How to Avoid These 6 Public Speaking Disasters

Public speakers are everywhere, and no matter how hard I try to take time off from my focus on presentations skills, some of the topics I’m most interested in are often served up through this medium. So even when I’m on vacation I’m watching and listening to presentations. This summer was no exception.

At the top of my personal interest list these days is the health of our oceans. While on vacation near the Atlantic Ocean my husband and I sought out forums and lectures focusing on this topic.

Did you know that the plastic pollution in our oceans is a disaster in the making that not only affects the health of all marine life but our own health as well? Are you aware that 2 million plastic bottles are used in the U.S. every 5 minutes, and 60,000 plastic bags are discarded in the U.S. every five seconds? What happens to the majority of all that plastic? It is consumed by marine life and hence by us, washed up on our shores, and can end up in one of the 5 gyres in our oceans.

Here are some facts from the 5 Gyres website:

  • The short-term convenience of using and throwing away plastic products carries a very inconvenient long-term truth.
  • These plastic water bottles, cups, utensils, electronics, toys, and gadgets we dispose of daily are rarely recycled in a closed loop.
  • We currently recover only 5% of the plastics we produce. What happens to the rest of it?
  • Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains “unaccounted for,” lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea.

Alarming information, isn’t it? The Plastic Pollution Coalition states that, “Disposable plastics are the greatest source of plastic pollution. Plastic bags, straws, bottles, utensils, lids, cups and so many others offer a small convenience but remain in the environment forever.” In order to do whatever I can to help this situation, I’ve taken the REFUSE pledge and am following the “4 Rs” of sustainable living: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

In addition to the alarming information being presented, I have to confess that some of the speakers’ presentation skills also gave me quite a fright! During one of the talks, my husband, who is schooled in public speaking awareness thanks to yours truly, leaned over and asked, “Did he really say that?” Glad I wasn’t the only one noticing the how and not just the what.

So here, culled from the speakers I heard on my vacation this summer, is a list of public speaking disasters to avoid:

  1. Don’t tell us how awful you are as a public speaker. We’ll probably figure that out for ourselves soon enough, and you take away the surprise by dwelling on it at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ask us to look at your grandmother’s rear end as in, “See that large rear end? That’s my grandmother.” Really?
  3. Don’t show us a distracting made for Hollywood video of your mug, even if you are good looking, especially when you are trying to focus our attention on the serious topic we all came to hear. Remember, it’s about the audience, not the speaker.
  4. Don’t go off on an irrelevant tangent about your kids and then ask wistfully, “Why am I telling you this?” when answering a simple yes/no question. Unless it’s relevant to your message, we don’t care.
  5. Don’t tell us you’re in a rush to leave because you have another speech to give in a nearby town and have to cut ours short. After hearing that we will be thinking, “Are they a more important audience than we are?” Even though you want us to think you are so in-demand that you double booked yourself, we know you’re only “almost famous.”
  6. Don’t say, “What’s that slide doing up there? Oh, that was for my last presentation to the Governor. Yes, I spoke to the Governor about this topic.” What we hear is, “Look how important I am. Too bad you didn’t get invited to that event.”

Vacations are meant to take us out of our routines, provide new experiences, teach us important lessons, and offer up unexpected pleasures. But even with the newness vacations can provide, there is still the satisfaction that wherever you go, some things never change. Public speakers and speaking opportunities are everywhere, so remember this: when you’re presenting, you can never take a vacation from the best practices that make for a great speech.

4 Traits that Distinguish Confident Speakers from Nervous Nellies

Back in 1990, Ron Hoff wrote a popular book about public speaking entitled I Can See You Naked. The idea was that if a speaker looked out at the audience and imagined everyone sitting in their birthday suits, he would take a scary crowd and turn it into a docile nudist colony, thus defusing their power to intimidate. For many people, that kind of visualization worked wonders in building confidence. But for the Nervous Nellies among us, it actually backfired. For them, the image is reversed. Instead of the speaker looking out at a group of meek naked people, they imagine an entire audience who can (gasp!) see the speaker naked! That’s what can happen when you let your nerves get the best of you and put your anxiety on parade. When you act like a Nervous Nellie, your audience really can see you naked. But when you act like a confident speaker and do the things they do (even though you may still be nervous), the audience feels more comfortable and responds accordingly.

