Public Speaking

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.

Rate Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

When it comes to nervousness in front of a group, I have noticed people generally fall into one of four categories, which I describe as the following four levels. These levels are an indicator of what I call a speaker’s “capacity for comfort” in front of a group. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and can barely get their words out. 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. They have little desire to speak in public, but are now required to do so. Their capacity for comfort is generally quite low. As such, 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 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 discomfort.  The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly improve and become more comfortable and competent.
  • 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 carries the burden of anxiety. 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 learning how to apply their skills to a new venue to be 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 every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. They may be executives, product evangelists, salespeople, senior leaders, marketing directors, 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 one thing: experience. Level 4 speakers know that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They are disciplined. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and gain insight from every speaking engagement.

The good news is that while public speaking is an art and a science, it’s not rocket science. In other words, you can become a level 4 speaker too. 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 too can build your capacity for comfort and learn to adapt to the demands of any speaking situation. Every speaker in every category has the potential to become a relaxed and confident speaker—even you!

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.

Beefeaters: The Olympians of Public Speaking

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

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

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

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

Add Context, Not Just Content, to Your Next Speech

While vacationing in Maine, my husband and I ventured to Lubec, Maine, the gateway to Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada—the once popular summer colony for wealthy Americans and Canadians, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On our way we stopped at Quoddy Headlight, the easternmost point in the U.S. And once on Campobello, we went to the East Quoddy Lighthouse.

Perched on an island and only accessible in low tide, the East Quoddy Lighthouse called to our adventurous spirit. We were eager to make the trip across the sandbar and climb the steps to the lighthouse. Although it’s dangerous and rugged, for two hours when the tide is out visitors can climb the steep metal ladders, walk on the ocean floor, cross two intermediate islands connected by a short wooden bridge, take a second steep ladder and then walk across a rocky, slippery seaweed covered intertidal zone to get to the lighthouse. We were ready for the adventure when we were warned that the tide had turned. Then we saw the sign:

DANGER!--TAKE NO RISKS & DO NOT LINGER! If you become stranded on the islands by the tide, WAIT FOR RESCUE. Even former keepers of this lighthouse have lost their lives by misjudging the STRONG, FRIGID, FAST-RISING tidal currents and TIDE-PRESSURIZED UNSTABLE PEBBLE OCEAN FLOOR while attempting to make this crossing.

At that moment, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous saying, “Time and tide wait for no man,” took on a whole new meaning for me.

The tides in this part of the Bay of Fundy are 25 feet or more. We learned that further up the bay in Nova Scotia, the tidal changes can be more than 50 feet and most extreme when the moon is full. These are the largest tidal changes in the world. That’s a lot of water moving in and out twice a day, and it was clear that the tides were the backdrop for the entire way of life in this part of Maine.

We saw firsthand the dramatic changes in the tides. In Lubec, there are poles on the wharf that go up nearly 20 feet, taking the dock with it as the water rises and falls. Like clockwork, an hour before high tide a dozen or more seals, cormorants, gulls, and bald eagles arrive to feed on the fish brought in by the tide. Travelling to these places and witnessing the significance of the tidal changes first hand brought Chaucer’s quote to life. The facts were important, but seeing the facts in action was exhilarating!

This experience made me realize the importance of “context” in describing any situation. Until I saw the physical power of these dramatic tides, the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man” had little meaning to me. But now I get it. You can’t beat the tides. The sea will never bow to your will. And no matter how strong a swimmer you are, at 50 degrees the water is too cold, the rips too unpredictable, and the force of the water flow too overpowering.

I often counsel my clients to use stories, metaphors, anecdotes, and quotes—the rhetorical devices that create compelling imagery and add power to your presentations. However, it is absolutely essential to also provide the context in which the images reside.

To create effective presentations we often use phrases from our own experience, thinking that our audience fully understands the meaning. But they may not understand where we’re coming from. So our challenge as communicators is not only to come up with and deliver the clever anecdote, quote, or quip, but also to be successful in communicating the broader world from which it evolves. Yes, the facts of tidal changes were compelling, but then there was the DANGER sign, the rising and falling poles on the dock in Lubec, and the sea life feeding at the exact same time every day. These images bore witness.

Therefore, I encourage you to find those fascinating rhetorical gems and take the time to fully render them in context. Tell us more; make it come alive.

And now, I’ve gotta run. The lighthouse beckons, and the tide is coming in!

Whether on the 2012 Campaign Trail or in the Boardroom, Use Stories to Build Trust

Recently, President Obama admitted that his job as President is about more than just getting the policy right. As he put it, “The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times." Well said, Mr. President! For years I’ve been telling business presenters that stories are essential to getting your message across. Whether speaking to a large group, as the President often does, or speaking to a small gathering of staff, telling a good story stimulates a strong emotional connection between you and the audience. Tell a story and you entertain. Tell a story and you connect. Tell a story and you build trust.

