Speaking Tips

Your Dog, The Speech Coach

Your Dog, The Speech Coach

Whether or not dogs are man’s (and woman’s’) best friend they have certainly risen on the popularity scale recently. You see dogs everywhere you go from city streets, to office cubicles to airplanes not to mention dog parks and front yards. They are good companions and playmates and in some cases excellent emotional and physical support animals. But did you know that dogs can also be a great audience for your presentation rehearsal?

 

When you have an important speech to deliver it’s critical to practice out loud at least three times. Typically, I recommend that you practice alone in a room, or in front of a mirror, or in front of a friend, family member or colleague. I don’t believe I’ve ever recommended practicing your speech in front of your trusted canine but apparently I’ve been missing out on a great resource.  Students at American University in Washington D.C. are intentionally using dogs to practice speech making and as it turns out it’s an effective practice method.

Boost Your Public Speaking Skills by “Sounding” Confident!

Boost Your Public Speaking Skills by “Sounding” Confident!

If you’re feeling nervous about giving an upcoming presentation, use your voice to your advantage. In other words, as you speak, make your voice sound like you are enjoying yourself even if you’re under stress. Easier said than done? Perhaps. But the sound of your voice will convey confidence so that even if you are nervous you won’t sound nervous.  

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.

Public Speaking Best Practices from My Clients

This is the time of year when I check-in with my past Executive Immersion clients to see how things are going with their presentation skills—what’s working and what still needs attention. I had several interesting calls this week which revealed tips to fit nicely into a “Best Practice” list.

When I call people, I usually get the same response, “Thanks for reaching out. It’s nice to hear from you,” meaning, “[Gulp!] I better give a few great presentations before I speak to Angela next week!” It reminds me of my annual dental check-up. Like many people, I always brush and floss twice as much during the weeks before my appointment.

All of the people I spoke with give presentations to a range of audiences and venues, including all hands meetings, staff meetings, department meetings, executive briefings, board presentations, customer presentations and large national and international conferences.

I begin the calls by asking my clients how things are going with their presentation skills. Here are some of the typical responses I hear:

  • “I think I’m doing much better.”
  • “I’m using everything you taught me.”
  • “I’m getting good feedback.”
  • “I’m more relaxed.”
  • “I’ve gotten really good at telling stories and the audience seems to like it.”
  • “I’m recognizing the audience consciously.”
  • “I love using the delivery techniques I learned—the gestures, posture, eye contact, slowing down and pausing.”
  • “I’m more concise.”

And so the love fest goes on for the first part of the conversation. Then, without my saying anything, they switch gears and become their own worst critic with insights like:

  • “But I’m still not as strong as I could be.”
  • “I can’t seem to stand still.”
  • “I still go off on tangents.”
  • “I know I should spend more time preparing, but I still slap together dense slides sometimes.”
  • “I haven’t practiced the 3, 4, & 5 syllable word drills you gave me.”

Finally, I ask what they learned from our work that has had lasting impact. Here are the top replies they shared—and that everyone can benefit from:

  • Simplify the message.
  • Understand the audience and use techniques to engage them.
  • Use engagement questions such as, “I know what you’re thinking” and “You’re probably wondering.”
  • Be aware of my posture, gestures, and facial expression.
  • Use more emotion and show more passion even though I’m not comfortable doing so.
  • Keep my slides simple—use graphics and tell a story with pictures.
  • Prepare for the Q&A based on past presentations. Keep a file of questions and review them.
  • Practice by giving the presentation out loud and not just reviewing it in my head.

Everyone I speak with always has a long list of what skills and behaviors that have changed for the better and a short list of skills they still need to refine. They’re proof that the growth process in any area takes time. So if you feel that you still haven’t mastered all there is to know about public speaking, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there is always more to learn. The key is to focus on a commitment to continuous improvement. If you do that, your skills will improve, and you’ll do just fine.

And please let me know what you would add to this list. I’d love to hear from you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

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

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

Read my past Halloween blog posts:

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

A Corporate Speechwriter’s Halloween Tour of Medieval England

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

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

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

1.Public and professional speaking

2.Presentation blogs and tools

3.Speechwriting

4.General communication and debate

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

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

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

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.

