is the use of his overall energy. Obama is the epitome of a public speaker who knows how to “create performance combustion.” This is a term I use often to describe how a speaker can bring an audience to life.

When I talk about creating performance combustion, I use the metaphor of creating fire. As any good scout knows, to create fire, you need the three elements of heat, fuel, and oxygen. I like to think that these three elements correspond to the use of our body, our voice, and words. And just as fire requires that each of these elements be present to keep the fire glowing, the same can be said about the speaker’s use of physical energy, vocal energy, and verbal energy. The combination of our physical, vocal, and verbal skills creates something bigger than any one element can provide.

To be able to create a fire in the belly of our audience, we have to have that fire already burning hot in our own belly. That’s what Obama showed us on Friday. Let’s take a look at how he used each “element” of fire to intensify our experience—to rouse and excite the crowd.

  • Physical Presence: When speaking, Obama was erect, leaned slightly forward, and made direct eye contact. He used facial expressions that varied from serious and intense to warm, smiling and uplifting. He used his gestures, hands and arms modestly.
  • Vocal Resonance: Obama used volume that came in waves, sometimes soft and conversational and other times driving and forceful. . He used clear enunciation, a range of pitch from high to low, and plenty of well-placed strategic pauses. But the most commanding vocal skill was his use of inflection. He powered out those last few sentences loud and strong, holding nothing back, in full force and fury. His voice quickened our pulse and pulled us in.
  • Distinctive language: He used concise sentences. For example, when commenting about the GOP convention, he said, “They talked a lot about me. They talked a lot about them. But they didn’t say a lot about you.” He made use of the world “you” (the most powerful word in the English language) often. He gave clear and simple directions, as in, “Don’t boo. Vote.” Go to www.gottaregister.com or www.gottavote.com.

People always ask me what it takes to be a good public speaker. The answer is simple: You have to be willing and able to create performance combustion—especially with your voice.

So, in addition to recommending TED talks and C-Span when looking for examples of good and bad public speaking, today I recommend Obama’s speech in Urbandale. Politics aside, you will see speech skills and techniques in abundance and clearly available for analysis. I watch a lot of speeches. Some make me think, some make me sleep, but few make me feel. This one was invigorating. Obama, the candidate, has returned, creating fire once again.

I’ll be blogging about many of the speeches at the DNC this week and hope you will add your candid thoughts and comments to my posts. Stay tuned.

Beefeaters: The Olympians of Public Speaking

One of the great by-products of the Olympics is learning  about the history and culture of the host country. This year’s Olympic games in London, England are no exception. While learning about the United Kingdom was mandatory in my high school history classes (given the early ties between England and U.S.), we spent most of our time memorizing dates, facts, and names rather than learning the interesting particulars about the country’s culture and tradition. Yet it’s the background stories, cultural lore, and little-known-details that I find intriguing about a country. Fortunately for me, many reporters are finding wonderful side stories to cover while in London, and this past weekend I watched a fascinating segment on NBC news about the Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters as they’re commonly called. The Beefeaters’ origins stretch back as far as the reign of Edward IV (1461-83), and they have long been symbols of London and Britain. It is thought their nickname is derived from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, which permitted them to eat as much beef as they wanted from the king's table. Today, they act as entertaining tour guides at the Tower of London.

But these aren’t your ordinary docents. To be considered for the job of Beefeater, a candidate must have served in the armed forces with an honorable record for at least 22 years. Then, they go through upwards of one year of training. Working with a coach, they must memorize, word for word, a script that details the history of the Tower of London and England’s overall history. They practice on site after hours (when the tourists aren’t there to watch and listen), and must get every word correct. They are quizzed with crazy questions tourists might ask (such as, “Where is Sleeping Beauty buried?”), and they must handle even the most outrageous question with skill, tact, and respect. Just as athletes work long and hard to compete in  the Olympic games, so too do the men and women hoping to be Yeoman Warders, dedicating their lives to their country, even after retiring from military service.

As a speech coach, I have to say that the Beefeaters are wonderful role models for public speakers. I’ve often heard that a best practice of motivational speaking is to rehearse your speech 30 times before going live. By practicing their script nightly for up to a year, these Beefeaters put even the most well-rehearsed speaker to shame!

So the next time you’re in London, be sure to join one of the famous tours where Yeoman Warders will entertain you with tales of intrigue, imprisonment, execution, torture, and much more…and be sure to get a front row seat. You’ll be getting a history lesson from a world-class public speaking role model.

