Content Development

Will Your Q&A Session Make or Break Your Next Presentation?

Will Your Q&A Session Make or Break Your Next Presentation?

Most presentations benefit from a question-and-answer session (Q&A). Audience members appreciate this time to get clarification, share comments or ideas, and get deeper information on key concepts. However, because the Q&A feels less formal than the main presentation, many speakers neglect to prepare for this time. In reality, the Q&A requires just as much preparation as any other section of your talk.

7 Deadly Sins of Presentation Preparation

Have you ever found yourself sitting in the center seat of a packed auditorium—hemmed in on both sides by people and laptops—listening to a keynote speaker who is supposed to be imparting knowledge and wisdom, but instead is droning on and on? You want to run, but you can’t. So you endure what seems like torture.

You probably think this only happens in large university lecture halls, right? Not so. I’ve seen it at trade shows, association meetings, speaker forums, customer meetings, and yes, even at TED talks. One can only wonder what these speakers were thinking. How could they come to an event of such high caliber and not be prepared?

The funny thing is, if you ask them, they might tell you they spent a lot of time preparing, perhaps even over-preparing. Because the truth is that you can prepare and still not do well if you prepare incorrectly. In other words, not all preparation is the same.

Here is a list of the seven “sins” of poor presentations—all of which focus on the mistakes made when speakers prepare for their presentation incorrectly. Avoid committing these errors and you can give a stellar speech every time.

  1. Not having the right intention: In public speaking, as in every other worthwhile pursuit in life, intention is everything. If you don’t have a clear goal and objective for your speech, your audience will know it and become lost and confused … and most likely so will you. So set your intention, state the purpose of your presentation, and tell your audience what you hope your presentation will achieve for them.
  2. Not preparing your content before you prepare your PowerPoint™: Many people are in the habit of creating their slides before they create their full content, as if the PowerPoint slides are the end game instead of a useful, though limited, outline. They never take the next step to fully develop their message. That’s like building a house with a napkin drawing instead of a blueprint, and we all know how risky that can be. Take the time to fully develop your message first, and then create powerful visuals to accompany it.
  3. Not realizing that your content has two parts—message and structure: This is the tricky part for some presenters. Creating an interesting story line and developing an exciting topic complete with great examples, metaphors, and data comes naturally to some, but then taking the next step and forging that great content into a simple, easy-to-follow beginning, middle, and end structure is overlooked. Too much content without enough structure can leave the audience overwhelmed and perplexed.
  4. Not practicing your delivery ahead of time: Most people know better than to wing it in front of a large, high-stakes crowd, but there are plenty out there who think they have enough experience to stand up and speak with very little rehearsal. Every audience is unique and deserves your time and preparation. The best speakers practice out loud at least three times before every presentation they give.
  5. Not showing physical excitement and passion: Passion is an overused word when it comes to public speaking, but that’s because it is such a necessary component of a successful speech. You may feel plenty of real passion for your subject, but if you don’t practice showing it you will not be able to convince your audience that you mean it. Showing how you feel about your subject is just as important as knowing the details of what you are talking about.
  6. Not letting your voice be free: The human voice has the capacity to excite, stimulate, persuade, and inspire. Let your voice ring free of inhibitions by speaking with power, raising your pitch, using inflection, and exploiting dramatic pauses. The audience loves the music of the human voice, so make sure to let yours sing out and work for you.
  7. Not showing confidence and energy: There is the old adage that if you happen to be charismatically challenged you should “fake it until you make it.” That means even if you’re not “comfortable” performing with more vocal strength and physical action you must still do it. The audience depends on you to be lively and energetic during your presentation. They will forgive you if you try and fail, but they won’t forgive you if you don’t try at all. The more you practice, the easier this becomes. So take a chance at success and Come Alive!

When you prepare your presentation, be the saint and not the sinner! Use your knowledge of good presentation skills and prepare the correct way so that even those audience members stuck in the center of the crowd will stand up and cheer for you.

Please let me know what other preparation “sins” you would add to this list!

Be a Powerful Presenter … Even “On the Fly”

We all know that when it comes to public speaking, “practice makes perfect.” So if you want to bring the house down, you have to prepare your script or outline in advance and practice your delivery by rehearsing out loud. Only then can you rest assured that you’ll give a great speech.

