Presentation Skills

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.

Show Off Your PowerPoint Design Skills (and win some cool prizes too!)

Visual aids like PowerPoint are an important part of any business presentation. When done correctly, they strengthen your presentation by boosting audience understanding. In fact, research shows that listeners remember key messages conveyed with the help of visual aids more than six times better after a period of three days than they do messages that were simply presented verbally. The following visual helps put the numbers in perspective.

Retention After 3 Hours Retention After 3 Days

Tell only

70%

10%

Show only

72%

35%

Show and Tell

85%

65%

Do you want to show off your skills at creating effective PowerPoint slides? My friends at www.Presentation-Process.com are hosting a Creative Diagram Contest 2012. To win, all you have to do is create a visual presentation slide and tell them how you did it.

First, create Before & After Slides: Take a screenshot of a 'usual' slide. Makeover the slide with your most creative diagram idea in PowerPoint. Take a screenshot again. Write a few lines on how the diagram solves the issues with the 'usual' slide. Tell if your diagram can be used to represent any other business situation as well.

Next, create a short Tutorial (optional): Write a simple step-by-step tutorial for your diagram idea.

Finally, enter the contest: Fill in the contest entry form and upload your screenshot images. That's it!

Of course, your idea needs to be original. Their panel of judges (Ellen Finkelstein, Geetesh Bajaj, Wendy Russell, Dave Paradi, Elizabeth P. Markie, and Doug Serrano) will decide the final grand prize winners. You can also get your friends to vote on your submission and win the prize for the most popular entry.

The contest started Wednesday, May 23rd and runs until Wednesday, June 20th. You could win one of over a dozen prizes, including 750+ PowerPoint Charts & Diagrams (CEO Pack) or iSpringPro Professional PowerPoint to Flash Conversion. So get your creative ideas flowing and start designing. You could be the lucky grand prize winner! Get your entry form and full contest details here.

Does Wisdom Play a Role in Public Speaking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes for Speeches, the Third Time’s the Charm

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

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

His experience reminded me of a quote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’ts:

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

Do’s:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

How to Be the Highlight of Any Meal: Tips for Making the After Dinner Speech

Most presenters shy away from being the one to give an after dinner speech. If you’re not careful, talking when people are full and tired can be a recipe for disaster. Perhaps that’s why Winston Churchill said, “There are two things that are more difficult than making an after-dinner speech: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you." But despite any hesitations of modern day speakers, the custom of saying a few words at the end of a meal is probably as old as civilization itself. The after dinner speech gained prominence in England during the early nineteenth century, and according to Barnet Baskerville in his book The People’s Voice: The Orator in American Society, these speeches became so popular that they were called “the style of oratory most cultivated” in the U.S.

What makes these speeches unique (and sometimes feared by presenters) is that audiences generally expect to be not only informed about a particular issue, but also entertained. This duel focus can make the after dinner speech a challenge. But with skill and practice, anyone can deliver one with ease. Here are a few points to remember:

• Ditch the formality. After dinner speeches have a light touch—they are less formal that most other speeches since the intent is not just to persuade, inform, or motivate. The intent is also to entertain and to make people feel relaxed and welcome. They are community builders at their best.

• Choose an appropriate topic. Fortunately, just about any topic is good for an after dinner speech. Even serious, weighty topics work if they are handled with a light touch. The most important thing to keep in mind is that they must be relevant to the occasion.

• Be funny…but not too funny. While the tone and topic and can be lighter, that doesn’t mean you should attempt to be a standup comic when delivering an after dinner speech. Avoid stringing jokes together or using inappropriate humor. For more tips on using humor effectively in your after dinner speech, see my past blog post.

• Watch the time. One nice thing about doing an after dinner speech is that most people won’t have to rush out at the end to make another appointment. However, that doesn’t mean you can talk all night. Most people don’t want to stay up to the wee hours of the night listening to a speaker—even if that speaker is entertaining. Be mindful of the time so you can keep people’s attention.

While after dinner speeches were originally always delivered “after dinner,” today such speeches are delivered after cocktails, after lunch, after breakfast—or just about any time people gather for meals. So whether it’s morning or night, use these tips when you have to speak after a meal and you’re sure to have your audience eating out of your hands.

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.

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

Guest Blog: A Corporate Speechwriter’s Halloween Tour of Medieval England

A veteran speechwriter and executive communications specialist, Ian Griffin helps CEOs and senior managers develop strategic messaging and content for presentations to audiences worldwide. He is Past-President of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association and an active member of Toastmasters. A version of this article first appeared in Ian’s blog Professionally Speaking. As a speechwriter for various Silicon Valley companies, I’ve seen both the bad (the tricks) and the good (the treats) of corporate speech development. And while speech writing may seem like a bore of a job, in truth the role of a speechwriter can be as diverse and intriguing as a Medieval Renaissance Fair. For fun on this Halloween day, let’s imagine the world of corporate America set in the time of Medieval England.