The Most Unusual (and Amazing) Speech Preparation Story I’ve Ever Heard

I just completed a week’s training with the faculty at the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. This is my third year working with them, so we’re practically like family now. During one of the breaks we were chatting about speech preparation when one of the women present, Bernadette Alvear Fa, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Reconstructive Dental Sciences and Director of Local Anesthesia Curriculum, mentioned that the most challenging preparation she ever did was when she was in labor with her son. In labor with her son? What?  Prepping for a speech while in labor was something I certainly never expected to hear from anyone. I just had to get the details, and since we were all comfortable with each other, she didn’t mind sharing (or me sharing this story either).

I first met Bernadette in June 2011 when she was in my training class. I worked with her on her physical, vocal, and verbal delivery skills as well as her message development, and I gave her various options for preparation strategies to implement. At the time, she was 12 weeks pregnant.

Bernadette explained that in the months that followed the training, she gave numerous lectures with her ever growing belly, each time using the skills she had learned in my class. She was becoming a powerful and confident speaker. Interestingly, as her son started to kick, move, and punch from within, he always remained silent when she was lecturing or speaking in front of large crowds.

On December 3, 2011, Bernadette was officially 36 weeks and 1 day pregnant. She completed a lecture with a colleague and had one more official lecture to provide to the faculty 10 days later. She had the slideshow presentation ready to go and had reviewed it with her co-presenter. Then, on December 10, 2011, something unexpected happened. Bernadette’s water broke at 6:45 a.m. When she and her husband arrived at the hospital, she breathed her way through a few moderate contractions and then sent  out a flood of emails to notify people at work that she would not be coming in on the following Monday and would not be giving her presentation (at least not “live”). Three hours later she had an epidural and decided it was time to work on her “voice over” for the presentation she was going to be missing on Monday. Since she couldn’t be at the presentation in person, she wanted her co-presenter to have her sections of the presentation complete. Talk about dedication!

According to the readings on the monitors, Bernadette saw that she was intensely contracting, and her son appeared happy as a clam and bouncing around joyfully. She asked all visitors in the delivery room to remain quiet, as the only microphone she had for the voice over was the one included in her laptop, which was low grade at best. Knowing she had to make do without her usual professional presentation tools, she drew upon the DeFinis Communications vocal delivery skills she had learned and did the entire voice over from her hospital bed while in labor.

Once complete, she emailed the presentation to her co-presenter. She then patted her belly and said, “Okay, son. Mommy’s done lecturing. It’s time to come out. We’re ready for you.” Forty minutes later, the world welcomed Christian Michael Fa. He waited patiently while his mom finished her work, enabling her to completely focus on the most important task at hand now—being his Mom.

I sat mesmerized listening to her story. She could have easily turned the lecture over to someone else to prepare the voice over, and I doubt anyone would have noticed. But powerful women never give up! Bernadette was determined to follow through with the commitment she made and had the presence of mind to use the skills she learned in our class to prepare a voice-over presentation in this most challenging environment. In a room filled with stress, anticipation, adrenaline, and the frenzied activity of nurses and beeping computer monitors, Bernadette stayed cool, calm, and focused. As a result, she did an amazing job on her voice over…even while in labor.

Ever since women entered the workforce, they’ve had to creatively overcome the challenges of balancing work and home. In this case, Bernadette went the extra mile. She used her determination, perseverance, and optimism to balance these two forces in a way I’ve never seen before. If a woman can do what Bernadette did—be in labor and prepare a complex, technical dental lecture—then surely women are capable of anything, whether it’s leading a company, saving lives, or delivering a powerful  presentation under usual circumstances.

Bernadette is a true leader in her company and in her life. Christian has a lot to look forward to growing up with a role model of loving mother and confident professional.

Do you have an unusual or amazing speech preparation story? Share it here. We’d all love to read it!

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Wednesday for Women: Public Speaking Lessons from Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep just won an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the movie The Iron Lady, and in my view she deserves an equally prestigious award for her introduction of Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Women in the World Summit 2012 at Lincoln Center in New York City. I’m a big fan of Meryl Streep and an even bigger supporter of our Secretary of State. The combination of these two women on stage gave us a powerful example of how different styles and backgrounds can yield equally successful presentations.