But what about those times when you have to speak on the fly, as in an interview situation where you are speaking “off the cuff,” on a panel when any question can come your way, when the camera is running and you’re put on the spot, or when you are in front of a hostile crowd? How do you organize your thoughts so you sound like an expert and come across as natural, flowing, credible and confident? As one of my clients told me this week, “I want to be able to riff off the script and speak eloquently off the cuff.”

Here’s a secret: The best impromptu speakers follow many of the same principles you use when planning a more formal presentation. Since you’re being call upon to speak, it’s assumed that you’re a subject matter expert and passionate about what you have to say. So in those few seconds you have to plan your reply, use the simple rules of content organization:Keep your audience in mind, remember your purpose, and quickly organize your response into three discreet sections: beginning, middle, and end.

As you speak, keep your message concise (and yourself on point) by using short sentences. When appropriate, include an interesting story and relevant example to highlight your key point. Stick to your structure throughout – “first of all…” “second…” And finally…”

To appear confident, keep your posture upright, use gestures and facial expressions, and make eye contact with your listeners. Concentrate on your voice by controlling your rate of speech, using inflection to highlight key points, and pausing to give yourself and the audience or interviewer a chance to reflect on what you are saying. These few vocal skills will prevent you from getting tongue tied and help you come across as cool and collected.

And even though you have only minutes or sometimes seconds to prepare, make sure you hit your talking points. For example, if you’re on a panel and get a question you didn’t expect, bring the focus back around to the key points you want known about your topic. Most subject matter experts have key sound bites memorized about their topic. This is the time to draw upon those. 

You never know when you might be called on to speak on the fly, but if you use the same public speaking concepts and techniques you use for general presentations, you can make any presentation look like a well-planned event … even if you have just a few seconds to do so.

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.

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.

Add Context, Not Just Content, to Your Next Speech

While vacationing in Maine, my husband and I ventured to Lubec, Maine, the gateway to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada—the once popular summer colony for wealthy Americans and Canadians, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On our way we stopped at Quoddy Headlight, the easternmost point in the U.S. And once on Campobello, we went to the East Quoddy Lighthouse.

Perched on an island and only accessible in low tide, the East Quoddy Lighthouse called to our adventurous spirit. We were eager to make the trip across the sandbar and climb the steps to the lighthouse. Although it’s dangerous and rugged, for two hours when the tide is out visitors can climb the steep metal ladders, walk on the ocean floor, cross two intermediate islands connected by a short wooden bridge, take a second steep ladder and then walk across a rocky, slippery seaweed covered intertidal zone to get to the lighthouse. We were ready for the adventure when we were warned that the tide had turned. Then we saw the sign:

DANGER!--TAKE NO RISKS & DO NOT LINGER! If you become stranded on the islands by the tide, WAIT FOR RESCUE. Even former keepers of this lighthouse have lost their lives by misjudging the STRONG, FRIGID, FAST-RISING tidal currents and TIDE-PRESSURIZED UNSTABLE PEBBLE OCEAN FLOOR while attempting to make this crossing.

At that moment, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous saying, “Time and tide wait for no man,” took on a whole new meaning for me.

The tides in this part of the Bay of Fundy are 25 feet or more. We learned that further up the bay in Nova Scotia, the tidal changes can be more than 50 feet and most extreme when the moon is full. These are the largest tidal changes in the world. That’s a lot of water moving in and out twice a day, and it was clear that the tides were the backdrop for the entire way of life in this part of Maine.

We saw firsthand the dramatic changes in the tides. In Lubec, there are poles on the wharf that go up nearly 20 feet, taking the dock with it as the water rises and falls. Like clockwork, an hour before high tide a dozen or more seals, cormorants, gulls, and bald eagles arrive to feed on the fish brought in by the tide. Travelling to these places and witnessing the significance of the tidal changes first hand brought Chaucer’s quote to life. The facts were important, but seeing the facts in action was exhilarating!

This experience made me realize the importance of “context” in describing any situation. Until I saw the physical power of these dramatic tides, the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man” had little meaning to me. But now I get it. You can’t beat the tides. The sea will never bow to your will. And no matter how strong a swimmer you are, at 50 degrees the water is too cold, the rips too unpredictable, and the force of the water flow too overpowering.

I often counsel my clients to use stories, metaphors, anecdotes, and quotes—the rhetorical devices that create compelling imagery and add power to your presentations. However, it is absolutely essential to also provide the context in which the images reside.

