Performance

When Giving a Speech, It’s All About You!

When Giving a Speech, It’s All About You!

A client suffering from a mild case of public speaking anxiety recently told me, “When I’m giving a presentation, I’m too concerned about what people think of me to act like ‘the leader.’ I don’t want to stand out or project the notion that I’m better than or more knowledgeable than other people in the room.

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.

Wisdom for Speakers to Jumpstart Your New Year

“Improve my presentation skills” is a common New Year’s resolution. Finding the perfect example to follow on how to do that is a bit rare … that is, until you meet Jack Kornfield.

Jack Kornfield is one of the leading Buddhist teachers in America. I saw him speak a few days ago during the Monday Night Class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Wood Acre, California, just a short drive from where I live.

The Monday Night Class, now in its 27th year, serves as an introduction to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist practices of awareness and compassion, which are the heart of the Spirit Rock community. This weekly gathering also offers support and ongoing teachings to committed students many who have studied at the Center since its founding.

The room was packed Monday night with hundreds in the audience. When Jack asked how many first-timers were in the crowd, dozens of hands went up. Then someone called out, “Thanks, Oprah!” I learned that Oprah had interviewed Jack last fall and the interview aired December 15. The interview brought out people who had never been to Spirit Rock and were curious about Buddhist teachings. 

The Monday Night Class attracts serious students of Buddhism and appreciative newcomers alike and they have never have trouble filling the room. But if you want to exceed capacity with a standing room only crowd, you just need a little fairy dust from Oprah. It was a spirited group.

For Jack Kornfield, it didn’t matter if he was speaking to 2 or 200. He was his usual entertaining and enlightening self, delivering his teachings with Buddhist-style charisma and practicing what he preaches by sharing his stories with patience, compassion and kindness. He is a good speaker, a gifted storyteller and a teacher who knows how to stand on the shoulders of the giants before him, reading their poetry and quoting their wisdom. Watching him, you get the feeling that he takes it all very seriously yet has an infinite capacity for lightheartedness. That combination is his greatest appeal.

And that’s the lesson I want to pass on this New Year as you make your resolutions about public speaking. If you are going to speak with greater poise, power and passion, do so with intense seriousness and commitment, but remember to keep a light heart. Happy 2014!

How to Avoid These 6 Public Speaking Disasters

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

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

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

Here are some facts from the 5 Gyres website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Habits Make Good Speakers

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

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

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

So how does all this apply to public speaking?

Your Habits Can Impact Your Presentation Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oakland A’s Announcers Exemplify Passionate Speaking Skills

Those of you who know me know that I’m a huge Oakland A’s fan. Well, last night’s baseball game between the Oakland A’s and the Detroit Tigers left even me—a speech coach—speechless. Picture this: It’s game 4 of the American League Division Series. The Oakland A’s aren’t the favored team to win. In fact, they’re performing terribly. It’s the bottom of the ninth. The score is tied. The A’s are up to bat. It’s the final moments of the game, and then suddenly…against the odds…the A’s win on Coco Crisp's walk-off single. The crowd went wild! And so did the announcers. You can hear the announcers during the exhilarating final moments here. After the excitement died down and I replayed the footage in my head, I realized how the announcers Ken Korach, who does the play-by-play, and Ray Fosse, who does the color commentary, displayed their passion about the outcome yet maintained their professionalism throughout it all. It’s a classic lesson for public speakers everywhere.

I often tell my clients to let their passion guide their speaking. But really…what are the elements of passion? What does passion sound like from that vocal context?

As the clip of Korach and Fosse exemplifies, passion has two key parts. First, it’s the formal, technical, and mannered play-by-play of information. When you listen to Korach explain what’s going on, you hear every detail to the point where you can see it in your mind. It’s factual. It’s complete.

But the second part of passion is the free and unbridled response to what’s going on in the moment. That part of passion is incredibly clear in Fosse’s animated assessment of what’s happening in those key moments.

So as a speaker, you need to manage the characteristics of these two announcers during every presentation. You need to be the formal person with the details and the facts. But you also need to show your excitement, your enthusiasm, your zeal, and your passion for your topic.

It’s the combination of these two qualities in one person that ignites the spark of passion. That’s what ultimately captures the hearts and minds of your listeners and makes your message come alive.

The final game in this series is tonight. If the A’s win, we keep going on the road to the World Series. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my passion alive. Go A’s!

