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.

Planning a Presentation? Make Sure Your Back-Up Plan Really Covers Your Back

Many of DeFinis Communications’ sales and technical clients spend a lot of time on the road, delivering presentations to prospects, customers, and users near and far. As such, they often share their road warrior tales of woe during our classes. So many things can go wrong before and during a presentation, from technical glitches to misplaced papers. While you can do your best to prepare and plan for almost any presentation crisis, there are some things that are completely out of your control, such as the weather and airline cancellations.

Rita Williams, one of our top trainers, has a travel story to trump all others. If you’ve ever had Rita as a DeFinis Communications instructor, you know her to be incredibly organized, punctual, and prepared. She’s not the type to wing a presentation or any part of the planning stage either. That’s why I was so surprised to hear her latest travel story.

Rita arrived at the airport early for a routine cross country flight from San Francisco to Washington DC. At check-in, the booking agent told her that she could take an earlier flight. In order to board the earlier flight, though, she had to gate-check her personal travel bag. Normally she never checks her bags for a short 2-3 day business trip, but this seemed safe enough so she was unconcerned.

After settling in to her seat and waiting on the tarmac for 30 minutes, the captain announced that the plane was having mechanical problems. Everyone would have to deplane and wait back in the terminal until the plane could be repaired. Rita wasn’t about to wait so she raced back to her original flight and luckily was able to board … but her travel bag wasn’t with her. Before the flight took off she called her husband and explained her dilemma—that she would arrive in DC after hours with no business clothes to wear the next day and no place to shop. Even though she was clearly distraught, her husband seemed indifferent. He simply told her that it would be okay and not to worry. But Rita was worried. Maybe he was tired, she reasoned. Rita was upset, but how could he help from so far away?

Fortunately, Rita is a natural born problem solver and came up with a truly creative solution. She decided to go to the hotel and offer to “purchase” a hotel uniform worn by one of the women at the front desk—ifshe was lucky enough to find a 6 ft. tall woman working that evening.

She arrived at the hotel, walked up to the front desk manager and explained the bind she was in. Before she could finish her plea and ask the woman for the shirt off her back, the hotel manager said, “Oh, this must be for you,” and handed her two shopping bags: one from Nordstrom and one from The GAP.

When Rita got to her room and opened the shopping bags, she saw two complete outfits in her size, style, and colors. She was absolutely stunned to see these beautiful clothes ready to wear to her presentation the following morning. She called her husband and found out that after speaking to her, he immediately called a friend in DC and described the situation. The friend, a man by the way, left work, went shopping for Rita, and delivered the clothes to her hotel!

Talk about a husband coming to the rescue!

I often think about the community of people we need to make our presentations successful and to make our lives work well on a daily basis. In our programs, we ask our participants to identify the people in their lives who act as role models, task masters, and supporters. Time and time again, when push comes to shove, spouses always seem to come through. So hats off to Rita’s husband, Dennis Williams, and all the other husbands, wives, family, and friends who support presenters every day. It’s always nice to know that someone out there is covering your back.

Speaker Beware! Is Your Audience Saying “Boo!” or “Oooh”?

When you deliver a presentation on Halloween or any other day of the year, your audience expects to be treated to a stimulating, thoughtfully designed, and well developed speech.But too many speakers inadvertently play a trick instead by using poor language skills that distract the audience, weaken the message, and leave listeners wanting to shout “Boo!” That’s why it’s important to beware of your language. Voice and language skills should communicate excitement, passion, and confidence, not leave your audience feeling like zombies.

Here are some tips to rid your language of the most common goblins that haunt presentations.

Avoid non-words: Non-words, sounds or phrase fillers, like “um,” “ah,” and “anduh” pollute your language and can be distracting to you listener. They can make you sound less polished, less prepared, and less credible, which will work against you when you are trying to communicate effectively and persuade others to your point of view.

Reduce distracting words and phrases: Polished public speakers use few if any of the following repetitive filler words: “like,” “really,” “I mean,” “you know,” “in terms of,” “so” “actually,” and many others. At DeFinis Communications our motto is, “Friends never let friends say, ’basically.’”

Limit slang: Avoid modern slang when giving a speech. Phrases such as “you guys,” “folks,” and “awesome” are fine to use in most everyday conversations, but they could weaken your credibility in front of certain audiences. Carefully consider your audience before using these words during your presentation and substitute power words for everyday slang.

What can you do?

If you have a tendency to use non-words, distracting words, or slang in everyday speech, your first step in changing these behaviors is to raise your awareness. Leave yourself voicemail messages, ask friends and colleagues if they notice these fillers, and listen carefully to yourself when you speak. Once you analyze the problem and know what you’re up against, then you can fix it.

Because vocal behaviors such as these are imbedded in our language from a very young age these habits will not change overnight. But there are techniques you can begin using today that will start the ball rolling in the right direction. When it comes to improving your vocal control, a “pause” is your best friend. Anytime you are on the verge of using a non-word, distracting word, or slang, stop and pause for two full seconds. You can also use shorter sentences, speak at a slower rate, raise your volume, breathe deeply, and smile to help you control these distracting words and sounds.

Don’t let your language skills kill your chances of giving a great speech. Whether on Halloween or any day of the year, strive to give your listeners a memorable experience that leaves them howling for more!

Read my past Halloween blog posts:

Spooky Presentations – When Botox Makes you Say “Boo!”

A Corporate Speechwriter’s Halloween Tour of Medieval England

A List of the “Best of the Best” in Public Speaking Information

In many career paths (business, media, PR, etc,), public speaking skills are essential. Whether giving a presentation to your boss, a group of your peers, or simply interviewing, knowing how to express yourself and your ideas clearly is critical. The good news is that there are an incredible number of online resources that can help you sharpen your skills. The bad news? Well, there are an incredible number of online resources to sift through, making it difficult to find what will help you the most.

The folks at Masters In Communication realized this double-edged sword … and they did something about it. Knowing that there are lots of great resources for speakers online, they set out to compile and highlight the best of the best. The result is Public Speaking 101: The Top Online Resources, which are broken down into four categories:

1.Public and professional speaking

2.Presentation blogs and tools

3.Speechwriting

4.General communication and debate

So how did they decide which people and companies to include in their list? They began their research by perusing search engines and asking their current readers for recommendations on quality sites. After contacting a few of the early contenders, they sought out more recommendations from those in the public speaking field. After all, who would know the top online resources better than those actually in it?

From there, they examined each resource and attempted to categorize and accurately describe each site for their readers. Many sites received quite a few mentions and had large followings on social media, so it was easy to identify them as deserving of inclusion. Others may not have been as strong in their followings, but they offered deep content and valuable resources and insights on the subject. Ranking these sites exactly would have been too difficult and subjective; coming to a consensus on 101 great sites to include on a comprehensive list was more practical. The result is the comprehensive list that’s published today.

So if you’re tired of endless searching for reliable information about public speaking, check out the list (scroll down to entry #6 and you’ll see me!). It’s a great resource that will help you now and in the future.

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 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.