To create effective presentations we often use phrases from our own experience, thinking that our audience fully understands the meaning. But they may not understand where we’re coming from. So our challenge as communicators is not only to come up with and deliver the clever anecdote, quote, or quip, but also to be successful in communicating the broader world from which it evolves. Yes, the facts of tidal changes were compelling, but then there was the DANGER sign, the rising and falling poles on the dock in Lubec, and the sea life feeding at the exact same time every day. These images bore witness.

Therefore, I encourage you to find those fascinating rhetorical gems and take the time to fully render them in context. Tell us more; make it come alive.

And now, I’ve gotta run. The lighthouse beckons, and the tide is coming in!

Whether on the 2012 Campaign Trail or in the Boardroom, Use Stories to Build Trust

Recently, President Obama admitted that his job as President is about more than just getting the policy right. As he put it, “The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times." Well said, Mr. President! For years I’ve been telling business presenters that stories are essential to getting your message across. Whether speaking to a large group, as the President often does, or speaking to a small gathering of staff, telling a good story stimulates a strong emotional connection between you and the audience. Tell a story and you entertain. Tell a story and you connect. Tell a story and you build trust.

Stories play an important role in our everyday communication. They can bridge the gap that’s inherent in many types of presentations, from the lively motivational speech to the serious executive all-hands meeting to the dense technical demo presentation. In fact, we’ve all seen what can happen with the introduction of a story—a boring presentation will come alive!

If you want to persuade your listeners to your point of view, connect on a deeper level, and most of all build trust, telling stories is key. Here are a few simple tips to help enhance your storytelling.

  • Be yourself: You likely tell stories every day, and these are the stories that have the power to create a bond with your listeners. When you share a personal story, the distance between you and the audience dissolves. Stories show your vulnerability, which creates an opportunity for trust. As you tell a personal story, both you and the listener share a heightened emotional experience.
  • Build believable characters: Who are the heroes in your story? Take the time to develop characters who are appealing to you and your listener. Create characters by using the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste), and explore emotional, practical or other aspects of the characters as well. Let your characters grow every time you tell the story so that they take on a life of their own.
  • Create a plot that sticks: What are the stories that you remember? You no doubt have your favorites; we all do. No matter how charming and well developed your characters, the plot is often the most memorable. Create a plot that has action and movement. Let your character face and overcome obstacles, teach lessons and inspire. When you develop a detailed plot line, your audience will never forget it.
  • Listen to the stories of others: You hear plenty of stories regularly—in your everyday business presentations; in community meetings; in political, cultural, and religious speeches; in entertainment and comedy; at social events; in the media. Write down every great story you hear so you have fresh material to draw from and learn more about content style and delivery.
  • The Power of Practice: Most people are not natural “stage” storytellers but are comfortable telling a story at the dinner table. That’s why it’s important to practice your platform stories before you go live. Write out and organize the flow of your story, and then practice your language, sentence structure, pacing and rhythm. Remember that timing is still everything when it comes to storytelling, so use silence to create dramatic, strategic and forceful pauses. Practice is the key to delivering a story that builds trust.

No matter what kind of presentations you give, take some advice from me and the President: use stories! Let them help you grab the attention and tug at the heartstrings of your audience. Let your stories ring out and you’ll connect with your listeners in a whole new way—a way that builds trust and respect that goes way beyond the podium.

Adopt a “Pay it Forward” Mindset for Your Next Company or Industry Presentation

This week is the National Speakers Association annual convention. While I did not attend this year’s event, it got me thinking about what it takes to present at a large scale annual meeting—whether for a company or an association/industry. The key, I believe, lies in good planning—the kind that results in delivering a unified message and creating an atmosphere of “can do” collegiality. The best annual meetings provide an immersion in the uniqueness of the company or industry culture, important teaching moments, and opportunities to connect with colleagues. But the pitfall of any annual meeting occurs when the meeting gets out of control at the planning stage and caves in to excess, namely too much on the agenda and too many boring presentations.

If you happen to be giving one of these presentations, you have a unique opportunity to do your company, industry, and colleagues a huge favor—to pay it forward, so to speak, by taking the road less travelled and being a “kinder, gentler” presenter. How? By resisting the urge you may feel to deliver too much information in a typical PowerPoint presentation, just like every other presentation that will be given during the meeting.

