Why Being Witty Can Kill Your Presentations

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 25, 2015 – 4:59 am

In the mid-1990s, my cousin invited me to join her for a bar crawl in Washington, DC. At some point during the day, we swung by an apartment in Dupont Circle to pick up one of her friends.

When we entered her friend’s basement apartment, I noticed a flier on a coffee table supporting Joe Biden’s 1996 Senate reelection campaign. Biden, you may remember, dropped out of the presidential race in 1988 after being accused of plagiarizing a speech—so I turned to my cousin and jokingly said, “I wonder if he plagiarized that flier?”

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she said, a look of horror crossing her face. “This is his son’s apartment!”

Joe Biden 1988

It’s been many years, so I don’t know which Biden son lived there (we were there to pick up one of his roommates). I also don’t know if he ever heard the comment—to the best of my memory, I never saw him, so I don’t even know if he was home at the time.

But that moment, which my cousin still needles me about, is etched in my memory and serves as a regular caution for me about the dangers of ad libbing.

Still, I like topical quips—so that moment aside, I remain prone to occasionally making a comment about someone in the news. Last week, for example, I delivered a presentation to a group of 40 communications professionals in Washington. As I was setting up a story, I was on the cusp of saying something along the lines of, “This is a real story, not a Brian Williams one.”

Brian Williams

I hit the brakes right before saying it and held myself back. I realized that I had no idea who was in that audience. For all I knew, one of Brian Williams’s relatives, former colleagues, or friends could have been in the audience—and if that was the case, my witty aside could have made that person (and everyone else in the room aware of that relationship) uncomfortable.

Certainly, I could have referenced the Williams case if it was in context and if the analysis served a relevant point. But just for the sake of demonstrating my wit? It wasn’t worth the risk.

I often talk about the need to remain spontaneous and “in the moment” during presentations. But there are a lot of other, less risky ways to exhibit humor. Therefore, unless I know my audience well, I’m going to try hard to leave the irrelevant quips behind.

Note: The Biden story above is true to the best of my and my cousin’s recollection—we both remember that incident similarly. I tried to corroborate it by searching for where the Biden sons lived in 1996, but was unable to find verifying information.

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Sorry, But You’re Not “Better When You Wing It”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 23, 2015 – 2:23 am

Every so often, speakers resist my advice to practice for an interview or presentation, claiming that practice robs their talks of spontaneity and reduces their performance. They insist that they’re “better when they wing it.” It’s tempting to tell them they’re wrong—and they almost always are—but I thought I’d turn this one over to a few familiar names.

 

Men's and Women's Olympic Swimming.  National Aquatics Center

SWIMMER MICHAEL PHELPS

According to Discovery Health, “He’s usually at the pool by 6:30 am where he swims for an average six hours a day or around 8 miles per day. He swims six days per week including holidays.”

 

 

 

Yo-Yo_Ma by Sam FelderCELLIST YO-YO MA

Ma tells The New York Times that: “Practicing is about quality, not quantity. Some days I practice for hours; other days it will be just a few minutes. Practicing is not only playing your instrument, either by yourself or rehearsing with others — it also includes imagining yourself practicing. Your brain forms the same neural connections and muscle memory whether you are imagining the task or actually doing it.”

 

Roy Halladay by Keith AllisonBASEBALL ALL-STAR ROY HALLADAY

According to Business Insider, “Cy Young award winning pitcher Roy Halladay is one of the hardest working men in baseball. According to Sports Illustrated, he routinely puts in a 90 minute workout before his teammates make to the field.”

 

 

 

I attribute people’s reluctance to practice to one of four things: insecurity, fear, arrogance, or (most typically) a genuine but misguided belief that they’re better without it. I understand why they might have reached that conclusion: practice can feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and it’s that very lack of familiarity that convinces people that they’re better off-the-cuff.

But unless you’re a better speaker than Phelps is a swimmer, odds are you can benefit from practice. As Yo-Yo Ma suggested, the goal is to develop muscle memory through practice that automatically guides you when you hit the stage.