Here are 4 traits that distinguish confident speakers from Nervous Nellies:

  • Confident speakers are proud. They stand erect, hold in their stomachs, pull back their shoulders and lift their torso. They stand tall and strong, showing the audience by their posture that they are poised and credible. The confident speaker is aware of the positive impact of strong posture on others and expresses their personal pride through posture.
  • Confident speakers are compassionate. They pay attention to the audience as a person, not a crowd. They don’t categorize or stereotype. They care about others. This means the speaker looks at people’s faces, uses penetrating eye contact, shows a blend of serious and lighthearted facial expressions, and tries to connect at every level—verbal and non-verbal.
  • Confident speakers are spontaneous. They plan and prepare their presentation and put in many hours of rehearsal, but they also know that is just the beginning. Once on-stage they follow their intuition, understanding the importance of “reading and relating” to the audience in the moment. They comfortably adjust the planned speech whenever necessary to make it more relevant and meaningful.
  • Confident speakers are generous. There really is something to the phrase “giving a speech.” The world has been turned in a more positive direction because of brave people who spoke out—think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Meade, Eleanor Roosevelt, just to name a few. But it has also been turned by the everyday speaker who decides to be more persuasive and passionate. All of us have a point of view and set of beliefs that can also change the world.

So the next time you give a presentation, if picturing the audience naked helps, by all means do it. But if you’re a true Nervous Nellie, keep your audience fully clothed and make a commitment to use the traits and strategies that confident speakers employ. Be proud, compassionate, spontaneous, and generous, and then dare any audience to see you naked. That’s the surest way to conquer your fears in the midst of any crowd.

Let Your Public Speaking Skills Age Like Fine Wine

Imagine having the opportunity to write a speech about a topic you know and love and deliver it nine times in the course of a day to a rapt audience, gaining new supporters and perfecting your delivery each time. That’s precisely the opportunity afforded to my client David Amadia, VP of Sales for Ridge Vineyards, when he attended the Vancouver International Wine Festival last month and participated in their “Meet Your Match” event. “Meet Your Match” is the wine education version of speed dating. Small groups of wine enthusiasts spent six minutes with each wine producer to taste their wine, hear their story, and ask questions. In those six minutes, David tutored the wine tasters on the various qualities of “fine” wine—it comes from a great vineyard, reflects the patch of ground where it is grown, is age-able and will improve over time, stimulates the mind and the palette, and has many complex levels and flavors. He introduced newcomers to Ridge’s exceptional single vineyard wines and updated fans on the latest spring releases.

He also told snippets of the fascinating history of Ridge Vineyards—a story that can’t be fully told in a few minutes but that included the following highlights:

The history of Ridge Vineyards began in 1885 when Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor, bought 180 acres of land near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains because it reminded him of the terraced slopes and cool climate of his homeland in Italy. Perrone built the Monte Bello Winery and produced the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility today.

The winery closed during Prohibition, reopened with repeal, but closed definitively in the early 1940s. New Ridge partners formed in 1950 when three Stanford Research Institute engineers bought the property as a weekend retreat and made a quarter-barrel of “estate” cabernet. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Working only on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.

In 1968 Paul Draper joined the partnership after he realized that if three engineers working on weekends could make world class wine, it had to be the rich land that was responsible for their success and not the winemakers themselves. Under Draper’s guidance, the old Perrone winery was restored and the consistent quality and international reputation of Ridge Wines established.

That history is lot of ground to cover in a few short minutes. Add in information about the various wines being tasted and random questions from the audience and you can see how tight, focused, and polished David’s presentations had to be.

David was proud to introduce Ridge and its highly regarded estate wines, and he was delighted to meet new customers. But he also savored the unique opportunity to consciously practice his public speaking skills over and over in a relaxed venue as he gained experience, skill, and control with each new group.

So take a lesson from David Amadia. While you may never have a chance to do this sort of speed dating version of public speaking, you can find ways to practice—whether formally or informally—in front of small groups every day. Whether at the water cooler or at the dinner table, the more you tell your stories, interact with others, answer questions, and practice your delivery, the more you’ll find that your speaking skills are a lot like fine wine—they get better with time.