If you are one of the chosen few who will deliver a presentation at the annual meeting, give your audience something that is easy to digest and that will lighten their load. Deliver a presentation so well rehearsed that your authenticity shines though. Give them a hard-core message delivered with just the right amount of charm and confidence. And do it so well that they feel the power to do the same for others in their presentations. When you pay it forward, they pay it forward. Here a few tips to help you do so.

  1. Plan with the planners in mind: Before you start planning your presentation, find out the meeting’s overall theme and goal. Understand why you were chosen to present. Is there a specific message they want you to give? Ask questions to clarify your role and any goals the planners have for you. If possible, check in with more than one person so you are certain of everything. Once you complete your due diligence, then you can tailor your presentation to focus on just one important area.
  2. Cut, Cut, Cut: You are one person and one presenter. So there’s no need for you to tell the audience everything. Remember that people are there to learn from many different experts. No matter how much you believe your audience needs to hear everything from you, you’re just one vital piece of the puzzle. Therefore, keep your message short, simple, and focused, and always tie your remarks to the meeting’s overall goal.
  3. Speak to the highest denominator: This is an important event. People from all levels will be there listening to you. Even with the broad spectrum of people in attendance, always perform for the people whose standards are the highest rather than for your most complacent audience members. This is your moment to shine for your boss, your boss’s boss, and even his or her boss. These people expect a lot from you, so be sure to deliver.
  4. Step out of the PowerPoint Box: Yes, PowerPoint is helpful…it’s even cool. But how about not using PowerPoint…at all. Think about the endless possibilities of doing something different and unexpected, like a treasure hunt or a group game. If you must use PowerPoint, design it with color, images, and sound. Use lively video clips or interactive pieces to entertain, educate, motivate, and inspire.
  5. Build in audience participation and involvement: Deliver your message with a light and creative touch. No matter how big the group, you can still get them talking to each other by pairing them up and asking them to share stories or to brainstorm ideas. Use your sense of humor, even if it’s modest. Tell inspiring stories and use examples to drive the message home.

Annual company and industry meeting status quo can have a powerful impact on your performance. You could fall in line, do the same old boring PowerPoint, and ignore the greater needs of your audience; however, if you do, you miss a great opportunity to truly excite and inspire others to act in a positive way. It takes confidence to pay it forward, but when you do you set off a chain reaction. Suddenly everyone’s presentations are more passionate, more creative, and more engaging—and everyone wins.

How to Be the Highlight of Any Meal: Tips for Making the After Dinner Speech

Most presenters shy away from being the one to give an after dinner speech. If you’re not careful, talking when people are full and tired can be a recipe for disaster. Perhaps that’s why Winston Churchill said, “There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you." But despite any hesitations of modern day speakers, the custom of saying a few words at the end of a meal is probably as old as civilization itself. The after dinner speech gained prominence in England during the early nineteenth century, and according to Barnet Baskerville in his book The People’s Voice: The Orator in American Society, these speeches became so popular that they were called “the style of oratory most cultivated” in the U.S.

What makes these speeches unique (and sometimes feared by presenters) is that audiences generally expect to be not only informed about a particular issue, but also entertained. This duel focus can make the after dinner speech a challenge. But with skill and practice, anyone can deliver one with ease. Here are a few points to remember:

• Ditch the formality. After dinner speeches have a light touch—they are less formal that most other speeches since the intent is not just to persuade, inform, or motivate. The intent is also to entertain and to make people feel relaxed and welcome. They are community builders at their best.

• Choose an appropriate topic. Fortunately, just about any topic is good for an after dinner speech. Even serious, weighty topics work if they are handled with a light touch. The most important thing to keep in mind is that they must be relevant to the occasion.

• Be funny…but not too funny. While the tone and topic and can be lighter, that doesn’t mean you should attempt to be a standup comic when delivering an after dinner speech. Avoid stringing jokes together or using inappropriate humor. For more tips on using humor effectively in your after dinner speech, see my past blog post.

• Watch the time. One nice thing about doing an after dinner speech is that most people won’t have to rush out at the end to make another appointment. However, that doesn’t mean you can talk all night. Most people don’t want to stay up to the wee hours of the night listening to a speaker—even if that speaker is entertaining. Be mindful of the time so you can keep people’s attention.

