Stage Presence

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.

4 Traits that Distinguish Confident Speakers from Nervous Nellies

Back in 1990, Ron Hoff wrote a popular book about public speaking entitled I Can See You Naked. The idea was that if a speaker looked out at the audience and imagined everyone sitting in their birthday suits, he would take a scary crowd and turn it into a docile nudist colony, thus defusing their power to intimidate. For many people, that kind of visualization worked wonders in building confidence. But for the Nervous Nellies among us, it actually backfired. For them, the image is reversed. Instead of the speaker looking out at a group of meek naked people, they imagine an entire audience who can (gasp!) see the speaker naked! That’s what can happen when you let your nerves get the best of you and put your anxiety on parade. When you act like a Nervous Nellie, your audience really can see you naked. But when you act like a confident speaker and do the things they do (even though you may still be nervous), the audience feels more comfortable and responds accordingly.

Here are 4 traits that distinguish confident speakers from Nervous Nellies:

  • Confident speakers are proud. They stand erect, hold in their stomachs, pull back their shoulders and lift their torso. They stand tall and strong, showing the audience by their posture that they are poised and credible. The confident speaker is aware of the positive impact of strong posture on others and expresses their personal pride through posture.
  • Confident speakers are compassionate. They pay attention to the audience as a person, not a crowd. They don’t categorize or stereotype. They care about others. This means the speaker looks at people’s faces, uses penetrating eye contact, shows a blend of serious and lighthearted facial expressions, and tries to connect at every level—verbal and non-verbal.
  • Confident speakers are spontaneous. They plan and prepare their presentation and put in many hours of rehearsal, but they also know that is just the beginning. Once on-stage they follow their intuition, understanding the importance of “reading and relating” to the audience in the moment. They comfortably adjust the planned speech whenever necessary to make it more relevant and meaningful.
  • Confident speakers are generous. There really is something to the phrase “giving a speech.” The world has been turned in a more positive direction because of brave people who spoke out—think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Meade, Eleanor Roosevelt, just to name a few. But it has also been turned by the everyday speaker who decides to be more persuasive and passionate. All of us have a point of view and set of beliefs that can also change the world.

So the next time you give a presentation, if picturing the audience naked helps, by all means do it. But if you’re a true Nervous Nellie, keep your audience fully clothed and make a commitment to use the traits and strategies that confident speakers employ. Be proud, compassionate, spontaneous, and generous, and then dare any audience to see you naked. That’s the surest way to conquer your fears in the midst of any crowd.

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!

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.

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.

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!

Give Your Presentation Skills a Pilates Workout

Joseph Pilates, the man who created and promoted the Pilates method of physical fitness, may not have been a public speaker, but all presenters can still learn a thing or two from him. In the course of his work, Pilates formulated six key principles to improve the quality of your physical strength and endurance. While these principles were designed for physical fitness, they can also be applied to the discipline of public speaking…and ultimately to all aspects of life. 1. Breath Joseph Pilates wrote, “Above all…learn to breathe correctly.” Correct breathing oxygenates the blood and increases circulation. This certainly holds true for the public speaker. Proper breathing will help you maintain control, calm your nerves, and give you the air you need to speak effectively with an even and modulated rate of speech.

2. Concentration Just as there are no mindless or careless moments in Pilates, there should be none in your presentation delivery either. Keep your focus on the task at hand and direct your body, voice, and words to carefully deliver the message with deliberate control.

3. Control Pilates called his method of exercise “Contrology” or the “The Art of Control.” Nothing could be more appropriate for the public speaker. In any physical discipline, control must be practiced and developed. Whether you are learning to play the piano, cook a meal, or hit a tennis ball, you need to practice increasingly difficult levels of control. This concept was intended to reduce the risk of injury and train your body for life. It works for public speaking too.

4. Centering People often describe Pilates exercise as “movement flowing out from a strong center.” Your center is the foundation for all movements. I like to think of this as a “girdle” that surrounds the midsection of your body, from your navel around to your lower back and including your lower ribs and buttocks. Having a strong core is essential to creating a powerful presence in public speaking. Lifting through the core gives you strong posture and an upright stance. You can move anywhere on the stage when you know you have a strong core.

5. Precision Precision gives each Pilates exercise the intensity of purpose. Each exercise is to be performed as perfectly as possible according to Pilates’ technique. This is true for the public speaker as well. A philosophy of precision in both content development as well as performance delivery is the key to reach success.

6. Flow Flow is a key distinguishing feature of the Pilates philosophy. Because physical movement is continuous in daily life, you should focus on the aspect of flow during each Pilates exercise. The intent is to strengthen control, balance, and coordination so you move through life with ease and agility. For the public speaker, moving smoothly from one idea to the next and using body language that is congruent with your message will help you stay in control so you can tackle any presentation challenge.

So as it turns out, Pilates is good for your health and your speech! But maybe I’m a bit biased. You see, my husband and I have a house in Maine that used to be owned by a well known dancer. She once told me that not only did she know and admire Joseph Pilates, but that he came to visit her on occasion. So I can legitimately brag that “Joseph Pilates slept here!” May his legacy live on in exercise enthusiasts (and public speakers) everywhere.