Let Your Public Speaking Skills Age Like Fine Wine

Imagine having the opportunity to write a speech about a topic you know and love and deliver it nine times in the course of a day to a rapt audience, gaining new supporters and perfecting your delivery each time. That’s precisely the opportunity afforded to my client David Amadia, VP of Sales for Ridge Vineyards, when he attended the Vancouver International Wine Festival last month and participated in their “Meet Your Match” event. “Meet Your Match” is the wine education version of speed dating. Small groups of wine enthusiasts spent six minutes with each wine producer to taste their wine, hear their story, and ask questions. In those six minutes, David tutored the wine tasters on the various qualities of “fine” wine—it comes from a great vineyard, reflects the patch of ground where it is grown, is age-able and will improve over time, stimulates the mind and the palette, and has many complex levels and flavors. He introduced newcomers to Ridge’s exceptional single vineyard wines and updated fans on the latest spring releases.

He also told snippets of the fascinating history of Ridge Vineyards—a story that can’t be fully told in a few minutes but that included the following highlights:

The history of Ridge Vineyards began in 1885 when Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor, bought 180 acres of land near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains because it reminded him of the terraced slopes and cool climate of his homeland in Italy. Perrone built the Monte Bello Winery and produced the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility today.

The winery closed during Prohibition, reopened with repeal, but closed definitively in the early 1940s. New Ridge partners formed in 1950 when three Stanford Research Institute engineers bought the property as a weekend retreat and made a quarter-barrel of “estate” cabernet. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Working only on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.

In 1968 Paul Draper joined the partnership after he realized that if three engineers working on weekends could make world class wine, it had to be the rich land that was responsible for their success and not the winemakers themselves. Under Draper’s guidance, the old Perrone winery was restored and the consistent quality and international reputation of Ridge Wines established.

That history is lot of ground to cover in a few short minutes. Add in information about the various wines being tasted and random questions from the audience and you can see how tight, focused, and polished David’s presentations had to be.

David was proud to introduce Ridge and its highly regarded estate wines, and he was delighted to meet new customers. But he also savored the unique opportunity to consciously practice his public speaking skills over and over in a relaxed venue as he gained experience, skill, and control with each new group.

So take a lesson from David Amadia. While you may never have a chance to do this sort of speed dating version of public speaking, you can find ways to practice—whether formally or informally—in front of small groups every day. Whether at the water cooler or at the dinner table, the more you tell your stories, interact with others, answer questions, and practice your delivery, the more you’ll find that your speaking skills are a lot like fine wine—they get better with time.

Use the Power of Practice to Build Your Speaking Skills

The psychologist and philosopher William James famously wrote: “99% of our activity is purely automatic; all of our life is nothing but a mass of habits.”After reading the book The Power of Habitby Charles Duhigg (which I first wrote about here), it is clear that habits define virtually every aspect of our lives, from how much we eat, save, or spend to how we work, communicate, and interact with others. One interesting example in Duhigg’s book focuses on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. As a child, Phelps was high strung and intense, so his mother got him involved in swimming as a way to manage his tension and anxiety. That’s when Phelps met his coach, Bob Bowman, whose main goal was to help Phelps’ stay calm and relaxed. Bowman also wanted his student to develop automatic willpower so Phelps could become competitive and the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.

One of the tools Bowman used was something he called “watching the video tape.” There was no physical video; he was referring instead to the practice of visualization. Every morning and night, Phelps was to relax his body and visualize his practice in the pool. He was instructed to imagine every aspect of his routine in his head and to see every detail clearly.

During the 2008 Olympics, Phelps continued this habit of visualization, just as he had every day since he was 10. It’s a good thing he did. During the 200 meter butterfly, his strongest event, his goggles filled with water. He couldn’t see anything. But he went on automatic mode and visualized the race even though he was unable to see the wall, the other swimmers, or the swim lanes. And he won another gold medal and set a world record. When he was asked afterwards how he was able to win the race under those conditions, he said it was because of his power of visualization. He didn’t need to physically see anything; he could see it all in his mind.

Public speakers can learn a lot from this powerful example.

To be truly great at presenting, you have to develop automatic willpower to prepare for every eventuality. You have to prepare your content and then take the time to practice and rehearse your delivery even when you think you don’t have the time to practice or don’t want to practice. Like Phelps, you must create practice routines (or habits) that lead to success.