While after dinner speeches were originally always delivered “after dinner,” today such speeches are delivered after cocktails, after lunch, after breakfast—or just about any time people gather for meals. So whether it’s morning or night, use these tips when you have to speak after a meal and you’re sure to have your audience eating out of your hands.

Guest Blog: A Corporate Speechwriter’s Halloween Tour of Medieval England

A veteran speechwriter and executive communications specialist, Ian Griffin helps CEOs and senior managers develop strategic messaging and content for presentations to audiences worldwide. He is Past-President of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association and an active member of Toastmasters. A version of this article first appeared in Ian’s blog Professionally Speaking. As a speechwriter for various Silicon Valley companies, I’ve seen both the bad (the tricks) and the good (the treats) of corporate speech development. And while speech writing may seem like a bore of a job, in truth the role of a speechwriter can be as diverse and intriguing as a Medieval Renaissance Fair. For fun on this Halloween day, let’s imagine the world of corporate America set in the time of Medieval England.

Quite ridiculous of course! We’ve come such a long way since the 14th Century. For example, back in the Dark Ages literacy was at an all-time low. Only a minority of the population held a passport and had traveled overseas. The rabble was entertained by jousting, feasting and Mystery Plays. And the King gave speeches no-one listened to.

I can’t possibly imagine what this era of history has in common with our own.

But what if? What if I did imagine?

What costumes could my corporate colleagues wear? And what do the characters in the Canterbury Tales, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail tell us about life today?

Obviously the CEO is the King (or, in rare cases, the Queen). An enlightened monarch or raging despot ruling over the organization. The EVPs and SVPs are the Barons at Court, consumed by intrigue and power plays. Sales managers are the Knights, conquering new territory. The staff are serfs and peasants, laboring in cubicle farms.

What about the speechwriter? Who would the speechwriter dress up as for a Medieval Halloween Ball?

Actually, there’s quite a number which fit the job description.

For starters, how about the speechwriter as the Motley Fool?

The Motley Fool

The fool on the hill Sees the sun going down, And the eyes in his head, See the world spinning ’round. - The Beatles: Fool on the Hill

The Fool in the Medieval Court stands behind King’s throne. While Barons and Knights give measured advice the Fool whispers in the King’s ear “That’s boring. Rubbish! Claptrap! The people won’t buy it. You’ll have to spice it up to keep their attention at the Guild Hall Luncheon tomorrow. Make ‘em laugh my liege. Tell ‘em a story.”

The Fool adds Laughter! Humor! Interest! He has King’s ear, for the moment. The King tolerates him (just) and values his fresh point of view.

The role of the Motley Fool is politically cool. You get to hang out with the powerful and mighty in the land. You might even spend time with the King on the Corporate Jet. But never forget that you’re the only person in the room without 5,000 serfs reporting to you and a quarterly number to make.

Screw up and it’s “Off with his head!”

As Robert Schlesinger said about JFK’s White House, speechwriters counter the “diplomatic blandness” the State Department bureaucracy produced.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Fools

  • Step outside the corporate bureaucracy.
  • Look at issues and topics with fresh eyes.
  • Inject humor, levity, tell stories – audiences love it.
  • Have the courage to speak frankly to the powerful.
  • Don’t show fear when the King growls.

Enough with the Jester. What other role characterizes the job of an Executive Communications Manager (aka Speechwriter) in today’s corporation? How about …

The Ploughman

Businessmen they drink my wine Ploughmen dig my earth - Dylan: All Along The Watchtower

A world away from the gilded Court, Ploughmen till the fields. Tedious but necessary work plays a large part in speechwriting. Doing research. Fact-checking. Ploughing through the background papers which spew from Subject Matter Experts like weeds sprouting on a April morning after a few sweet showers.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Ploughmen

  • It’s boring work, but learn to live with it. With any luck you’ll have the fields tilled by nightfall and the King will invite you to the feast that evening.
  • Have systems in place to take care of the boring stuff. Tracking forms; checklists; everything to speed the plough.
  • Divide up tasks. It’s less overwhelming to focus on today’s furrow than worry about the rest of the forty-acre field.
  • Take breaks, quaff ale, be strong behind the plough.