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.

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.

The Top 3 Things that Stand Between Busy Professionals and Speech Preparation

No one wants to give a less than stellar business presentation, but that’s what sometimes happens to even the most well intentioned people. While they know they need to prepare for the presentation (and they even want to), other things get their time and attention, leaving speech preparation on the back burner. Here are the three top things that get in the way of speech preparation…and how to overcome them.

  1. Work: Studies tell us that Americans work the longest hours among all industrialized countries. This is what the American Dream is about—having the drive to work hard and succeed. But many professional don’t think of giving a presentation as real work; rather, they view themselves as subject matter experts who have to give a presentation as a means to an end. To alleviate this, turn the tables and think of your next presentation as part of your real job. You wouldn’t short-change the professional tasks you are trained for and paid to do, so don’t short-change your presentation skills either. They are real work.
  2. Time management: It is not unusual for professionals to work 50-60 hours per week. Additionally, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), a global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets, Americans spend 32.7 hours a week online—for both work and personal matters. No wonder making time for speech preparation can be so difficult. To successfully fit it in, practice in chunks. Make a list of all the meetings you have in a given week. Assign a presentation skill to practice for each meeting. For example, in your Monday morning staff meeting you could practice eye contact, while at your employee briefing you could practice gestures—and there’s always the dinner table! Remember that practice and preparation can be spread out and incorporated into other daily tasks and activities.
  3. Business Travel: More than 405 million business trips are taken in the U.S. annually. The packing, travelling to and from the airport, time in the air, and then doing business preclude having adequate time for speech preparation. Ironically, the reason for the business travel often involves one or more members of your team giving a presentation. Many people use their time in the air to create their PowerPoint™ slides, but this is also a great time to practice the various sections of your presentation and to memorize your opening, transitions, and final thought. When you arrive at your hotel room practice your entire presentation out loud at least three times.

Giving great presentations is essential for business success. When you can overcome the top three distractions that impede your presentation preparation, you can hone your public speaking skills for continued professional growth.

What typically gets in your way for speech preparation? Leave your comments here and I’ll address them in a future blog post.

What Do You Call an Excellent Presentation?

Nothing is more professionally satisfying to me than having long-term client relationships. I delight in the personal connections that develop over time. And as a people person, it’s thrilling for me to not only see people grow and change, but also to have a hand in it. Teaching is one of my life-long passions. And it is especially satisfying to teach other teachers. That’s why I love my students at San Francisco’s, The University of the Pacific, The Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. A few weeks ago I was working with a group of faculty at the dental school. These faculty members are dedicated, passionate professionals who are at the top of their game. They lecture, supervise students in the school’s dental clinic, have their own private practices, and give presentations at meetings and conferences all over the world. While there I heard this great feedback about the presentation skills training classes I’ve been conducting for them over the past three years: “These skills are now a part of our faculty culture. In fact, when someone is about to give a presentation we say, ‘Do a DeFinis!’ And when they give a great presentation we say, ‘She DeFinised it!’ Or, ‘That was a DeFinis.’”

What a great honor to hear my last name used in such a flattering way, and to know that it is not only an emblem of presentation success but also a rallying cry! DeFinis is my maiden name. I was named after my father, Angelo DeFinis, and our Italian name means, “the end or the finish.” So I like the connection here—that my name means to finish a presentation with excellence.

But there is more to learn from the Dugoni dental faculty. These prominent professionals also offer sound advice about what it takes to be an effective presenter as well as how to embed quality presentation standards into their culture. Here is what works for them:

  • “Having strong commitment and dedication, just like we expect of our students.”
  • “Preparation is key; don’t ever short-cut preparation.”
  • “Having a system for presentation development that works every time.”
  • “Having annual refreshers and video coaching so we brush up our skills.”
  • “As a faculty member I have continuous opportunities to practice, so I’m learning every day.”
  • “I’m constantly evaluating myself…and other faculty members…and everyone else I see!”
  • “Having a common language to discuss our presentations with other faculty members.”
  • “Holding the bar high for each other.”

These are the presentation best practices that are now integrated into the Dugoni culture. As the faculty strives for effortless delivery, effective messaging, and more engaged audiences they have created a culture that supports excellence. From the dental perspective, if you ask them, “Do I have to floss my teeth every day?” they will say, only half-jokingly, “Nope, only the ones you want to keep.” And from the public speaking perspective, if you ask them, “Do I have to prepare for every presentation I give?” they will probably say, “No, only the ones you want to DeFinis.”