Doing a formal introductory speech, like what Meryl did, can be challenging. So let’s look at three areas of Meryl’s speech and have a seasoned actor show us how it’s done:

  • Image: With her bright red jacket and those fabulous black reading glasses, Meryl’s image had impact. Best of all, she didn’t just look great; she used her outfit as a prop, referring to the “put downs” of Hillary’s pantsuits over the years. She twirled around and showed us her jacket, poking fun of those who poked fun at Hillary.
  • Content: Meryl’s captivating message is rich with what we call “touch points” or “rhetorical devices.” These are the stories, examples, metaphors, facts, and humor that make up the core content of a speech, and that make it interesting and inspiring. Meryl’s speech was funny and moving because it was packed with plenty of twists and surprises, contained humorous, colorful stories, and teemed with respect and sentiment all while making playful jokes about Hillary.

For example, Meryl began by comparing herself and her early life to Hillary, which she says that every living American woman her age has done. She goes on to compare the two women’s experiences at Yale, where their similar paths diverged. “While I was a cheerleader, she was the president of the student government,” says Meryl. “Where I was the lead in all three musicals, people who know her tell me she should never be encouraged to sing.” But then she got serious and said, “Regardless, she has turned out to be the voice of our generation. I’m an actress, and she is the real deal.”

Meryl went on to describe Hillary’s constant fight for women worldwide to stop criminal behavior, seek justice, and provide support. She revealed things not everyone may know about Hillary, such as how when travelling on diplomatic missions she meets not just the country’s leaders, but also the leaders of the local grassroots women’s movements. It’s something that’s automatically on her schedule.

And let’s not forget that brilliant ending that took everyone by surprise when Meryl reached below the podium, pulled out her Oscar, and said, “This is what you get when you play a world leader.” The audience went wild. “But if you want a real world leader and you’re really, really lucky, this is what you get,” Meryl continued, as she directed everyone’s attention to Hillary’s entrance on stage. This was a model introductory speech.

  • Delivery: Good delivery does not call attention to itself. It gets the job done by clearly expressing the message without distraction. Meryl’s delivery combined a certain degree of formality with the most charming attributes of good conversation. She was a bit dramatic—even showing off at times—but she was also direct, spontaneous, and animated. Most of all, she looked like she was thoroughly enjoying every minute with her erect posture,  big smile, confident eye contact, and that charming way she “sighed” so enjoyably at her own jokes.

She controlled the timing, rhythm, and momentum of the speech as skillfully as only an experienced public speaker—or actor—can. And while she had her written speech in front of her, she didn’t read it verbatim. She ad-libbed and took time to react to her message as well as to the responses of her audience. And even when she lost her place and briefly stumbled, she recovered with grace and slipped back into the lighthearted flow—and the limelight.

Public Speaking at its Best

Maybe it takes an actress playing a public speaker to be able to give a powerful introduction to one of the world’s great leaders. Actor or not, Meryl wrote a wining speech, delivered it with heart and soul, and accomplished what she set out to do: She made us realize anew why all American citizens, not just women, are fortunate to have Hillary Clinton traveling the world, leading critical diplomatic initiatives on our behalf. Hillary stands out as a leader, a role model and one of the greatest advocates for women in recent history.

Meryl was right. You get an Oscar for playing a world leader, but you get an adoring and appreciative public who deeply understands the importance of your mission when you are one.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Three Women, One Mission: Peace

In 1903, two years after the Nobel Foundation was established, a Nobel Prize was awarded to a woman, Marie Curie, for the first time. Women have been winning Nobel Prizes ever since, but in very small numbers compared to their male colleagues. But is the trend possibly turning? It could be, because this year, not one, but three women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman. While they were awarded the prize jointly, each stands out on her own as a true inspiration for women everywhere. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Liberian president

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first and only female elected head of state. Over the years, she established a reputation as a firm financial politician, which earned her the nickname “Iron Lady.” When she was sworn in as Liberia’s first female head of state in 2006, the country was emerging from a 14-year civil war. Millions had lost their lives and the country’s infrastructure was in shambles.

Despite the obstacles, Sirleaf found a way to unite a country that had only known destruction. She secured debt relief for Liberia in excess of $4 billion. She also managed to convince investors that it was worth investing in a country that was small yet rich in natural resources. Additionally, under Sirleaf’s leadership, the export ban on diamonds and precious wood was lifted. In short, she gave people a new vision of the future.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee: Liberian peace activist

Leymah Gbowee was 17 when war broke out in Liberia in 1989. She had just finished high school and was about to begin studying medicine when her community fell apart and her dreams got put on hold. When the warlord Charles Taylor became president in 1997 and the brutal conflict in Liberia escalated, Gbowee decided she would fight for peace with the women of her country. She quickly found supporters for her cause, with both Christians and Muslims joining her at rallies and peaceful demonstrations.

