Famous Speakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will the New Pope Fare as a Public Speaker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was Bill…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama “On Fire” in Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday for Women: Public Speaking Lessons from Meryl Streep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Speaking at its Best

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

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

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

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Three Women, One Mission: Peace

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

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

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

Leymah Roberta Gbowee: Liberian peace activist

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

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

Tawakkul Karman: Yemeni human rights and democracy activist

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive valuable tips, techniques and updates on the latest news and events from DeFinis Communications.

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

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

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

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

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

Wangari Maathai: Honoring a Powerful Female Leader and Speaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women in the U.S. Senate. 17 Strong…and Hopefully Growing

17 Senate Women
17 Senate Women

Many bloggers (including myself) often lament the dismal number of women in corporate executive leadership positions. And while those figures are low, have you ever noticed how few women represent us in the United States senate? Here are few shocking facts:

  • Since the establishment of the US Senate in 1789, there have been only 39 female Senators.
  • The Senate was all male until 1922, when the first woman Senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, served for one day. She was appointed by Georgia Governor Thomas W. Hardwick to replace Senator Thomas E. Watson, who had died. The appointment was politically motivated. Hardwick was seeking the Senate seat in the next election and wanted to fill the vacancy with someone who would not be a competitor in the upcoming election. His ploy ultimately failed, and Walter F. George won the election. Because Congress was not in session when Felton was appointed in October, her official appointment came on November 21, 1922, with the swearing in of the newly elected Senator Walter F. George taking place November 22, 1922, making Felton’s tenure the shortest for any Senator in US history.
  • It wasn’t until 1932 that a female graced the senate floor again, when Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the Senate.
  • The first women’s bathroom located outside the Senate Chamber (where the men’s bathroom was conveniently located) wasn’t established until 1993. Before that, female Senators, at the risk of missing a vote, had to run downstairs to share a public restroom with tourists.
  • Currently, only 17 of the 100 US Senators are women.

With 51% of the US population being female, it is striking that women have such limited political representation. Granted, from the founding of this country to early 1900, women were indeed held back from seeking a Senate spot—they couldn’t even vote much less run for an elected position. But with the passing of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, that barrier was removed. So what’s holding women back from seeking political leadership positions today?

Some say it’s the public’s lingering perceptions of gender roles, while others claim it’s sex discrimination. Or it may have more to do with women not wanting to place their life under a microscope, as is commonly done to politicians, or the very real challenge of raising enough money to run for office.

For one politically astute and well informed woman I met last week, it is the fear of public speaking that’s keeping her from her political ambitions. Running for higher office and representing voters requires not only having great command of the issues, but also an easy comfort level speaking in front of all kinds of groups. Whether it’s a town hall presentation, a media interview or a larger main stage speech, public speaking plays a significant role in politics.

Fortunately, public speaking skills are much easier to fix than any of the other potential roadblocks mentioned. By reading some books on the topic, taking courses, and even working with a good speech coach, anyone can strengthen their presentation skills and eliminate their fear of public speaking. So if you’ve ever had the urge to toss your hat into the ring but stopped short because you were uncomfortable speaking in front of a group, there is help. It’s time for women to stand up and be heard—in politics, in corporations, and everywhere in between.

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.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive valuable tips, techniques and updates on the latest news and events from DeFinis Communications.

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.

Oprah’s Farewell: The Final Ovation for One of the World’s Most Influential Public Speakers

Wednesday for Women Celebrates Oprah! Oprah’s legend is…well…legendary. For 25 years, she has been the foundation of daytime TV for millions of people all over the world. And throughout it all, her presence and messages have been uplifting, inspiring and revitalizing.

I recently heard the story of a woman who purchased a pair of Oprah’s shoes at an auction. She said that whenever she feels sad or overwhelmed, she goes to her closet and steps into Oprah’s shoes. Talk about having a powerful influence on people! We all want a piece of those people who we believe have something we don’t possess—greater strength, clearer vision, goodness, talent, confidence. We seek out those people who can fill in our gaps, and for the last quarter century, Oprah has been that person for millions of people.

I have not been able to watch Oprah on a regular basis, but when I have caught her show, I am just as enthralled as everyone else. She has a natural way of communicating that draws us in. Her warm, deep voice, her broad inviting smile, and her easy tone and cadence are engaging. She is the consummate “connector.”

