Examples of Powerful Performers

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.

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.

Beefeaters: The Olympians of Public Speaking

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

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

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

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

Steve Jobs, One of Today’s Great Presenters, Steps Down from the Main Stage

Anyone in the public speaking business has likely paused at the news that Steve Jobs has resigned from the iconic Apple Computer. We all knew it was coming, given the serious health issues he has battled since being diagnosed with treatable pancreatic cancer in 2004. But it is a surprise nonetheless. His career has been nothing short of inspiring. Jobs had been named the most important person in personal technology at the start of his career in 1978, and then again at the end in 2011. Over the years, he has brought a wealth of innovative products to the world that have touched and changed nearly everyone’s life. And though his primary goal wasn’t to inspire presenters, that’s exactly what he did, giving us all a solid roadmap to follow. As sad as having him step down from his role at Apple is, the thought that he will no longer be giving his exciting keynote presentations is even sadder.

I have analyzed Jobs’ speeches many times over the years, and while I have never had the privilege of working with him, I admire that he is such a thoughtful and skillful practitioner of the best public speaking principles. He embodies the core success principles top notch speakers are known for, and he seemingly follows the DeFinis Communications methodology to a T, such as:

Delivery Skills: Jobs has excellent physical presence skills (eye contact, facial expression, posture, gestures, and movement), highly developed vocal resonance (uses his voice carefully, clear pronunciation and enunciation, and effective use of pitch, inflection, rate of speech, and strategic pauses), and a masterful use of distinctive language (uses short sentences never more than eight to thirteen words, chooses exhilarating words that are both powerful and emotional, and keeps his language clean of fillers and unintentional slang). He has the talent for drama, clearly conveying his passion.

Content Development: Jobs clearly understands his audience, and as such, he respects the importance of structuring his presentation’s content for each group he addresses. He defines his purpose and states it clearly and succinctly. He develops a clear beginning, middle, and end. He begins with a strong hook, states his purpose, and then lays out the agenda of his three to five main points. He develops the body of his presentation with a series of touch points, including analogies, metaphors, stories, data, statistics, and humor. And he uses thoughtful, sequential transitions, and ends with a summary, thank you, and final thought—“one last thing.” It’s textbook perfect in every way.

Visual Aids: Jobs’ visual aids are the opposite of the dense eye charts we so often see in typical technical presentations. His slides are image based with large colorful images, one big statistic, or one powerful graphic. He uses these images to augment his key point, not to overshadow it or mute his performance. His slides are exciting and dynamic visual entertainment, with a powerful point.

The Bar Has Been Raised

Jobs has consistently been one of the most powerful and best role models for business speakers in high tech. And he makes public speaking look easy, seamless, and enjoyable. But this is not due to a natural talent. I’ve heard that he works hard to prepare and even harder to rehearse so that every moment is well coordinated. He spends days, not mere hours, in preparation for one of his large main stage product announcements. Indeed, he has set the bar high.

In the only commencement speech he ever gave at Stanford University six years ago, Jobs told the newly minted graduates, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” That statement is so true for public speakers. While it’s great to use Steve Jobs as a role model for excellent presentation technique, what made him really great was that his technique allowed him and his message to shine through. And he would be the first person to tell you to model his skill, but to develop you own personal spirit and style.

In his resignation letter, Jobs wrote, “Apple’s best days are ahead of it.” While that may seem hard for us to believe today, we know that by stating this, he is preserving his legacy—a legacy of poise, power, and passion.

Lady Gaga Gave Us a Valentine’s Day Gift at the Grammy’s

I admit that I had never seen Lady Gaga speak until last night when I tuned in to 60 Minutes. And I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. She impressed me with her authenticity, her passion, and her outrageous, relentless confidence. While she admits to feeling insecure at times, it is hard to see her vulnerabilities, as she keeps them veiled beneath an exterior of verve and candor. As she spoke, under the surface of her words was a message that resonates with those struggling to find a place in the world. I can clearly see why she reaches people—her message offers hope and reassurance to anyone who needs a boost and an ally…anyone who feels the least bit disenfranchised. Having overcome what for some would have been debilitating hardships as a teenager, she has parlayed her pain into fame.

After the extremely well placed interview with Anderson Cooper, I decided to stay tuned to the Grammy Awards to see if she could pull it off. And she most definitely did. Spellbinding costumes, staging, lights, and an incredible corps of dancers commanded the stage, leaving me more breathless than the performers. Yes, there were remnants of Madonna and a Michael Jackson-esque burlesque, but this show was pure and original. Lady Gaga did not hold back for a second, nor did she censure her impulses. For a generation of young women who are struggling to find their passion and self-confidence, she grants them permission to be strong and a little outrageous.

In essence, Lady Gaga gave us all a special gift—the gift of inspiration. As public speakers, we can learn much from and be inspired by Lady Gaga. And one of the greatest messages we can take away is to do what she does—that is, don’t hold back. Express yourself a little more and share your passion in a passionate way.

So many of my clients love what they do, love being experts in their field, love their industries, love their customers, and love their products, yet they hold back their professional passions. “Reserve” is a watchword of the corporate and professional experience.

Take it from a fearless performer. Your message counts. As Lady Gaga tells us, “Don’t be a drag; be a queen.”