Perfecting the Intangibles of Public Speaking

I regularly write about the tangible aspects of public speaking (the concrete presentation skills), such as gestures, movement, language, and visual aids. But often, being a great presenter has a lot to do with that “certain something” the person possesses. Some people call it charm, energy, self-assurance, or charisma. Whatever you call it, it’s these intangible qualities that attract us to others. I use the word “intangible” to describe attributes that we all recognize but cannot easily quantify. I often spend my time trying to analyze, dissect, teach, and measure “intangible” behavior in others as it relates to public speaking because I believe that everyone can gain access to these qualities through awareness, learning, and skill practice. As a result of this work, I’ve found the most common intangibles to be:

  • Attitude – an internal motivation to go above and beyond the call of duty
  • Perseverance – a desire to put in extra time and effort
  • Openness – a willingness to take coaching and advice… and to give it to others generously
  • Tenacity – a commitment to work hard at skill development
  • Charm – a natural courtesy toward others coupled with wit and people skills
  • Maturity – a serious approach to their overall work, not just the outcome or results
  • Courage – a readiness to try new things

These are just a few of the key attributes that make speakers attractive to their listeners.

The intangibles affect every aspect of public speaking. To pinpoint yours, I suggest you take a walk in nature by yourself to reflect on your intangibles, as this where your assets lie. Take into account how you feel about your presentation accomplishments, how well you relate to your listeners, and how people respond to your presentations and ideas. In addition to this self-reflection, solicit feedback from others. Ask your friends and colleagues, “What are my intangibles—my strengths as a speaker?”

Realize that your intangibles are often inter-related, making it difficult to pinpoint just one thing that makes you stand out. For example, I was recently working with a successful woman who knows she is a good presenter but doesn’t know exactly why. Her question to me was, “What am I good at? What don’t I need to worry about?”

It’s a tough question. We began by breaking down all aspects of her “charm.” We scrutinized her video of her presentation and looked at everything—her behaviors, the way she moves and uses body language, her micro-movements, the way she speaks, her vocal tone and qualities, her use of language, her sentence structure and vocabulary. In the end we discovered that it’s the way she puts it all together—how all her tangible skills are in resonance with each other—that makes her the unique presenter she is.

So while knowing and practicing the tangible aspects of public speaking is vital, also get comfortable with knowing and practicing the more intangible attributes that make you a successful presenter. You may not be able to “put your finger on it” just yet, but with a little self-reflection and feedback from others you can bring these qualities to your awareness, and ultimately use them to enhance your speaking success.

Does Wisdom Play a Role in Public Speaking?

“I have to give a speech in a few weeks and I’m already nauseous and anxious. I need to talk to someone wise. Can you please call me?” This was a voicemail message I received last week from someone obviously in need of help.

Every once in a while I get a call like this one, and over the years I’ve discovered that these types of clients are often looking for more than just the skills of public speaking. They want other answers to help them manage their speech anxiety, such as how wise people handle the stress of creating and delivering a speech for the first time.

I’ve learned to take it slow with clients like this and to let them talk. So in the process of being a speech coach, I also become a listening coach. I ask questions to keep the conversation going in the right direction, provide feedback on what I hear, and re-phrase and re-state what they say to ensure clarification.

It’s true that a good coach is a chameleon—capable of changing colors to meet the emotional needs of the moment. This is something relatively easy for me to do and something I enjoy. I love to delve into a person’s deepest challenges and explore those places where people hold their fear and discomfort. I like understanding what makes people tick and why they feel the way they do. And I believe once we understand what’s causing the fear we can then move away from it, see things with greater perspective, and begin building confidence. Taking the time to search for a cause often helps people understand what’s getting in the way of moving forward. This sets the stage for the action oriented work that is to come.

So what happened with the person who left that voicemail? What did I discover about her when I prodded, probed, and questioned her fears?

I learned that she had not prepared—she hadn’t even thought about her presentation. She didn’t know much about her audience or why her boss selected her to give the presentation. She was deeply afraid that she would fail, embarrass herself, and let everyone down in her department. She was calling me for a shoulder to cry on. She wanted to whine, to complain, and to enlist my support to allow her to do it. I listened to her carefully, thoughtfully, and actively, but in the end I still had to provide “tough love” and offer a different vision than the one she had created in her mind. I had to give her enough direction and support so she could take action.