I recommend all types of practice routines, including:

  • Visualizing yourself giving the perfect presentation.
  • Practicing sections of your speech to yourself when you’re doing the dishes, walking the dog, etc.
  • Doing formal practice sessions in front of others. During these practice sessions, ask people to comment on specific things you want to improve, such as vocal skills, gestures, eye contact, etc.
  • Utilizing small, everyday interactions to practice key skills. For example, during water cooler chat, practice your gestures. At dinner, practice your storytelling skills.

When you practice in a variety of venues and ways, the key skills you want to improve will become more natural and a part of who you are. Ultimately, you have to build your habits, or your habits will build you. Which habits are you trying to eliminate or improve? Let me know in the comments section below.

Prepare Your Speaker’s Toolbox

By now, we all know that practicing your presentation and working on key public speaking skills will make you a better presenter. But practice and skill aside, there are other, more tangible, things that will help you excel at business presentations. I call these things your “toolbox essentials.” Just as you prepare for your job by making sure you have key supplies on hand, when you’re taking on the role of “presenter,” you must prepare by making sure your speaker’s toolbox is stocked. Following are my top recommendations for any speaker’s toolbox.

Tools and Resources for Your Toolbox

  • Print out your PowerPoint™ presentation. Print your slides (either 3 or 6 to a page) just in case of an emergency. If for any reason you don’t have access to your laptop you will still be able to give the presentation.
  • Charge all batteries. Make sure you have an extra battery for your remote. If you are running your laptop on battery power, make sure you have an extra one.
  • Have the right remote for the right room. When you purchase your remote make sure to get one that works for the size room you will be speaking in. When you’re presenting up front you may not have the need for distance, but if you are a facilitator and like to work the room, you may be standing too far away for your remote to work. Each remote has different distances—standard is 20-40 feet, and you may need 100 feet.
  • Know your venue. Have a sheet with all pertinent contact info for the venue where you are speaking. Include your contact’s name and cell phone number, the venue address, and room name.
  • Take a clock. Bring a small watch or travel clock you can place on the podium or other nearby table or surface. While you don’t want to look at the time continually, you do want to casually check the time every so often to ensure you’re staying on track.

Wellness Tips for Your Toolbox

  • Get eight hours of sleep. Getting plenty of sleep the night before a major presentation will keep you mentally sharp and physically strong. Studies from the National Sleep Foundation show that people who are sleep deprived have more trouble performing math calculations, have impaired physical performance, and have more difficulty retaining information. Getting between 7 and 8 hours of sleep prior to presenting will positively impact your performance.
  • Drink plenty of water. Drinking lots of water (at least half of your body weight in ounces) will keep you feeling refreshed and relaxed. Since stress contributes to dehydration, any time you feel stressed (such as when giving a presentation) you need to drink more water than usual.
  • Stay fortified. Eat a well balanced diet rich in good protein sources and consume plenty of vegetables and fruits. Avoid high carbohydrate foods like pasta, breads, and sweets before you give a presentation. These foods will make you sleepy and reduce your concentration.
  • Take ‘Rescue Remedy.’ If you are highly susceptible to nervous tension, pack Rescue Remedy in your toolkit. Rescue Remedy is a Bach flower tincture that can be found in any health food store. Place two or three drops in an ounce of warm water and sip it slowly. Most people find that it has a relaxing effect on your nerves.
  • Avoid caffeine. While caffeine can be stimulating and help you feel temporarily energized for the presentation, it can also backfire and cause unwanted anxiety. Too much caffeine can take its toll on the nervous system over time, and speakers need calm nerves and sharp mental acuity to deliver a winning presentation.

The better prepared you are for any presentation, the more effective your speech will be. So take the time to pack your toolbox items; you’ll stand out and impress your audience.

Asked to Give an Impromptu Speech? It’s as Easy as One, Two, Three

Have you ever been to a business meeting or other event and unexpectedly been asked to stand and “say a few words”? This happened to three of my clients recently. One woman told me how her confidence soared and she excelled at giving a presentation to her company’s executive staff, yet she fumbled when asked on-the-spot to speak to company interns. Another man told me how he loved speaking at his all hands meeting, which had an audience of 500, yet he choked when asked to speak impromptu to a small field sales group. And my own son, usually a composed speaker, “blanked out and babbled” when asked to speak at a recent awards meeting to honor his own promotion. These are all competent and experienced speakers, yet they all stammered when asked to present unexpectedly. Why?