Stories play an important role in our everyday communication. They can bridge the gap that’s inherent in many types of presentations, from the lively motivational speech to the serious executive all-hands meeting to the dense technical demo presentation. In fact, we’ve all seen what can happen with the introduction of a story—a boring presentation will come alive!

If you want to persuade your listeners to your point of view, connect on a deeper level, and most of all build trust, telling stories is key. Here are a few simple tips to help enhance your storytelling.

  • Be yourself: You likely tell stories every day, and these are the stories that have the power to create a bond with your listeners. When you share a personal story, the distance between you and the audience dissolves. Stories show your vulnerability, which creates an opportunity for trust. As you tell a personal story, both you and the listener share a heightened emotional experience.
  • Build believable characters: Who are the heroes in your story? Take the time to develop characters who are appealing to you and your listener. Create characters by using the five senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste), and explore emotional, practical or other aspects of the characters as well. Let your characters grow every time you tell the story so that they take on a life of their own.
  • Create a plot that sticks: What are the stories that you remember? You no doubt have your favorites; we all do. No matter how charming and well developed your characters, the plot is often the most memorable. Create a plot that has action and movement. Let your character face and overcome obstacles, teach lessons and inspire. When you develop a detailed plot line, your audience will never forget it.
  • Listen to the stories of others: You hear plenty of stories regularly—in your everyday business presentations; in community meetings; in political, cultural, and religious speeches; in entertainment and comedy; at social events; in the media. Write down every great story you hear so you have fresh material to draw from and learn more about content style and delivery.
  • The Power of Practice: Most people are not natural “stage” storytellers but are comfortable telling a story at the dinner table. That’s why it’s important to practice your platform stories before you go live. Write out and organize the flow of your story, and then practice your language, sentence structure, pacing and rhythm. Remember that timing is still everything when it comes to storytelling, so use silence to create dramatic, strategic and forceful pauses. Practice is the key to delivering a story that builds trust.

No matter what kind of presentations you give, take some advice from me and the President: use stories! Let them help you grab the attention and tug at the heartstrings of your audience. Let your stories ring out and you’ll connect with your listeners in a whole new way—a way that builds trust and respect that goes way beyond the podium.

Adopt a “Pay it Forward” Mindset for Your Next Company or Industry Presentation

This week is the National Speakers Association annual convention. While I did not attend this year’s event, it got me thinking about what it takes to present at a large scale annual meeting—whether for a company or an association/industry. The key, I believe, lies in good planning—the kind that results in delivering a unified message and creating an atmosphere of “can do” collegiality. The best annual meetings provide an immersion in the uniqueness of the company or industry culture, important teaching moments, and opportunities to connect with colleagues. But the pitfall of any annual meeting occurs when the meeting gets out of control at the planning stage and caves in to excess, namely too much on the agenda and too many boring presentations.

If you happen to be giving one of these presentations, you have a unique opportunity to do your company, industry, and colleagues a huge favor—to pay it forward, so to speak, by taking the road less travelled and being a “kinder, gentler” presenter. How? By resisting the urge you may feel to deliver too much information in a typical PowerPoint presentation, just like every other presentation that will be given during the meeting.

If you are one of the chosen few who will deliver a presentation at the annual meeting, give your audience something that is easy to digest and that will lighten their load. Deliver a presentation so well rehearsed that your authenticity shines though. Give them a hard-core message delivered with just the right amount of charm and confidence. And do it so well that they feel the power to do the same for others in their presentations. When you pay it forward, they pay it forward. Here a few tips to help you do so.

  1. Plan with the planners in mind: Before you start planning your presentation, find out the meeting’s overall theme and goal. Understand why you were chosen to present. Is there a specific message they want you to give? Ask questions to clarify your role and any goals the planners have for you. If possible, check in with more than one person so you are certain of everything. Once you complete your due diligence, then you can tailor your presentation to focus on just one important area.
  2. Cut, Cut, Cut: You are one person and one presenter. So there’s no need for you to tell the audience everything. Remember that people are there to learn from many different experts. No matter how much you believe your audience needs to hear everything from you, you’re just one vital piece of the puzzle. Therefore, keep your message short, simple, and focused, and always tie your remarks to the meeting’s overall goal.
  3. Speak to the highest denominator: This is an important event. People from all levels will be there listening to you. Even with the broad spectrum of people in attendance, always perform for the people whose standards are the highest rather than for your most complacent audience members. This is your moment to shine for your boss, your boss’s boss, and even his or her boss. These people expect a lot from you, so be sure to deliver.
  4. Step out of the PowerPoint Box: Yes, PowerPoint is helpful…it’s even cool. But how about not using PowerPoint…at all. Think about the endless possibilities of doing something different and unexpected, like a treasure hunt or a group game. If you must use PowerPoint, design it with color, images, and sound. Use lively video clips or interactive pieces to entertain, educate, motivate, and inspire.
  5. Build in audience participation and involvement: Deliver your message with a light and creative touch. No matter how big the group, you can still get them talking to each other by pairing them up and asking them to share stories or to brainstorm ideas. Use your sense of humor, even if it’s modest. Tell inspiring stories and use examples to drive the message home.