The Fisherman

Fish supplemented the Medieval diet. Carp was delicacy plucked from the castle moat by Fishermen. It’s always fun to throw a few lines in the water and see what slippery items of information you can catch. Today’s fisherman uses email and voice mail to leave requests for information with subject experts across the kingdom. Bait your hook with the name of the CEO. (“I’m doing some research for a speech John is giving next month and wanted your views…”). Always use the King’s first name. When the fish bite, reel them in.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Fisherman

  • Plan ahead. The fish might not be biting today. You need to get your lines in the water early on in the process.
  • Have patience. But if you don’t get an answer after a few days, fish in another part of the corporate millpond.
  • Don’t forget to bait your email requests with the first name of the executive you are writing for.

The Miller

The Miller is an important member of every Medieval community. Without him, there would be no flour and no loaves of bread. Bread and circuses are what keep the serfs fed and happy. Every Miller is dusty from grinding wheat into flour; separating wheat from chaff.

Subject Matter Experts (SME’s – rhymes with please) will bring sacks and sacks and sacks and sacks of data to your mill. Each direct report likes to provide at least 45 minutes of content for a 15 executive minute speech. If the executive has 10 reports that means you’ll have to sieve through eight hours of content.

It’s the speechwriters job to grind it down, then bake fresh loaves to feed the audience.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Millers

  • This is your biggest single value-add. No-one else wants to stand there while the mill-wheels are a-turning.
  • Edit ruthlessly – throw out 90% of the data the engineers and SME’s send you.
  • Say ‘No’ to requests for more data and facts from Knight’s and Baron’s who pile on the grain as a CYA strategy.
  • Keep the mill-wheels turning. Don’t send un-milled sacks of data to the court. They are paying you to sift and select.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist turns base metal into Gold. Like Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter you’ll take their words and sit in your room all night spinning them into gold. And next morning no-one will know how you did it.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Alchemists

  • Study the book of spells – text-books on speechwriting such as those listed at the end of this parchment.
  • Safeguard the Mystery. Don’t reveal your secrets to the other members of the Court.
  • Practice makes perfect. Alchemy is an art, not a science. Cultivate your Craft.
  • Understand that what you do is magikal to ordinary mortals.

The Monk

Scriptorium: a place for writing – commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes. - Wikipedia

Monks spent hours, days, weeks, months, years in the Scriptorium illustrating manuscripts like the Book of Kells. Everyone admires their artistry but wonders why they spent so much time coloring basic information and making it, actually, harder to comprehend.

That was then. This is now.

The speechwriter today spends hours, weeks, months, years in front of the computer illustrating presentations in PowerPoint. Future archeologists will gaze in wonder at the endless decks of slides. Beautiful, mindless illustrations of…what? Will anyone be able to comprehend these charts in the future? Can members of the audience comprehend them today?

Who cares. Monks may have had a diet of thin gruel, but illustrated manuscripts occupied them on winter evenings.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Monks

  • Learn cutting-edge PowerPoint skills. Take time to study and learn techniques.
  • Develop a good relationship with your graphics team who support you in this.
  • Read two of the Bibles of the modern era: Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology and Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen

The Wandering Minstrel

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you. - Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man

OK. I saved the best for last. All of the previous roles are aspects of life at Court, inside the hierarchical corporate world, bound by proscribed roles and strict protocols.

The Wandering Minstrel travels the land a free man composing sonnets and madrigals for clients.

Today the speechwriter as consultant wanders freely, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow. If this sounds like the life for you, there’s important lessons you need to learn.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Minstrel

  • Aim for niche markets. Become an expert in a specific industry. You’ll make good money if your expertize is an inch wide and a mile deep.
  • Work fast, bill clients a flat fee, clean up and move on (just like Joe the Plumber).
  • Stay at the top of your game. You have to be good, darned good.
  • Work by referrals. People love to hire a Minstrel who has performed for the crowned heads of Europe.

Book of Spells

Here are some reference books I keep close by:

Read these great book but also spend time listening to speeches. Here’s a list of 100 great ones.

Keys to Developing Presentation Content for Women

No matter what industry you’re in or what type of presentations you give, chances are you have women in your audience. With 69% of American women in the workforce, the female presence in business is everywhere. Women give and listen to presentations, make buying decisions, lead groups to action, and influence companies worldwide. Therefore, to successfully present to this powerful audience segment, you need to know how to relate to women in every presentation you give. As a public speaking coach and owner of a presentation skills training company, I give and listen to presentations every day. So I have a unique perspective on this topic. I know what works from a technical standpoint, and I know what works from a audience standpoint. To that end, I offer these three tips for developing your content for a female audience. (Note: while these suggestions apply universally—to both men and women—the tips highlighted have a higher receptivity in women).