So when you’re looking for a communications role model, look no further than Oprah. Here is my tribute to this great woman and what she means to the world of public speaking:

O – Optimistic. Even when Oprah was covering a negative topic (failed relationships, child abuse story, unusual homicide case, etc.), she always looked for the good that could come in the future. That’s something we should all strive to do every day. So the next time you need to communicate bad news, state it, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, keep your focus on the good that will eventually come from the situation.

P – Prepared. I’ve heard that Oprah is a stickler for details and doesn’t like to be surprised. She and her producers are prepared for everything and anything that can happen during a show. Not only does she have a Plan B, but she also has a Plan C, D, E, and F. Oprah exemplifies that preparedness equals success.

R – Relevant. Oprah knows her main audience and makes every episode relevant to them. Being on her show could make anyone famous (and it has), but her guest list never strayed from the types of people and stories her viewers wanted to see. By making the information presented relevant, she earned millions of eager viewers every day.

A – Authentic. Oprah started her career as a TV news anchor, but she didn’t last long in that role because she had a hard time hiding her true self on camera. Yet, it’s her uninhibited authenticity that made her talk show a success. People tune in to watch her just as much as they tune in to watch the day’s topic. Oprah refuses to hide who she is. She cries on camera with people, shows all her emotions freely, and isn’t afraid to be her authentic self.

H – Humorous. While not a comedian, Oprah makes people laugh in her own way. She doesn’t tell jokes in the traditional manner; rather, she lets her natural humor shine through to diffuse a tense situation, make a point, and put others at ease. She shows that humor doesn’t always have to be about knee-slapping laughter.

Thank you, Oprah, for 25 amazing years…and for so many priceless pieces of presentation skills wisdom.

In my Wednesday for Women blog series, I feature stories, resources and valuable information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please forward these weekly Wednesday blogs to the powerful women in your life. They’ll thank you for it!

Steven Tyler’s Rooster Feathers are a High Performance Prop

In entertainment, performance, and even public speaking, props play an important role when creating an image or making a key point. Whether your prop is something you hold or something you wear, your audience will connect it to your message, thus making your points more memorable. For example, I know a professional speaker whose signature prop is a hat. She wears one every time she gives a speech, and her audiences have come to expect it. She is so well known for her hats that her audience once arrived to her event all wearing hats—in tribute to her. That’s the kind of contagious prop that is worth cultivating.

But the prop to end all props right now is Steven Tyler’s hair feathers. Yes…hair feathers. And according to a story I recently heard on NPR, the popularity of his feathers is placing big demands on Whiting Farms, the feathers’ producers.

Located in western Colorado, Whiting Farms sells feather products for fly-fishing to over 50 countries. They specialize in raising specific chickens and roosters, and are well known for providing top flies to fly fisherman. They have a loyal customer base who create their own flies and who swear by the feathers Whiting Farms provides. Apparently, fly-fishing is a creative process and the fishermen say that the rooster feathers they buy from Whiting Farms are an integral part of the success in catching fish.

Now here’s the dilemma: Ever since Steven Tyler has been wearing these feathers in his hair, thousands of young girls want feathers in their hair too. And just any old feather won’t do—they want the exact same feathers Tyler wears. Whiting Farms is having a tough time keeping up with the demand from this new market.

This just goes to show how much impact a seemingly simple prop can have. If you follow American Idol (or if you’re a fan of Steven Tyler), you probably know that Tyler is always in costume. Even though he appears rather disheveled, everything he wears has been meticulously selected, coordinated, assembled, and crafted to create the image of what we see each week. Nothing is left to chance. As Tyler once said, paraphrasing Dolly Parton, “You have no idea how much it costs to look this cheap.”

Even his hair feathers from Whiting Farms are strategically placed. Now the feathers have become all the rage in boutiques throughout America as customers ask their stylists to integrate feathers into their every day hair styles.

As a result, Whiting Farms can’t keep up with the demand from the salons. At least 50 percent of their inventory is going to the salons now, and even when they raise their prices, the salons still order the feathers. The farm is actually concerned that they may lose some of their loyal fly fishermen because they can’t meet the demand.

So what’s your prop? What key item or piece of clothing can become your signature—something that increases your recognition and makes you memorable? From hats to feathers, the possibilities are endless. Just please choose wisely—you don’t want your prop to ruffle any feathers!