Rate Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

When it comes to nervousness in front of a group, I have noticed people generally fall into one of four categories, which I describe as the following four levels. These levels are an indicator of what I call a speaker’s “capacity for comfort” in front of a group. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and can barely get their words out. These individuals generally have little experience speaking to groups, but because of a recent promotion or increased job responsibilities, they are now expected to speak. They have little desire to speak in public, but are now required to do so. Their capacity for comfort is generally quite low. As such, they have a great opportunity for personal and professional growth!
  • Level 2: Hurried and Harried: These people deal with their fear and discomfort by racing through their material for one specific purpose—to get through it! They are usually familiar with their subject matter but rarely practice. They like to wing it. Many even believe that their “practice” happens while they are giving their presentation. As a result of their lack of preparation, they “hurry” through their presentation, talking too fast, shifting their weight, avoiding eye contact, and showing other physical signs of discomfort.  The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly improve and become more comfortable and competent.
  • Level 3: Surprised and Startled: These people have situational nervousness. They are fine in their regular day-to-day presentations, but if asked to perform out of their routine, they experience anxiety and discomfort. However, they typically don’t show their nervousness. In fact, their audience barely picks up on it, but the speaker still carries the burden of anxiety. These speakers take the time to practice and are generally more prepared than most, but unusual situations cause them to revisit earlier bouts of nerves and agitation. They are often the managers who comfortably lead staff or division meetings, but when asked to speak at an all-hands meeting or at a conference, they become anxious. The good news for these speakers is that they already know how to be comfortable in front of one type of audience, so it’s just a matter of learning how to apply their skills to a new venue to be comfortable in every new situation they encounter.
  • Level 4: Eager and Enthusiastic: These are the people who love to speak and do so with ease, taking every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. They may be executives, product evangelists, salespeople, senior leaders, marketing directors, and corporate trainers. They have already built a substantial capacity for comfort—and there is still room to grow.

What sets these four groups apart? It usually boils down to one thing: experience. Level 4 speakers know that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They are disciplined. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and gain insight from every speaking engagement.

The good news is that while public speaking is an art and a science, it’s not rocket science. In other words, you can become a level 4 speaker too. Whether you need to give a presentation at a low-key staff meeting for just a few or at a high-profile conference for thousands, you too can build your capacity for comfort and learn to adapt to the demands of any speaking situation. Every speaker in every category has the potential to become a relaxed and confident speaker—even you!

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.

Use the Power of Practice to Build Your Speaking Skills

The psychologist and philosopher William James famously wrote: “99% of our activity is purely automatic; all of our life is nothing but a mass of habits.”After reading the book The Power of Habitby Charles Duhigg (which I first wrote about here), it is clear that habits define virtually every aspect of our lives, from how much we eat, save, or spend to how we work, communicate, and interact with others. One interesting example in Duhigg’s book focuses on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. As a child, Phelps was high strung and intense, so his mother got him involved in swimming as a way to manage his tension and anxiety. That’s when Phelps met his coach, Bob Bowman, whose main goal was to help Phelps’ stay calm and relaxed. Bowman also wanted his student to develop automatic willpower so Phelps could become competitive and the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.

One of the tools Bowman used was something he called “watching the video tape.” There was no physical video; he was referring instead to the practice of visualization. Every morning and night, Phelps was to relax his body and visualize his practice in the pool. He was instructed to imagine every aspect of his routine in his head and to see every detail clearly.

During the 2008 Olympics, Phelps continued this habit of visualization, just as he had every day since he was 10. It’s a good thing he did. During the 200 meter butterfly, his strongest event, his goggles filled with water. He couldn’t see anything. But he went on automatic mode and visualized the race even though he was unable to see the wall, the other swimmers, or the swim lanes. And he won another gold medal and set a world record. When he was asked afterwards how he was able to win the race under those conditions, he said it was because of his power of visualization. He didn’t need to physically see anything; he could see it all in his mind.

Public speakers can learn a lot from this powerful example.

To be truly great at presenting, you have to develop automatic willpower to prepare for every eventuality. You have to prepare your content and then take the time to practice and rehearse your delivery even when you think you don’t have the time to practice or don’t want to practice. Like Phelps, you must create practice routines (or habits) that lead to success.