Wednesday for Women: Public Speaking Lessons from Meryl Streep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Speaking at its Best

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

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

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

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When Passion, Power and Perseverance Combine – You Get Melinda Gates

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Tracking the philanthropic activities of Melinda Gates is like watching an army of ants build their colony. Yet she is not just the queen; she is also a worker, taking on the roles needed to build the vision, implement the plan and change the world. If you ever think that everything going on in our world today is so bad that there’s nothing you could possibly do to spark change, look in the direction of Melinda Gates. She is the perfect antidote to that outlook. She turns doom, gloom and apathy on its head. As a powerful female role model and spokesperson for the projects and people who have benefited from her good works, she continues to inspire and uplift us. As a speaker she also gets it done. She speaks with passion and sincerity, and listeners are moved by the sheer scope of her vision and her can-do spirit. I talked about her personal power and communication style at length last year in this blog.

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What I find so endearing about Melinda, though, is that while she is a compelling speaker and philanthropist, she rarely seeks the spotlight. Quiet and thoughtful, she is content diligently working on the causes and initiatives that matter to her. If no more than a blip about her success appears in the media, so be it. She is the strong and silent leader—someone who can move an army of people with her mere presence.

I am also impressed that she’s not singularly focused on one cause. She has her hand in many projects, giving us the opportunity to see her in action in a variety of settings. While most people know that she and her husband Bill work in developing countries, focusing on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty, she also works hard at home to make sure local needs are addressed.

For example, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which she and her husband directly oversee, has been awarded LEED-NC (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for New Construction) Platinum certification from the United Stated Green Building Council, making it the largest, non-profit LEED-NC Platinum building in the world. Completed in the spring of 2011, the campus is located in downtown Seattle across the street from the Space Needle. It replaces an asphalt parking lot with a campus that returns more than 40 percent of the site back to green space via two-acres of living roofs and native plantings. At 639,860 square feet of occupied space, the project demonstrates how large-scale sustainable architecture can be delivered at the highest level.

In addition, their Foundation is also working with Starbucks to encourage local coffee drinkers to help King County public school teachers (the county where the Gates are located). King County Starbucks stores are now giving away $10 gift cards for DonorsChoose.org, an organization that helps teachers ask for money for classroom materials and equipment. People who pick up a DonorsChoose.org gift card will be able to go online and pick which school project they want to support. About 100,000 gift cards are expected to be distributed at King County Starbucks. The cards will be paid for by the Gates Foundation.

So from famine and poverty overseas to environmental concerns and education issues at home, Melinda Gates is one of our most inspiring women role models today. Her endearing style, unyielding certainty, and vision for what can change in our world have set the bar high for leaders everywhere…and for individuals too. So if you ever think your actions won’t have an impact, take a lesson from Melinda Gates. While you may not have billions of dollars for philanthropic generosity, you can rest assured that even the smallest ant can make a difference.

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

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Wangari Maathai: Honoring a Powerful Female Leader and Speaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Assess Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

Nervousness and public speaking go hand-in-hand. And in all my years as a presentations skills coach, I’ve found that people’s anxiety tends to fall into one of four categories. These four levels reflect a speaker’s comfort level and confidence. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category tend to display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and deeply afraid, often to the point of paralysis. These individuals generally have little experience speaking to groups, but because of a recent promotion or increased job responsibilities, they are now expected to speak (i.e., the technician who has been moved into the team lead position or the customer service representative who now has to manage others and represent the department). These people have little desire to speak in public, but now are required to do so. With limited confidence they have a great opportunity for personal and professional growth.
  • Level 2: Hurried and Harried: These people deal with their fear and discomfort by racing through their material for one specific purpose—to get through it! They are usually familiar with their subject matter but rarely prepare or practice. They like to wing it. Many even believe that their “practice” happens while they are giving their presentation. As a result of their lack of preparation, they “hurry” through their presentation, talking too fast, shifting their weight, avoiding eye contact, and showing other physical signs of nervousness. The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly increase their capacity and become more comfortable and effective.
  • Level 3: Surprised and Startled: These people have situational nervousness. They are fine in their regular day-to-day presentations, but if asked to perform out of their routine, they experience anxiety and discomfort. However, they typically don’t show their nervousness. In fact, their audience barely picks up on it, but the speaker still feels anxious. These speakers take the time to practice and are generally more prepared than most, but unusual situations cause them to revisit earlier bouts of nerves and agitation. They are often the managers who comfortably lead staff or division meetings, but when asked to speak at an all-hands meeting or at a conference, they become anxious. The good news for these speakers is that they already know how to be comfortable in front of one type of audience, so it’s just a matter of increasing their capacity so that they can be as comfortable in every new situation they encounter.
  • Level 4: Eager and Enthusiastic: These are the people who love to speak and do so with ease, taking advantage of every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. These people may be great product evangelists, expert salespeople, senior leaders, marketing and public relations professionals, motivational speakers, and corporate trainers. They have already built a substantial capacity for comfort—and there is still room to grow.