1. Women appreciate and respond well to stories.

It’s no secret that women love a good story. No wonder 55% of all fiction books sold are to women. Knowing this, it’s surprising how many presentations I hear that are overloaded with facts, statistics, and dry information—with no stories whatsoever.

To connect with the women in your audience, stories are a must. Realize that not every story has to be about you or your company. You can use stories that are in the public domain or stories you’ve heard from others. You can also use metaphors and analogies that relate to things women typically respond to, like family, food, or travel. As long as the point of the story builds upon or relates to your topic, it’s a valid story to use. So as you plan your content, make sure you focus on stories as often as you focus on facts.

2. Women want to participate and feel involved.  

Women enjoy feeling a part of the group. Women yearn for inclusion, for connections, and for relationships. Therefore, find opportunities to create ways for women to get involved in your presentation. You can suggest a “pair and share” activity, ask rhetorical questions, organize a group activity, or simply elicit feedback often.

The key, however, is to really want and value the involvement. Simply garnering participation at key points in your presentation but not making that participation meaningful to the experience, or not using or validating the information that is offered, sends the message that you really don’t care. So gain involvement and use what’s been offered. Your message will resonate stronger with your female audience if they feel they had a part in shaping it.

3. Women are keen to visual images.

Visual images are important for any presentation. In my experience, women respond to visuals that are more integrated, complex, and open to interpretation.  Unlike stereotypical visual concepts, such as men like images that are hard, sleek, and cold, and women like images that are soft, fuzzy, and warm. Women enjoy and are stimulated by images that are more subtle and less prescribed.  

One example of this is the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World. In it, a woman is lying in a field, looking at a house. The painting’s message is not definitive. The woman depicted could represent someone distraught, forlorn, or forgotten. Or she could be hopefully reaching toward home—to that place of belonging and family love. Or she could have simply tripped and fallen. Paintings like this carry a degree of complexity and uncertainty that force people to interpret the image based on their own experiences. Women are comfortable with that complexity where there are multiple interpretations—no right or wrong. So to create powerful visual content for women, choose images that evoke a story.

Stories, participation, and powerful images – these are the three factors that are important for any presentation, but are especially so for a female audience. Keep these concepts in mind as you plan your next presentation and you’ll be one step closer to connecting your message with this powerful segment of the business community.

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

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The Key Factor for Your Presentation’s Success

When you’re preparing a presentation, who is the most important person you need to consider? The answer: Your audience. You’ve likely experienced, at least once in your career, what happens when you forget about your audience. Here’s the scenario: You create the perfect presentation complete with solid transitions, compelling visuals, and stellar numbers. You have great jokes planned and practice every element of your speech. Yet, as you stand in front of your listeners and talk, your message isn’t garnering any interest. You know you’re crashing fast. While you may have prepared incessantly before you went to the front of the room, you forgot about the one critical element to your presentation—your audience.

If you forget your audience, your presentation can backfire. That’s why knowing the details about them is critical for your success.

For example, Andrew Winston is a well-known consultant who is dedicated to helping companies grow and flourish by utilizing green environmental strategies. He speaks across the globe to varied audiences. As such, Winston is a master at crafting his presentation to match the needs of his diverse audience. 

Winston speaks to audiences of adoring fans, sustainability conference attendees, and even lumberjacks and loggers. Do you think he takes the risk of delivering the same speech to each unique audience? Of course not! The brilliance of Winston is his ability to deliver a compelling presentation every time he speaks because he caters to the specific needs of each audience. When he is in front of his fans, he is bold, controversial, and risk taking. However, when he is in front of an audience of skeptics, he eliminates the controversial pieces and engages with the audience on a personal level.

As a presenter, you must get your audience on your side. If the people in front of you want numbers, give them numbers; if they want jokes, give them jokes. However, if you don’t take the time to analyze what would best suit your audience, your presentation will fall flat no matter how much you prepare. 

Therefore, before you begin crafting your speech, know who you are going to be standing in front of. Will you be amongst your cheering, loving fans? Or a caustic, skeptical group of dissenters? Make sure you are prepared to speak to the hearts and minds of the crowd in front of you!