I recommend all types of practice routines, including:

  • Visualizing yourself giving the perfect presentation.
  • Practicing sections of your speech to yourself when you’re doing the dishes, walking the dog, etc.
  • Doing formal practice sessions in front of others. During these practice sessions, ask people to comment on specific things you want to improve, such as vocal skills, gestures, eye contact, etc.
  • Utilizing small, everyday interactions to practice key skills. For example, during water cooler chat, practice your gestures. At dinner, practice your storytelling skills.

When you practice in a variety of venues and ways, the key skills you want to improve will become more natural and a part of who you are. Ultimately, you have to build your habits, or your habits will build you. Which habits are you trying to eliminate or improve? Let me know in the comments section below.

Good Habits Make Good Speakers

During a recent executive speech coaching session I was working with a client and having him repeat a single line from his speech over and over. I wanted him to develop the habit of saying a key phrase a certain way so he would get a particular response from his listeners.  When we took a break from the practice, he asked me, “Have you read the book The Power of Habit?” I hadn’t, and he told me to check it out because it was relevant to our work. I’m glad I took his advice. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by award-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg vividly explains why habits exist, how they shape our lives, and how they can be changed. While it’s not a book that focuses on presentation skills per se, its message is one that will benefit all speakers.

In his book, Duhigg says that the way to change any habit is to build awareness so you can identify which habits you’re currently using. You then build new habits by using the old habit as a blueprint. His model, what he calls “The Habit Loop,” consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, when you wake up each morning, the first thing you do is walk into the bathroom and see your toothbrush (the cue). You then brush your teeth (the routine). Finally, you feel the reward of a tingling clean mouth.

Almost all our daily activities revolve around this habit loop. Therefore, to make any real changes in life, it’s imperative that you get to the core of the drivers or motivations behind the habit. In essence, if you build your awareness and understand why you are doing what you do, then you have the ability to change ineffective habits and replace them with new more effective ones.

So how does all this apply to public speaking?

Your Habits Can Impact Your Presentation Skills

People come to me every day with all sorts of fears and uncertainties about presenting: “I get stage fright,” “I’m not a good speaker.” “Everyone will laugh at me.” The list is endless. My job is to educate people about the tools and skills they can use, and the habits they can develop, so that when they get up to speak they exude confidence and power.

So think about your speaking anxiety or challenge. What’s the cue that starts the negative behavior? What’s the routine you then normally engage in? Finally, what’s the reward you get from that? For example:

  • You get an email announcing that you have been selected to speak at the company meeting. (Cue)
  • You divert your attention from the fact that you have to speak by wasting time and doing everything but preparing. As a result, you run out of time to develop a powerful message and you don’t practice your delivery.  (Routine)
  • You put off the hard work of speech preparation and keep your fears at bay by distracting yourself and successfully avoid presentation practice. (Reward)

The outcome is an anxiety-ridden, half-baked performance that bores the audience and makes you feel even less confident. But that “habit loop” is a fairly typical pattern for many people who have stage fright. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to prepare for a speech by sheer avoidance, but that is a key message of Duhigg’s book: Our habits are so ingrained that we don’t even know we are doing them, even when they seem illogical.

So the next time you get that email announcing that you are to speak at the company meeting (cue), rather than goof off, decide to make a new routine that consists of three easy steps: 1) Develop your content, 2) Build your PowerPoint slides, and 3) Practice your delivery out loud at least three times. You’ll then experience the reward of feeling prepared and confident when you stand up to speak, and stage fright will be a thing of the past.

No matter what speaking challenges you’re attempting to overcome, rest assured that you can change your habits and develop your speaking skills. Simply find the cue, identify the routine, and feel the reward. By following this simple process, a new you, complete with new habits, will emerge.