“Results,” I told her, “don’t come from hoping, wishing, whining, or complaining—they don’t even come from wisdom. They come from making a commitment to act no matter how small a step you take.”

I had to throw my gentle version of cold water in her face to move her out of the paralysis she had talked herself into and onto a new action oriented direction. Just like any behavior change, such as losing body fat or building muscle, talking about it won’t do a thing. You have to take action continuously every day. Nothing else will do.

So does wisdom play a role in public speaking? In a way…yes. Whether it’s in public speaking, losing weight, having a fulfilling relationship, or achieving great success in your chosen career, those with true wisdom know when and how to take action so they can make their lives better. Wisdom—coupled with action—brings success.

To be a Better Presenter, Become a “Consumer of Speaking”

The first step to becoming a better public speaker is learning to develop your observational skills. The power of observational learning is well documented by psychologist Albert Bandura, who implemented some of the seminal studies in the area and initiated social learning theory. Just as the name implies, observational learning involves the process of learning to copy or model an action or behavior simply by watching someone else do it. Because we all observe public speakers every day—at business meetings, conferences, churches, charity events, social activities, and on YouTube and TV—we have the opportunity to be influenced by the words and ideas of others. And if we pay close attention we can also learn to crack the code and uncover the mystery of what makes one person exciting and effective and another person a complete bore. Here is a short list of actions you can take to become a better consumer of speaking:

  • Watch the speaker’s performance or platform skills. What behaviors make the speaker look energetic and alive? Is the speaker using effective eye contact, facial expression, posture, gestures, and movement? Are you working hard to listen and stay awake, or are you captivated and intrigued?
  • Listen to the speaker’s voice. Is the speaker using well crafted and powerful vocal resonance skills including volume, enunciation, pronunciation, pitch, inflection, pauses and rate of speech? Are you listening with interest or is your mind drifting off to plan your next vacation?
  • Take note of how the content is organized. What is the overall theme or purpose? Is there an attention grabbing opening and call to action at the end? Are there three to five clearly stated main points? Is the message audience-focused? Or are you confused, overwhelmed, and bored?
  • Examine the content details. Look for the unique use of stories, testimonials, rhetorical questions, examples, facts, quotes and humor. Are you stimulated and curious, or have you heard it all before?

As you watch others, take notes. One speaker may use a technique that you want to try, while another might use one to avoid. Make a long list of the skills you think are most effective and then practice your newly consumed skills every day so that you too can use them the next time you speak. This is one instance where the more you consume, the better you get.

Sometimes for Speeches, the Third Time’s the Charm

For the last few weeks I’ve been working with a new client, helping him prepare for a large meeting. He’s already a good speaker—the kind of person who actually likes to prepare (which is always a “gift” for me!). He is creative in his approach to content development and open to using a bit more dramatic stage technique and image-based slides. And he has a confident style. To help him be even better, we are working on a few improvement areas—posture, gestures, slowing down his rate of speech, and helping him to be conscious of his energy so he can direct it with more control. He’s been practicing not only in our sessions, but also in his daily meetings and phone calls. He’s really a gem to work with.

He gave his presentation last week to 300 people. When we debriefed afterwards, he seemed disappointed that he didn’t do better. He prepared and was more aware of what he was doing, but he found that he fell into some of his old habits too easily and didn’t catch them in time to correct them.

His experience reminded me of a quote:

“There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave and the one you wish you gave.” -Dale Carnegie.

Having seen the speech he practiced, I thought he was ready for prime time. He felt the same—skilled, prepared, and confident. Then there was the one he actually gave. I didn’t see this one, but he said it didn’t go as well as he had hoped—he spoke too fast, was not as smooth in using his physical skills, and did not take time to respond to the audiences’ reactions to certain parts of his message. Then, of course, there’s the speech he wished he gave—the one that would have surpassed even his excellent practice speech.

When asked what prevented him from giving this last speech, he said, “I didn’t know what the stage set up would be, and it was very small, so I couldn’t move as much as I’d planned. There was a podium and I stayed away from it, yet I felt cramped and tight. I spoke too fast and noticed that my heart rate speeded up sometimes. I didn’t feel as connected to the audience as I wanted to be. And the one interactive piece I planned didn’t work as well with the real audience in front of me as it did in rehearsal.”