When you know you are going to be giving a speech, whether to your executive staff, at an all hands meeting, or in any other public speaking situation, you have time to plan and prepare. It doesn’t sneak up on you. You can develop a grand theme and strong message, build stimulating slides with eye catching visuals, and rehearse your delivery and staging to perfection. Time is on your side and the equation is simple: the quality of your presentation will be matched by the quantity of your preparation.

But what about the impromptu speech? What can you do to you maintain your confidence, add value to the conversation, and sound convincing and eloquent when you have no time to prepare?

First, realize that you have given hundreds of impromptu speeches before—such as when you added input during a business meeting, informed your new employee how to follow a procedure, asked a question of your boss or responded to a question by a colleague, spoke up at your child’s school PTA meeting, and even talked to the manager at a retail store to offer praise or advice regarding an employee. Think of how you behaved in these situations. Most likely you were calm, confident, and concise. And that is the formula for impromptu speaking success—stay relaxed, organize your thoughts, and limit yourself to a few, salient remarks.

When it comes to putting this formula into practice before an impromptu speaking opportunity, I recommend using a simple beginning, middle, end (or one, two, three) structure and specific language to help you remember the flow.

  • Step One: “First of all…” Begin your remarks with, “First of all, I’d like to say…” One client I work with who uses this approach always begins with a thank you, as in, “First of all, I want to thank you all for being here today…” He says that gives him time to gather his thoughts. But if you’ve been asked a question or asked for you input, you’ll need instead to state the point you are responding to. You could say something like, “First of all, I’d like to acknowledge the challenge we are facing…”
  • Step Two: “Next…” After you state your first thought, then state one relevant “touch point” or piece of support evidence to back it up, such as a crucial statistic, example, quote, or humorous story. Going back to the previous example of acknowledging the challenge, you could follow up the “first of all” line with, “Next, I want to also acknowledge the incredible opportunity available to us right now…”
  • Step Three: “And finally…” Here you briefly summarize what you have said and add your final thought. This is the highlight of the impromptu—the moment when you make everyone feel welcome, inspired, respected or when you move the conversation along in a meaningful way, as in, “And finally, I look forward to working together to achieve the goals we all know are possible…”

One of my clients, who is very good at impromptu speaking, says that even though he is not on the formal agenda to speak everywhere he goes, he is usually asked to say a few words. Knowing this, he never waits to the last minute to gather his thoughts. He uses this three step process to prepare ahead of time so he is never caught off guard.

So if you are going to an event and there is even the remote possibility that you may be called on to speak, take the time to prepare in advance. Use this three-step process and you will appear calm, confident and concise—the epitome of a polished speaker.

If I Were Clint Eastwood’s Speech Coach…

Along with many people, I’m still scratching my head about Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention last night. I can only think that this is another example of what can happen when good intentions go awry. From my understanding, Clint’s appearance was unplanned, and within a few sentences into his speech, I could sense that his words were unplanned too. His unprepared and unrehearsed presentation quickly turned to rambling.

As a speech coach, I thought I’d give Clint some advice so that next time he is asked to give a speech on behalf of a candidate for president of the United States he knows what to do. But after last night, I doubt there will ever be a next time.

  • Honor the person you are there to honor: His near drunken style, the chair, the implied F-bomb and his off-the-cuff comments about “all political parties are the same” and “none of it matters” must have sent chills down the spines of Romney and his team. I would coach Clint to more carefully analyze the needs of his sponsors and the person he has been asked to honor. Ask them, “What can I do for you? How can I help you construct a message that is powerful and uplifting?” While Clint’s approach was funny, it was funny for the wrong reasons. He was there to support the team, not go rogue and run roughshod—like so many of his movie personas.
  • Honor the audience you are speaking to: Yes, he got a few good laughs. The implied F-word joke got him two, and my guess is he used the joke the second time after it got such a good laugh the first time. Jokes are fine, but using the F-bomb—even implied—is completely inappropriate in any setting, but even more so in a setting such as this where millions of viewers from around the world are watching a key event of our governing process. This was flat out disrespectful and, given the sincerely pious nature of the GOP running mates, I doubt they saw this as funny. This is a classic case of not knowing your audience.
  • Honor your opponent: Having a theater background, I’m a big fan of using props. So I was intrigued when I saw the chair on stage; however, I never suspected it would be used as a weapon. I should have remembered Dirty Harry and how natural it is for Clint to hurl gunshots at imaginary people! First, I would coach Clint to address the president—no matter who is in office—as Mr. President instead of his more casual use of Mr. Obama. Also, implying that any president would say such things as “Shut up” and “Go *#%& yourself” was both discourteous and highly offensive. While it got laughs, I suspect it was more “nervous funny” than true humor. A convention for a United States presidential candidate is no place for this kind of crude, inappropriate humor.
Old Man Yells at Chair