In 2002 Gbowee founded the movement Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. In 2004 she was appointed to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to foster dialogue and stability. Two years later she became an advisor to the Women Peace and Security Network. Today she leads the organization from its headquarters in Ghana’s capital, Accra, where she lives with her family.

Tawakkul Karman: Yemeni human rights and democracy activist

Tawakkul Karman is one of the most energetic and courageous democracy and human rights activists in Yemen. Men and women alike are counted among her followers, some of whom call her the “Mother of the Revolution.”  Since 2007 Karman has organized weekly protests outside government buildings in the capital Sanaa. As a result, she has been arrested by security forces and jailed numerous times.

As a blogger and co-founder of the organization Journalists Without Chains, Karman supports the interests of fellow women. For years she has called for women to fill at least one-third of all public jobs in Yemen. That’s a huge goal for the country, considering that Yemen is extremely conservative and women are often treated as second-class citizens.

Upon hearing that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she described it as a victory for the Arab democracy movement as a whole. She called it a signal that the era of authoritarian rulers was coming to an end in the region.

*****

I applaud these women and am humbled by their sacrifices and actions. They are true heroes, and their work and words are an inspiration for women everywhere.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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When Passion, Power and Perseverance Combine – You Get Melinda Gates

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Tracking the philanthropic activities of Melinda Gates is like watching an army of ants build their colony. Yet she is not just the queen; she is also a worker, taking on the roles needed to build the vision, implement the plan and change the world. If you ever think that everything going on in our world today is so bad that there’s nothing you could possibly do to spark change, look in the direction of Melinda Gates. She is the perfect antidote to that outlook. She turns doom, gloom and apathy on its head. As a powerful female role model and spokesperson for the projects and people who have benefited from her good works, she continues to inspire and uplift us. As a speaker she also gets it done. She speaks with passion and sincerity, and listeners are moved by the sheer scope of her vision and her can-do spirit. I talked about her personal power and communication style at length last year in this blog.

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What I find so endearing about Melinda, though, is that while she is a compelling speaker and philanthropist, she rarely seeks the spotlight. Quiet and thoughtful, she is content diligently working on the causes and initiatives that matter to her. If no more than a blip about her success appears in the media, so be it. She is the strong and silent leader—someone who can move an army of people with her mere presence.

I am also impressed that she’s not singularly focused on one cause. She has her hand in many projects, giving us the opportunity to see her in action in a variety of settings. While most people know that she and her husband Bill work in developing countries, focusing on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty, she also works hard at home to make sure local needs are addressed.

For example, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which she and her husband directly oversee, has been awarded LEED-NC (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for New Construction) Platinum certification from the United Stated Green Building Council, making it the largest, non-profit LEED-NC Platinum building in the world. Completed in the spring of 2011, the campus is located in downtown Seattle across the street from the Space Needle. It replaces an asphalt parking lot with a campus that returns more than 40 percent of the site back to green space via two-acres of living roofs and native plantings. At 639,860 square feet of occupied space, the project demonstrates how large-scale sustainable architecture can be delivered at the highest level.

In addition, their Foundation is also working with Starbucks to encourage local coffee drinkers to help King County public school teachers (the county where the Gates are located). King County Starbucks stores are now giving away $10 gift cards for DonorsChoose.org, an organization that helps teachers ask for money for classroom materials and equipment. People who pick up a DonorsChoose.org gift card will be able to go online and pick which school project they want to support. About 100,000 gift cards are expected to be distributed at King County Starbucks. The cards will be paid for by the Gates Foundation.

So from famine and poverty overseas to environmental concerns and education issues at home, Melinda Gates is one of our most inspiring women role models today. Her endearing style, unyielding certainty, and vision for what can change in our world have set the bar high for leaders everywhere…and for individuals too. So if you ever think your actions won’t have an impact, take a lesson from Melinda Gates. While you may not have billions of dollars for philanthropic generosity, you can rest assured that even the smallest ant can make a difference.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Steve Jobs (1955-2011): It’s Time to Pay Tribute to a Great Visionary

Along with the rest of the world, I am mourning the loss of Steve Jobs today. This morning at breakfast I was thinking about the services that will be held to honor his life and wondered who would be giving the eulogy. Imagine being selected to give the eulogy at the funeral services of someone who has been compared to Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney—imagine being asked to give the final tribute to an icon whose technological vision ushered in a new era of innovation.    While giving the eulogy will be a great honor, I’m sure the speaker, whoever it is, will quickly realize that he/she is not only eulogizing a great man, but will be doing so using the communication medium that Jobs perfected. Never before will Marshall McLuhan’s dictate “the medium is the message” be more in evidence.