What sets these four groups apart? It usually boils down to just two things: knowledge and experience. Level 4 speakers know what they’re talking about and give presentations frequently. These confident speakers know from experience that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and get out there over and over. They have taken the time to build confidence.

Whether you need to give a presentation at a low-key staff meeting for just a few or at a high profile conference for thousands, you can increase your capacity to adapt to the demands of the speaking situation and use your skills and experience to succeed. Every speaker—even you—has the potential to get there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bar Has Been Raised

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

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

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

Looking for a Mentor, Consultant, or Coach? Here are the 3 top things to look for

For most people, hiring a mentor, consultant, or coach is a tough decision. And for women it can sometimes be even tougher. After all, you’re hiring someone to help you look at all aspects of yourself. You want someone to help you address professional and personal challenges so you become stronger, more skilled, more strategic, and just plain better in some way. Whoever you hire is going to see the real you, flaws and all, and that can be scary on many levels. So how do you choose the right person to help you? What are your criteria? How should you evaluate the person? What’s your checklist?

The foundation of any relationship, especially for women, is trust. While trust is certainly important for men as well, women seem to seek it sooner in the relationship. As such, women often allow their “women’s intuition” or “gut instincts” about a person to shape their decision of whether to work with them…and they do so on the first phone call.

Whether you’re a woman looking for a mentor, consultant, or coach, or you’re a woman who works in one of these roles, following are the top three keys for building a trusting relationship during the first interaction.

  • Someone who takes his/her time with you. Obviously, the initial phone call with anyone is much like a sales call. But those consultants who focus on building trust are able to guide the conversation in such a way that it doesn’t sound or feel like a sales call. These people take their time, ask focused questions, really listen to the answers, and encourage the prospect to go deeper into the conversation. The dialog feels natural, not like an on-the-spot interview.
  • Someone who uses a neutral tone of voice. People who have a sense of tone—who know how to control their voice—naturally come across as more trusting. Using a neutral tone means the person’s voice is responding neither too strongly nor too lightly. Responding too strongly often makes it sound like the person is overbearing, while responding too lightly makes the person sound disinterested. Controlling your vocal tone so it’s deep, balanced and even puts listeners at ease.
  • Someone who is giving of information rather than guarded. Think of this as the difference between offering facts versus offering insights. While knowing such things as how long the consultant has been in business and what types of people he or she works with is important, that kind of information doesn’t always lead to trust. Real trust comes from sharing insights, personal examples, and emotional stories that are relevant to the prospect. The insights don’t have to go into great depth and detail, but they should highlight the quality of the consultant’s expertise.

If trust is the basis for an effective mentoring, consulting, or coaching relationship, then the selection process is indeed very personal. In other words, you can’t hire someone simply because of their experience. And even though it is important to review the person’s references and track record, what is more important in the end is to trust your interaction and your gut instincts. If trust hasn’t been established prior to your working together, you need to pay attention to that. Trust is not a “nice to have.” It’s an essential element for you to have a productive relationship that leads to positive and lasting change.

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

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Embrace Your Authenticity: It’s the Backbone of Public Speaking Success

True, authentic communication is about creating a bond and connection with your listeners, whether you’re talking with one person or one hundred. Unfortunately, displaying authenticity when giving a presentation is a challenge for many women.   For example, I have a female client who is struggling with this exact issue. She wants to come across as authentic, but she’s looking externally the entire time. She focuses, and bases her presentation content and delivery, solely on what she thinks other people expect of her—what or who she thinks other people want her to be. She never checks in with herself and identifies who she really is. The way she measures herself is always by external factors.

Pssst…here’s the secret to real authenticity: be true to yourself. Take a moment and sit down with yourself and acknowledge what’s important to you -- your values, interests, knowledge, strengths and what’s exciting and satisfying to you about your message. Then, take all those parts of you and give them a voice. Bring them to any communication you’re having.

So as you can see, coming across as authentic starts with the internal work, not the external.

Many women, especially those in upper management and executive roles or those in male-dominated industries, often find themselves to be the only female in the meeting. As such, they think they can’t be their true authentic self if they want the men to take them seriously. But when you start with the internal work and build a strong sense of self (authenticity), you’ll come across as more powerful and confident to any audience.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, exemplifies this point beautifully. Watch this video of her presentation on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” She comes across as authentic, sincere, highly believable, and courageous to address this issue head on. She shares pieces of herself, like the story of her three-year-old daughter hugging her leg and begging her not to go to work showing us she has lived the topic as well as witnessed it with countless other women. She is proof of concept and the message is perfect in her hands.

Developing this type of authenticity when speaking does not always come naturally. It’s a skill that needs development. To begin uncovering your true authenticity, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the “me” here?
  • Where do I get satisfaction and joy?
  • What do I feel when I’ve made a good connection with an audience?

The clearer you can get on who you are, what’s inside, and what matters to you, the better you’ll connect with your audience and have your real message be heard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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