Today, I have heard various people defend Clint Eastwood. One person told me, “I thought for being 83 years old and talking off-the-cuff that he did pretty good.” To that I say what I tell anyone I coach: For high stakes speeches such as this, “off–the-cuff” will never get you where you want to be. You have to know your sponsors, know your audience, and know your opponents…and then you must prepare as if YOU were running for office. Your goal should be to have your listeners take action on your message, which in this case was to support and vote for Mitt Romney. After Clint’s speech, the only action people took was creating an explosion in cyberspace making fun of Clint and his (failed) delivery. No one today is talking about Mitt Romney.

But despite all this, Clint’s reputation will live on. He did, after all, manage to do what he is famous for: He made my day!

Use Your Voice to Make a Great First Impression

I recently had a phone conversation with a new client who had signed up for our Executive Immersion program. While our discussion was informative, it was also a little challenging. He spoke with a thick accent, had poor enunciation, rambled on and on, and spoke in monotone. I had to work hard to listen intently, process what he was saying, and then think of my own response. And this was on the phone! I could only imagine what it was like to listen to him present in front of a group. When we ended the call, he gave me a link to a video clip of him presenting. I immediately went to the site. Based on our phone conversation, my expectations were low. Imagine my surprise to see him presenting in front of a group and doing much better than he had on the phone. Not only were his voice and speaking pattern were much better, but he also smiled, carried himself well, came across as genuine and sincere, and projected energy. While he didn’t “combust” in front of the group, he wasn’t asleep at the wheel either.

When it comes to first impressions, we often think it’s only about your physical presence—how you look. But I’ve found that for presenters your voice and speaking pattern carry just as much weight. Your voice is your primary instrument when delivering information, so your enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to your topic must come across to the audience through your voice.

To develop your vocal potential and make the best use of your natural speaking abilities, I suggest you focus on three categories: vocal clarity, vocal variety, and vocal emphasis.

  • Vocal clarity is the ease with which a listener can understand what you are saying. Nothing is more frustrating than listening to a speaker and barely understanding every third or fourth word because of mumbling, poor pronunciation, or a foreign accent. That means you not only need to speak loudly enough for people to hear you, but you also need to form your words with precision (ex: “going” rather than “goin”) and then say them according to rules of acceptable pronunciation (ex: not pronouncing the “t” in “often”).
  • Vocal variety is the interest you generate in your listeners when you produce changes in your rate of speech and pitch. Therefore, speak quickly enough to keep the presentation moving along but slowly enough so everyone can easily grasp your message. Slow down at major points, especially when delivering more complex information, and allow your audience time to absorb the material. Additionally, adjust your pitch to match the emotional content of your message. If something is critically important, change your pitch to reflect that. Generally, a low pitch indicates seriousness and a sense of authority, while a high pitch shows enthusiasm and excitement. You will let the audience know your attitude toward your topic when you use variety to express the range and depth of your feelings.
  • Vocal emphasis is the way in which you accent syllables, words, and silence to stress importance and to give meaning to our sentences. Varying your inflection is one of the most important tools you have to project enthusiasm and conviction in your presentation. Without accenting particular words and syllables, speakers sound monotone and come across disinterested, bored, or lacking authority or expertise. Along with inflection, silence (or pausing) is a powerful tool for emphasizing a key point or creating a bit of drama. And remember, what may seem like a long moment of silence to you is actually a much needed information break to your listeners.

Obviously, your physical first impression still counts. But no matter how professional you look, if your voice and words don’t match your physical image, you’ll lose your audience. So be sure to work on all areas of your first impression—including your voice. When you look the part and sound the part, you’ll make a positive first impression that leads to greater credibility and higher esteem.

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.”