Add Alltop.com to Your Speaker’s Toolbox

Alltop
Alltop

Whether you’re looking for an intriguing story, an interesting example, or a new data point to build out the content of your presentation, Alltop.com is an excellent resource to use and one I recommend to my clients. Rather than a search engine, Alltop is a content aggregator. That means they collect the headlines of the latest stories from the best sites and blogs that cover a particular topic. In our case that topic is public speaking. They group these collections—or “aggregations”—into individual web pages, where they display the five most recent headlines of the information sources as well as their first paragraph. Think of Alltop as an information filter to help you quickly find great material for your speech. Recently I was on the site reading Nancy Duarte’s featured blog, PowerPoint 2013: New and (Mostly) Improved. In it she talks about the anticipated release of Office 2013 (scheduled for January) and the latest and greatest version of PowerPoint that will be included. She and her team have picked apart the software from end to end. They’ve looked at how PowerPoint 2013 has improved, and how it hasn’t. Consider it required reading for anyone who gives business presentations.

Speaking of PowerPoint, another Alltop blog that caught my attention was from Ethos 3 entitled Before & After: Five Presentation Tips You Need to Know. In this post they show “before” and “after” PowerPoint slides and point out key lessons to learn from each one. Hopefully more of your slides look like the “after” rather than the “before” versions. If not, this blog and site offers a host of good tips to ensure your slides are memorable…for the right reasons.

And since the holidays are just around the corner, I particularly enjoyed the blog by Six Minutes, Stocking Stuffers and Gifts for Every Speaker. People always ask me what to get for the speakers in their life, and now I have a great post to refer them to. Of course, this blog begs the questions, “What great speaker-oriented gift have you received in the past?” and “What speaker-oriented gift do you wish you’d receive this year?” Leave your answers in the comments section.

These three blogs are just a small sample of what’s available every day on Alltop. You can keep up with your favorite bloggers, stay abreast of the latest trends in public speaking, and use the site as a resource for building and delivering your presentations.

Have you tried Alltop yet? What’s your favorite aspect of it? Please share the creative ways you use it to increase your public speaking knowledge and skill.

How to Thrive in a Challenging Public Speaking Situation

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working with Carolyne Stayton, the Executive Director of Transition US. Transition US is a resource and catalyst for building resilient communities across the United States that are able to withstand severe energy, climate, or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process. Carolyne was scheduled to give a speech at the Bioneers conference in Marin County, CA, and she needed help with her preparation. Bioneers is a non-profit educational organization that highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet. Since 1990, Bioneers has acted as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with nature-inspired approaches for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. 

Carolyn’s topic was “Resilient Communities: Mobilizing and Equipping Local Citizen Action.”

Here’s how she began her speech:

I’d like to begin by using the analogy of “the story.”

In our climate story, we are entering the chapter where the dragon has arrived. He’s breathing fire and scorching our crops. He’s melting the ice and causing tornadoes where they’ve never been seen before. He’s flooding our rivers, our cities, and our towns. And he’s madly extracting oil from our fragile landscapes. So where did this dragon come from?

He came from our decades of wonton consumerism. He came from our explosive carbon lifestyle. And he came from our blatant disregard for the laws of nature.

This sounds like a pretty bleak chapter in the story, doesn’t it? It sounds like a story you want to put down and not finish. But I’ve got good news for you. We are also at the point in the story where the hero arrives to save the day. And the best news of all is this: the hero is YOU!

My purpose here today is to give you the information, tools, and resources you need to confront the dragon head on, to slay him. To sauté him. And to serve him up at a pot luck supper!

The night before Carolyn was scheduled to give her speech, she sent me an email. She said she had the jitters and needed a last minute pep talk. I sent her a list of some things to do to further prepare her body and mind. Among them was to limit caffeine, drink plenty of water, sit quietly and breathe deeply, and visualize success before her talk.

Two days later I received another email from Carolyn. Here’s what she wrote:

Thank you so much for the last minute tips and for all of the wisdom you imparted. They really helped me. Among other things, I was very conscious of my breath all through Saturday. I stayed away from caffeine and I did drink lots of water.

But I do have a story for you. Fifteen minutes before my presentation, I was sitting on a bench in the sun, feeling my heart and connecting right through my legs and feet to the earth. Unbeknownst to me, my water bottle had tipped and had poured all over my notes AND the back of my skirt. Basically I was sitting in a puddle! I had to wring my skirt out, walk onto the stage, and stand before the audience with a skirt clinging to the back of my legs and wet underwear! My practice and work on the presentation saved me. But instead of being nicely grounded in my heart, I was definitely more in my head.