Annual company and industry meeting status quo can have a powerful impact on your performance. You could fall in line, do the same old boring PowerPoint, and ignore the greater needs of your audience; however, if you do, you miss a great opportunity to truly excite and inspire others to act in a positive way. It takes confidence to pay it forward, but when you do you set off a chain reaction. Suddenly everyone’s presentations are more passionate, more creative, and more engaging—and everyone wins.

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Call an Excellent Presentation?

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Unusual (and Amazing) Speech Preparation Story I’ve Ever Heard

I just completed a week’s training with the faculty at the University of the Pacific, Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. This is my third year working with them, so we’re practically like family now. During one of the breaks we were chatting about speech preparation when one of the women present, Bernadette Alvear Fa, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Reconstructive Dental Sciences and Director of Local Anesthesia Curriculum, mentioned that the most challenging preparation she ever did was when she was in labor with her son. In labor with her son? What?  Prepping for a speech while in labor was something I certainly never expected to hear from anyone. I just had to get the details, and since we were all comfortable with each other, she didn’t mind sharing (or me sharing this story either).

I first met Bernadette in June 2011 when she was in my training class. I worked with her on her physical, vocal, and verbal delivery skills as well as her message development, and I gave her various options for preparation strategies to implement. At the time, she was 12 weeks pregnant.

Bernadette explained that in the months that followed the training, she gave numerous lectures with her ever growing belly, each time using the skills she had learned in my class. She was becoming a powerful and confident speaker. Interestingly, as her son started to kick, move, and punch from within, he always remained silent when she was lecturing or speaking in front of large crowds.

On December 3, 2011, Bernadette was officially 36 weeks and 1 day pregnant. She completed a lecture with a colleague and had one more official lecture to provide to the faculty 10 days later. She had the slideshow presentation ready to go and had reviewed it with her co-presenter. Then, on December 10, 2011, something unexpected happened. Bernadette’s water broke at 6:45 a.m. When she and her husband arrived at the hospital, she breathed her way through a few moderate contractions and then sent  out a flood of emails to notify people at work that she would not be coming in on the following Monday and would not be giving her presentation (at least not “live”). Three hours later she had an epidural and decided it was time to work on her “voice over” for the presentation she was going to be missing on Monday. Since she couldn’t be at the presentation in person, she wanted her co-presenter to have her sections of the presentation complete. Talk about dedication!

According to the readings on the monitors, Bernadette saw that she was intensely contracting, and her son appeared happy as a clam and bouncing around joyfully. She asked all visitors in the delivery room to remain quiet, as the only microphone she had for the voice over was the one included in her laptop, which was low grade at best. Knowing she had to make do without her usual professional presentation tools, she drew upon the DeFinis Communications vocal delivery skills she had learned and did the entire voice over from her hospital bed while in labor.

Once complete, she emailed the presentation to her co-presenter. She then patted her belly and said, “Okay, son. Mommy’s done lecturing. It’s time to come out. We’re ready for you.” Forty minutes later, the world welcomed Christian Michael Fa. He waited patiently while his mom finished her work, enabling her to completely focus on the most important task at hand now—being his Mom.

I sat mesmerized listening to her story. She could have easily turned the lecture over to someone else to prepare the voice over, and I doubt anyone would have noticed. But powerful women never give up! Bernadette was determined to follow through with the commitment she made and had the presence of mind to use the skills she learned in our class to prepare a voice-over presentation in this most challenging environment. In a room filled with stress, anticipation, adrenaline, and the frenzied activity of nurses and beeping computer monitors, Bernadette stayed cool, calm, and focused. As a result, she did an amazing job on her voice over…even while in labor.

Ever since women entered the workforce, they’ve had to creatively overcome the challenges of balancing work and home. In this case, Bernadette went the extra mile. She used her determination, perseverance, and optimism to balance these two forces in a way I’ve never seen before. If a woman can do what Bernadette did—be in labor and prepare a complex, technical dental lecture—then surely women are capable of anything, whether it’s leading a company, saving lives, or delivering a powerful  presentation under usual circumstances.

Bernadette is a true leader in her company and in her life. Christian has a lot to look forward to growing up with a role model of loving mother and confident professional.

Do you have an unusual or amazing speech preparation story? Share it here. We’d all love to read it!

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 Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Perfecting the Intangibles of Public Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Wisdom Play a Role in Public Speaking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes for Speeches, the Third Time’s the Charm

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

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

His experience reminded me of a quote:

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

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

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

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

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