But not all was lost because he did learn several important lessons from the speech he wishes he gave. As he explained, “Next time I’ll find out ahead of time about the size and set up of the stage, and then I’ll practice for that size instead of practicing for a much bigger stage. I’ll also practice my rate and slowing down when I’m in everyday meetings and on the phone. In fact, I’ll slow down even more than I think I need too. Finally, I’ll give the audience more time to react to certain slides. I’ll pause longer, and I won’t rush.”

That’s all great advice. So remember, that speech you practiced…well…that’s just what it was: Practice. When you stand up to give the real speech, that’s when you need to have your wits about you to be able to actually do what you’ve practiced and manage the unexpected. As for the speech you wish you gave, that one is by far the most important and something every speaker strives for but sometimes doesn’t attain. However, if you can learn from your experience, there is really no loss or failure. The “on-stage learning” is critical for future success as long as you take the time to analyze the lessons. So even though you may give the perfect speech at some point, there will always be something to learn—and that’s what makes public speaking so challenging…and enjoyable.

Politics and Debate Performance: What to do in a crowded field

What do you do when you are one of twelve panel members given just one minute to answer questions in an hour and a half political debate? Which sound bites do you perfect? How do you deliver with just the right amount of information so when you do get the spotlight you perform well? These were the challenges twelve candidates running for the recently redrawn 2nd Congressional District of California faced at a debate held at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA last week.

With such a large group, the debate organizers decided to forego classic debate structure in favor of a format where panelists were given one minute to answer each of four questions. There were no opening statements, but there were closing statements—also delivered in one minute. Unfortunately, the need for such rigid structure can kill not only the energy and effectiveness of a debate, but also the expectations of the audience. And I hate to say it, but that’s exactly what happened here.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation? As I watched each candidate use the allotted time, I jotted down a few notes. Here are some do’s and don’ts that stood out and are especially important to consider in such a tightly controlled debate.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t take too much time for chit chat. If you only have one minute you can’t afford the time to thank everyone in attendance, even though it’s a nice thing to do. Instead, get right to the point.
  • Don’t use fillers such as um, uh, etc. They take up too much time and make you look inexperienced, less organized, and less in control.
  • Don’t yell at the audience. Strong volume and heightened inflection are great skills to employ when you want to show your passion and commitment, but if you go over the top you will alienate your audience.
  • Don’t end your sentences on a high pitch as if you were asking a question. It makes you sound lightweight and unconvincing.
  • Don’t read your answers. This is a very boring strategy for the audience to endure, especially in an already boring format.
  • Don’t use too many “I” examples. Keep in mind the power of the word “you,” especially since you are trying to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Do’s:

  • Do identify your top priorities, and then plan and organize your message points.
  • Do practice the answers to the questions you are most likely to receive—and use a stopwatch.
  • Do start with a shocking statistic. It’s effective and you will stand out.
  • Do be smooth, articulate, and sophisticated. Tick off your three key points with precision. Add a personal example for a nice warm touch.
  • Do be original rather than just repeat what everyone else has said. Differentiate your message by your experience, philosophy, values, and record.
  • Do plan “spontaneous moments” like a comedian plans a monologue. If you have a few quips planned you can deliver them when the moment arises.

Just for fun, here are a few answers candidates gave to the question, “What sets you apart from others on the panel?” Keep in mind this is Northern California!

  • “What sets me aside is …”
  • I’m a marriage and family therapist. Our government is corrupt. The 1% is addicted and the 99% are enablers. I’m the only one who will go to congress and call this out.”
  • “Where I come from cannabis is a billion dollar economy. Let’s legalize cannabis and build the Emerald City.”
  • “I represent the hopeless because I’m hopeless and my campaign is hopeless.”

Even though I was entertained by such comments, in the end it was a boring night. I left feeling that the speakers were not eloquent or exciting enough to overcome the tight structure. The audience expected passion, action and even controversy. Unfortunately, there was no way around the monotony of this strict “debate” structure.

After each question, the moderator said, “You know the drill.” And we did. We were counting sheep, moving our attention hypnotically from one speaker to the next until it lulled us to sleep. What would have made a difference in this debate? Coffee, vodka, cannabis? If this is the Emerald City, then please lead me back to the Yellow Brick Road so I can get back to Kansas!