Apparently no one else noticed!

So to add to your book of what not to do (fig leaf, etc.) feel free to add “don't pour water on your butt”!

Geez.

Without your help, having the water incident happen would have absolutely immobilized me. Fortunately, I delivered adequately and from some comments, very well.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart.

There is a lesson here. Even when you are prepared, confident, centered, and in control, things happen out of the blue. Good speakers take these unwelcome incidents in stride and roll with them, keeping perspective, going back to the long hours of preparation and planning, and moving on as if nothing had happened. So the next time you’re ready to present and suddenly realize that you’ve just sat in a puddle of water, or that you forgot your slides at your office across town, or that your room set up is not what you expected, or anything else that could possibly happen, relax and rely on your practice, wisdom, and expertise to pull you through. When you’re prepared and confident, you can thrive in even the most challenging speaking situations.

Obama vs Romney: Too Late for PowerPoint?

I was giving a presentation yesterday to a group of 30 major account sales professionals from a global company. For many in the room, English was their second language, so there was somewhat of a gap in our communication. Greater than the adjustments I made to my content and delivery—speaking slower, repeating key ideas, checking in with them often—were the powerful slides I created filled with photos, models, graphics, and quotes that added to the storyline and significantly narrowed the gap between us. After fifty slides I asked them which slides they remembered, and everyone in the room had a few favorites. It got me to thinking…I wonder why Obama and Romney don’t get on-board with PowerPoint? I wonder if these kinds of richly designed visuals would support their appeal to their listeners and reach the broader culture.

Then this morning I came across this article: 71 Compelling & Surprising PowerPoint Tips from the Pros, which, as the title suggests, lists 71 tips all presenters and PowerPoint users should know.

Since it’s already too late for either candidate to re-think their speaking strategy for this election, perhaps we can all just muse on the possibility of the candidates applying some of the 71 compelling tips in the future. It may make future elections more interesting.

What It Really Means to Share the Stage

If you want to see a good example of partnership, collaboration, and sharing the stage, then take notice of the current interactions between President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Even though these two men are political opponents and have had their differences in the past, they are clearly demonstrating that they are capable of doing their jobs as leaders during one of the worst natural disasters in our history. And in doing so, their partnership has been a compliment to both of them. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie has shown genuine leadership and has publicly praised the president—the man he is hoping people vote out of office this month. But during this moment in our history, it seems that both men are putting politics aside and truly being allies. “I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state and the people of our state,” Christie said after surveying the damage with the president. He later added, “When the president does things that deserve praise, I will give him praise.”

Obama, too, has publicly acknowledged Christie. “I just want to thank him for his extraordinary leadership,” Obama told reporters. “He's been aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this incredible storm. And I think the people of New Jersey recognize that he has put his heart and soul into making sure that the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before.”

Over the past few days, these two rivals have stood no more than one foot apart, complimented each others' leadership, and shared a common goal. Together, they have kept the focus on the victims and the first responders, never letting politics or bureaucracy get in the way.

Because of this wonderful display of collaboration, people from coast to coast are reassured and have greater confidence in the government’s ability to help in this type of crisis. In fact, I’d even say that this is a thrilling demonstration of bi-partisanship, and the fact that it’s happening on the main stage for all to see is a tribute to our democracy.

Even though these two men are very different, not only politically but also in style, tone, affect, physical presence, etc., they are bridging their difference to be one united front so they can do their jobs and help those in dire need. This show of teamwork is truly remarkable.

Granted, there is still a long road ahead for the people who were affected by Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, but these two leaders have provided what all good leaders provide in a crisis: A sense of urgency, clear direction, and inspiration, instilling confidence in all of us that we are never alone, and that democracy and politics really can work.

The Secret to Being a Great Presenter: Continuous Learning

Continuous learning is a key indicator of success. That’s because learning, at any stage of your career, means growth. New skills, new behaviors, and new knowledge translate into new opportunities. Achievement oriented people love and embrace this type of challenge. I’ve found that people seek continuous learning for various reasons. Sometimes it’s simply for the joy of learning. Other times there’s an outside force, such as a promotional opportunity or feedback from a boss or colleague that something needs to be fixed. And in some cases, the desire for learning stems from an internal force—the realization of a limitation or the feeling of being “fed up” with a certain behavior or attitude.