Quite ridiculous of course! We’ve come such a long way since the 14th Century. For example, back in the Dark Ages literacy was at an all-time low. Only a minority of the population held a passport and had traveled overseas. The rabble was entertained by jousting, feasting and Mystery Plays. And the King gave speeches no-one listened to.

I can’t possibly imagine what this era of history has in common with our own.

But what if? What if I did imagine?

What costumes could my corporate colleagues wear? And what do the characters in the Canterbury Tales, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail tell us about life today?

Obviously the CEO is the King (or, in rare cases, the Queen). An enlightened monarch or raging despot ruling over the organization. The EVPs and SVPs are the Barons at Court, consumed by intrigue and power plays. Sales managers are the Knights, conquering new territory. The staff are serfs and peasants, laboring in cubicle farms.

What about the speechwriter? Who would the speechwriter dress up as for a Medieval Halloween Ball?

Actually, there’s quite a number which fit the job description.

For starters, how about the speechwriter as the Motley Fool?

The Motley Fool

The fool on the hill Sees the sun going down, And the eyes in his head, See the world spinning ’round. - The Beatles: Fool on the Hill

The Fool in the Medieval Court stands behind King’s throne. While Barons and Knights give measured advice the Fool whispers in the King’s ear “That’s boring. Rubbish! Claptrap! The people won’t buy it. You’ll have to spice it up to keep their attention at the Guild Hall Luncheon tomorrow. Make ‘em laugh my liege. Tell ‘em a story.”

The Fool adds Laughter! Humor! Interest! He has King’s ear, for the moment. The King tolerates him (just) and values his fresh point of view.

The role of the Motley Fool is politically cool. You get to hang out with the powerful and mighty in the land. You might even spend time with the King on the Corporate Jet. But never forget that you’re the only person in the room without 5,000 serfs reporting to you and a quarterly number to make.

Screw up and it’s “Off with his head!”

As Robert Schlesinger said about JFK’s White House, speechwriters counter the “diplomatic blandness” the State Department bureaucracy produced.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Fools

  • Step outside the corporate bureaucracy.
  • Look at issues and topics with fresh eyes.
  • Inject humor, levity, tell stories – audiences love it.
  • Have the courage to speak frankly to the powerful.
  • Don’t show fear when the King growls.

Enough with the Jester. What other role characterizes the job of an Executive Communications Manager (aka Speechwriter) in today’s corporation? How about …

The Ploughman

Businessmen they drink my wine Ploughmen dig my earth - Dylan: All Along The Watchtower

A world away from the gilded Court, Ploughmen till the fields. Tedious but necessary work plays a large part in speechwriting. Doing research. Fact-checking. Ploughing through the background papers which spew from Subject Matter Experts like weeds sprouting on a April morning after a few sweet showers.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Ploughmen

  • It’s boring work, but learn to live with it. With any luck you’ll have the fields tilled by nightfall and the King will invite you to the feast that evening.
  • Have systems in place to take care of the boring stuff. Tracking forms; checklists; everything to speed the plough.
  • Divide up tasks. It’s less overwhelming to focus on today’s furrow than worry about the rest of the forty-acre field.
  • Take breaks, quaff ale, be strong behind the plough.

The Fisherman

Fish supplemented the Medieval diet. Carp was delicacy plucked from the castle moat by Fishermen. It’s always fun to throw a few lines in the water and see what slippery items of information you can catch. Today’s fisherman uses email and voice mail to leave requests for information with subject experts across the kingdom. Bait your hook with the name of the CEO. (“I’m doing some research for a speech John is giving next month and wanted your views…”). Always use the King’s first name. When the fish bite, reel them in.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Fisherman

  • Plan ahead. The fish might not be biting today. You need to get your lines in the water early on in the process.
  • Have patience. But if you don’t get an answer after a few days, fish in another part of the corporate millpond.
  • Don’t forget to bait your email requests with the first name of the executive you are writing for.

The Miller

The Miller is an important member of every Medieval community. Without him, there would be no flour and no loaves of bread. Bread and circuses are what keep the serfs fed and happy. Every Miller is dusty from grinding wheat into flour; separating wheat from chaff.

Subject Matter Experts (SME’s – rhymes with please) will bring sacks and sacks and sacks and sacks of data to your mill. Each direct report likes to provide at least 45 minutes of content for a 15 executive minute speech. If the executive has 10 reports that means you’ll have to sieve through eight hours of content.

It’s the speechwriters job to grind it down, then bake fresh loaves to feed the audience.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Millers

  • This is your biggest single value-add. No-one else wants to stand there while the mill-wheels are a-turning.
  • Edit ruthlessly – throw out 90% of the data the engineers and SME’s send you.
  • Say ‘No’ to requests for more data and facts from Knight’s and Baron’s who pile on the grain as a CYA strategy.
  • Keep the mill-wheels turning. Don’t send un-milled sacks of data to the court. They are paying you to sift and select.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist turns base metal into Gold. Like Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter you’ll take their words and sit in your room all night spinning them into gold. And next morning no-one will know how you did it.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Alchemists

  • Study the book of spells – text-books on speechwriting such as those listed at the end of this parchment.
  • Safeguard the Mystery. Don’t reveal your secrets to the other members of the Court.
  • Practice makes perfect. Alchemy is an art, not a science. Cultivate your Craft.
  • Understand that what you do is magikal to ordinary mortals.