Whoever gives the eulogy has big shoes to fill in both what they say to honor Jobs’ gifts and talents throughout the course of his life, and in how they say it. I hope they model the techniques that Jobs so effortlessly used, such as choosing those powerful signature words and phrases he loved, like “magical,” “boom,” and “one more thing.” I hope they organize the eulogy content around one key theme. Most of all, I hope they use elegant delivery skills that even Jobs would be proud of. These are the skills I highlighted in my August 25th blog about Jobs when he resigned. Of course, it would also be fitting if the speaker sparks a wide and generous smile, has a delightful twinkle in his/her eye, and uses comfortable and natural gestures—just like Jobs always did.

It’s no secret that Jobs was known as a challenging and difficult personality, and often not a respectful or skillful communicator. There are countless examples of his brash and impatient communication style, and stories are pouring out today in a loving and forgiving way from people who had first-hand experience with his berating and belittling barrages. What I find so interesting, though, is that he was such a masterful public speaker and never showed this side of himself on stage. Given his proclivity to explode the way he did, it is a tribute to his self-control that he had such discipline in front of large groups. Granted, he practiced a lot, but perhaps he knew more was at stake for Apple in these highly public performances.

So if the eulogy were up to me, I’d talk about the Steve Jobs whose brilliant mind led him to create wildly innovative products but who also let his heart guide Apple, like when he agreed to put a tribute to George Harrison on the company’s home page after Harrison’s death. I’d talk about the Steve Jobs who inspired and led young and old alike—the charismatic technology evangelist who spoke like a prophet and gave us products we didn’t even know we needed. But most of all, I’d talk about the Steve Jobs who gave us the greatest gift of all—the gift of knowing that anyone can change the world.

Wangari Maathai: Honoring a Powerful Female Leader and Speaker

A little over a week ago, on September 25th, the world lost a great environmental and political activist, Wangari Muta “Mary Jo” Maathai. For those of you who may not be familiar with her or her work, here’s a small snapshot of her many accomplishments:

  • Founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting organization, comprised primarily of women, whose goal is to reverse deforestation, provide firewood for Kenyan women, and create an income generating activity for rural communities. The program led to the opening of 5,000 grassroots nurseries throughout Kenya and the planting of over 20 million trees.  
  • Awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1986. This prestigious, international award honors those “working on practical and exemplary solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the world today.”
  • Awarded the Goldman Award in 1991. This annual award honors grassroots environmental heroes from the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.
  • In 2004 she was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.
  • She was an elected member of the Kenyan Parliament and served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki from January 2003 through November 2005.
  • In addition, she was a highly accomplished public speaker!

I had the honor to see Maathai speak in 2006, when she was a guest speaker at the Goldman Awards ceremony. She was a big woman with a commanding presence. She stood on the stage dressed in full African dress and spoke with the deepest, melodic, and most powerful voice I’ve ever heard from a woman. Her words moved all 3,000 people present to their feet for minutes of cheers and ovations. We all left her presentation wanting to do more—to be a part of her power, her strength and her vision.

I met her at the reception back stage later that evening. She was big and powerful in stature (I felt like I was standing next to a mountain), yet she was so warm and extremely gracious. She was truly a powerful leader and one of the best speakers I have ever seen.

Known by many as “The Tree Mother” and “The Tree Lady,” Maathai likened herself more to the hummingbird. In doing so, she often told the story of a fire raging in the forest, and all the forest animals gathered to helplessly watch the fire destroy their home. But one little animal, the hummingbird, decided to take action. She swooped to a nearby stream, gathered what water she could in her little beak, flew over the fire, and dropped the tiny water droplets into the flames. She repeated this over and over. Finally, the larger animals asked her, “What do you think you’re doing? You’re so little, and the fire is so big. What do you possibly think you can do?” And the little hummingbird replied, “I am doing the best I can.”

“And that,” said Maathai, “is what we should all do. We should always be like a hummingbird and do the best we can.”

Maathai certainly lived by her own advice and did the best she could, which ultimately affected millions of people and made a big difference in the world. My hope is that as more people learn about Maathai, her work, and her legacy, that the hummingbird in all of us will awaken and we will all work to make a difference. Then, when it’s our turn to fly away home, we’ll leave knowing that we left the world a little better than when we came.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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