Whatever the driver, continuous learning is a process that requires a deep personal desire, a commitment of time, and the willingness to exert effort. What kind of effort? Well, that depends on what you’re trying to learn. In terms of learning related to improving presentation skills, the top things to work at are:

  • Become a consumer of speaking: One of the most important ongoing best practices for sustaining your skills as a public speaker is to become a “consumer of speaking.” This means that you observe and analyze every speaker you see in every situation, from the principal giving the welcome address, to your boss at staff meetings, to the pastor in your church. Notice specific skills and behaviors. What are these speakers doing that engage or distract you? What skills or attitude do you want to emulate or avoid?
  • Set your long-term goals: Skill improvement takes a long time. The first step is to identify your strengths and development areas and pinpoint goals you can commit to achieving within the next three months. Select one key strength (a skill you already do well and want to refine even more, such as using gestures or enunciating clearly) and one area you want to develop (such as adding stories to your presentation or working on your inflection). It’s also important to identify why you want to take action in these areas, as well as the result you are looking for.
  • Commit to daily practice: One easy way to quickly expand your speaking skills is by using your everyday meetings and social events as opportunities for skill practice. First, identify all the meetings, events and social commitments in a typical week, and then assign a specific skill to practice at each of these meetings. For example, you can practice raising your volume at a staff meeting, your gestures at the dinner table, and your posture when waiting in line at the dry cleaners. You can see how quickly your practice time will accumulate!
  • Leave no stone unturned: Yes, we are all busy and overloaded with our daily events, but there are dozens of opportunities every day to improve your public speaking skills. You can hire a coach, attend a class, or join a toastmasters group. Anything will help if your mind is clear that this is something you want to accomplish. Even your most modest effort will pay off.

Above all else, brag about your success! If you become a consumer of speaking, set long-term goals, practice daily, and leave no stone unturned, you deserve to celebrate. When it comes to continuous learning, every day will offer new opportunities for success, growth, and professional advancement.

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!

Prepare Your Speaker’s Toolbox

By now, we all know that practicing your presentation and working on key public speaking skills will make you a better presenter. But practice and skill aside, there are other, more tangible, things that will help you excel at business presentations. I call these things your “toolbox essentials.” Just as you prepare for your job by making sure you have key supplies on hand, when you’re taking on the role of “presenter,” you must prepare by making sure your speaker’s toolbox is stocked. Following are my top recommendations for any speaker’s toolbox.

Tools and Resources for Your Toolbox

  • Print out your PowerPoint™ presentation. Print your slides (either 3 or 6 to a page) just in case of an emergency. If for any reason you don’t have access to your laptop you will still be able to give the presentation.
  • Charge all batteries. Make sure you have an extra battery for your remote. If you are running your laptop on battery power, make sure you have an extra one.
  • Have the right remote for the right room. When you purchase your remote make sure to get one that works for the size room you will be speaking in. When you’re presenting up front you may not have the need for distance, but if you are a facilitator and like to work the room, you may be standing too far away for your remote to work. Each remote has different distances—standard is 20-40 feet, and you may need 100 feet.
  • Know your venue. Have a sheet with all pertinent contact info for the venue where you are speaking. Include your contact’s name and cell phone number, the venue address, and room name.
  • Take a clock. Bring a small watch or travel clock you can place on the podium or other nearby table or surface. While you don’t want to look at the time continually, you do want to casually check the time every so often to ensure you’re staying on track.