The Monk

Scriptorium: a place for writing – commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes. - Wikipedia

Monks spent hours, days, weeks, months, years in the Scriptorium illustrating manuscripts like the Book of Kells. Everyone admires their artistry but wonders why they spent so much time coloring basic information and making it, actually, harder to comprehend.

That was then. This is now.

The speechwriter today spends hours, weeks, months, years in front of the computer illustrating presentations in PowerPoint. Future archeologists will gaze in wonder at the endless decks of slides. Beautiful, mindless illustrations of…what? Will anyone be able to comprehend these charts in the future? Can members of the audience comprehend them today?

Who cares. Monks may have had a diet of thin gruel, but illustrated manuscripts occupied them on winter evenings.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Monks

  • Learn cutting-edge PowerPoint skills. Take time to study and learn techniques.
  • Develop a good relationship with your graphics team who support you in this.
  • Read two of the Bibles of the modern era: Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology and Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen

The Wandering Minstrel

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you. - Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man

OK. I saved the best for last. All of the previous roles are aspects of life at Court, inside the hierarchical corporate world, bound by proscribed roles and strict protocols.

The Wandering Minstrel travels the land a free man composing sonnets and madrigals for clients.

Today the speechwriter as consultant wanders freely, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow. If this sounds like the life for you, there’s important lessons you need to learn.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Minstrel

  • Aim for niche markets. Become an expert in a specific industry. You’ll make good money if your expertize is an inch wide and a mile deep.
  • Work fast, bill clients a flat fee, clean up and move on (just like Joe the Plumber).
  • Stay at the top of your game. You have to be good, darned good.
  • Work by referrals. People love to hire a Minstrel who has performed for the crowned heads of Europe.

Book of Spells

Here are some reference books I keep close by:

Read these great book but also spend time listening to speeches. Here’s a list of 100 great ones.

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.

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

Want to Sharpen Your Public Speaking Skills? Begin Now!

I received a call a few weeks ago from an HR business partner at a large construction company. She was looking for someone to support the soon-to-be CEO in preparation for his first board presentation. She explained that this person needed major help with his public speaking skills because he was moving into the role of CEO and was terrified of public speaking. Apparently, he had come up from the ranks, was a seasoned, knowledgeable and well respected leader, and clearly was the perfect person for the position. But knowing that public speaking would now be a required cornerstone of his new job, he almost decided not to take it. This is not the first time I’ve heard this story. Public speaking is a big challenge for a lot of people, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a C-level executive or a new supervisor. As part of my initial assessment I spoke to the new CEO on the phone and watched a video of him speaking. It was clear to me that the HR business partner was not exaggerating the magnitude of the problem.

When I arrived on site to work with him, I found a tense and anxious man who looked exhausted from lack of sleep. He confided that he was a “train wreck.” He spent the entire weekend fretting and almost cancelled our session. He viewed me as a necessary evil and was not looking forward to working with me at all.

After talking with him and providing constant reassurance, we started with the basics. I introduced him to our concept models, showed some good, bad and funny videos, and we shared a few laughs. When it was his turn to stand up and be videotaped, he asked if he could take a short break. Over 30 minutes later he walked back in the room with no explanation. 

I proceeded to work with him on basic physical skills and helped him stop swaying and wringing his hands. Accomplishing just those two things felt like we moved a mountain. Then we worked on his vocal resonance and he learned how to pause, speak slowly and clearly and use inflection. After two days of intense coaching, he was ready for a dry run. When a small team assembled to watch his presentation, everyone was delighted at his progress, his budding confidence, and his newfound strength and ability to engage the group. He too was noticeably pleased at his success, and, when it was over he simply said, “I wish I had done this years ago!”

What keeps you from tackling those burdensome obstacles in your life? Maybe it’s a fear of failure or the belief that it will be too challenging. Perhaps you feel alone and unsupported, or maybe there is just too much going on in your life to make room for something big. At a fundamental level, you may not know how to tackle the problem or even where to begin. Whatever the reasons, the truth is that these kinds of nagging issues produce chronic anxiety and stress. Knowing you need to change something important in your life can clutter your thoughts day in and day out. It makes far more sense to stop everything and deal with the issue so that your peace of mind will return and you will feel more balanced once again.

The story of the CEO reminds me of Goethe’s famous quote:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

So your action step is to do just one thing: be bold, brave, daring, courageous, intrepid, audacious, gallant, valiant. Boldness does not imply that you know exactly what to do to solve the problem; it just means you take a step in the direction of solving it. When you’re stuck like the CEO was, the very first step is always the most important.

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!