Wellness Tips for Your Toolbox

  • Get eight hours of sleep. Getting plenty of sleep the night before a major presentation will keep you mentally sharp and physically strong. Studies from the National Sleep Foundation show that people who are sleep deprived have more trouble performing math calculations, have impaired physical performance, and have more difficulty retaining information. Getting between 7 and 8 hours of sleep prior to presenting will positively impact your performance.
  • Drink plenty of water. Drinking lots of water (at least half of your body weight in ounces) will keep you feeling refreshed and relaxed. Since stress contributes to dehydration, any time you feel stressed (such as when giving a presentation) you need to drink more water than usual.
  • Stay fortified. Eat a well balanced diet rich in good protein sources and consume plenty of vegetables and fruits. Avoid high carbohydrate foods like pasta, breads, and sweets before you give a presentation. These foods will make you sleepy and reduce your concentration.
  • Take ‘Rescue Remedy.’ If you are highly susceptible to nervous tension, pack Rescue Remedy in your toolkit. Rescue Remedy is a Bach flower tincture that can be found in any health food store. Place two or three drops in an ounce of warm water and sip it slowly. Most people find that it has a relaxing effect on your nerves.
  • Avoid caffeine. While caffeine can be stimulating and help you feel temporarily energized for the presentation, it can also backfire and cause unwanted anxiety. Too much caffeine can take its toll on the nervous system over time, and speakers need calm nerves and sharp mental acuity to deliver a winning presentation.

The better prepared you are for any presentation, the more effective your speech will be. So take the time to pack your toolbox items; you’ll stand out and impress your audience.

Asked to Give an Impromptu Speech? It’s as Easy as One, Two, Three

Have you ever been to a business meeting or other event and unexpectedly been asked to stand and “say a few words”? This happened to three of my clients recently. One woman told me how her confidence soared and she excelled at giving a presentation to her company’s executive staff, yet she fumbled when asked on-the-spot to speak to company interns. Another man told me how he loved speaking at his all hands meeting, which had an audience of 500, yet he choked when asked to speak impromptu to a small field sales group. And my own son, usually a composed speaker, “blanked out and babbled” when asked to speak at a recent awards meeting to honor his own promotion. These are all competent and experienced speakers, yet they all stammered when asked to present unexpectedly. Why?

When you know you are going to be giving a speech, whether to your executive staff, at an all hands meeting, or in any other public speaking situation, you have time to plan and prepare. It doesn’t sneak up on you. You can develop a grand theme and strong message, build stimulating slides with eye catching visuals, and rehearse your delivery and staging to perfection. Time is on your side and the equation is simple: the quality of your presentation will be matched by the quantity of your preparation.

But what about the impromptu speech? What can you do to you maintain your confidence, add value to the conversation, and sound convincing and eloquent when you have no time to prepare?

First, realize that you have given hundreds of impromptu speeches before—such as when you added input during a business meeting, informed your new employee how to follow a procedure, asked a question of your boss or responded to a question by a colleague, spoke up at your child’s school PTA meeting, and even talked to the manager at a retail store to offer praise or advice regarding an employee. Think of how you behaved in these situations. Most likely you were calm, confident, and concise. And that is the formula for impromptu speaking success—stay relaxed, organize your thoughts, and limit yourself to a few, salient remarks.

When it comes to putting this formula into practice before an impromptu speaking opportunity, I recommend using a simple beginning, middle, end (or one, two, three) structure and specific language to help you remember the flow.

  • Step One: “First of all…” Begin your remarks with, “First of all, I’d like to say…” One client I work with who uses this approach always begins with a thank you, as in, “First of all, I want to thank you all for being here today…” He says that gives him time to gather his thoughts. But if you’ve been asked a question or asked for you input, you’ll need instead to state the point you are responding to. You could say something like, “First of all, I’d like to acknowledge the challenge we are facing…”
  • Step Two: “Next…” After you state your first thought, then state one relevant “touch point” or piece of support evidence to back it up, such as a crucial statistic, example, quote, or humorous story. Going back to the previous example of acknowledging the challenge, you could follow up the “first of all” line with, “Next, I want to also acknowledge the incredible opportunity available to us right now…”
  • Step Three: “And finally…” Here you briefly summarize what you have said and add your final thought. This is the highlight of the impromptu—the moment when you make everyone feel welcome, inspired, respected or when you move the conversation along in a meaningful way, as in, “And finally, I look forward to working together to achieve the goals we all know are possible…”

One of my clients, who is very good at impromptu speaking, says that even though he is not on the formal agenda to speak everywhere he goes, he is usually asked to say a few words. Knowing this, he never waits to the last minute to gather his thoughts. He uses this three step process to prepare ahead of time so he is never caught off guard.

So if you are going to an event and there is even the remote possibility that you may be called on to speak, take the time to prepare in advance. Use this three-step process and you will appear calm, confident and concise—the epitome of a polished speaker.