 

TigerWoods_thumb.jpgGOLFER TIGER WOODS

“At a tournament, I don’t really spend a whole lot of time there on the range, or even on the putting green or anything like that. When I get to a tournament site, I feel like my game should be ready. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t play as many weeks as a lot of these guys do, because I spend a lot of time practicing at home. I do most of my preparation at home. Once I’m at a tournament site, I’m there just to find my rhythm, tune up a little bit, and get myself ready to go play the next day.” – via Human Kinetics

 

When I watch people practice their presentations, we often uncover a few soft spots. It could be an abstract point without the rich supporting material that makes it more memorable. It might be an awkward transition. It may be a visual that interferes with the spoken delivery. Those gaps cannot be identified without practice, and the “off-the-cuff” speaker usually ends up committing those otherwise preventable errors while standing in front of an audience.

The quality of practice is imperative, though, and too much practice can be a bad thing. This post offers some tips on how to practice for a media interview. How to practice for a speech or presentation while keeping the material fresh for you as a speaker will be the focus of a post soon—but in the meantime, here’s one tip: pay close attention to the transitions between points, as that’s often a place where everything falls apart.

All images from Wikimedia Commons. Michael Phelps in public domain; Yo-Yo Ma by Sam Felder; Roy Halladay by Keith Allison.

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Monty Python: Walking Your Way To A Better Speech

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 19, 2015 – 4:02 am

Through his pioneering body language research, psychologist Paul Ekman found that a feedback loop exists between the physical actions you take and the emotions you feel.

“If you put on your face all of the muscular movements for an emotion, that emotion will generally begin to occur…Our research shows that if you make those movements on your face, you will trigger changes in your physiology, both in your body and in your brain.”

From that, you might conclude that other feedback loops exist between your mind and body—and you would be right. Take, for example, the manner in which you walk. If you added a “bounce in your step,” could you actually begin to feel happier? Was Monty Python’s John Cleese onto something?

According to recent research from Ontario’s Queen’s University and clinical psychologists from the University of Hildesheim, Germany, Cleese was on the right track. They report that “walking in a happy or sad style actually affects our mood.”

“[Queen’s University professor Nikolaus Troje] presented the participants of the study with a list of positive and negative words, such as “pretty,” “afraid” and “anxious” and then asked them to walk on a treadmill while the researchers measured and analyzed gait and posture in real time. While walking, participants were looking at a gauge whose reading depended on the result of this analysis – namely if their gait appeared to be rather happy or rather sad as indicated by features such as slump-shouldered (sad) or vertical bouncing (happy). Participants didn’t know what the gauge was measuring. They were simply asked to make the gauge deflect from the neutral position. Some had to try to move the gauge left, while others were told to move it right.

Afterward, they had to write down as many words as they could remember from the earlier list of positive and negative words. Those who had been walking in a depressed style remembered many more negative words. The difference in recall suggests that the depressed walking style actually created a more depressed mood.”

That study had only 39 participants—a low number from which to form a hard conclusion—but it squares with a growing body of other research that shows similar results.

Beautiful female speaker in conference

This “feedback loop” has direct implications for public speakers, particularly those gripped with negative thoughts and fear. If that sounds like you, put a smile on your face and walk with a slight bounce the next time you approach a stage. Allow yourself to benefit from the automatic changes in your body’s and brain’s physiology.

Even if this doesn’t work for you, your more confident demeanor will send a positive message to your audience, which will likely mirror your positive body language back toward you through their own (confident speakers breed more confident audiences). The feedback loop doesn’t only occur within yourself, after all. It also occurs between you and your audience.

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Power Posing: A TED Talk You Should Watch

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 10, 2015 – 6:02 am

Olympic swimmers spend years trying to shave a few tenths of a second off their racing times. Ambitious students learn to become more efficient studiers. Daily commuters learn how to avoid peak traffic by leaving the house at precisely the right time.

We’re all looking to gain small advantages in our daily routines, and yet, most of us have missed a technique that can have a dramatic impact on our personal and professional lives. And to benefit from it, all you need to do is find two minutes and a private space (a bathroom stall is fine) before the next situation in which you’ll be evaluated (e.g. a job interview, a date, a presentation). 

In her 2012 TED Talk (the second most-viewed TED Talk ever), social psychologist and Harvard Business School associate professor Amy Cuddy discussed her research into “power poses”—and concluded that your body language shapes who you are.

TEDGlobal 2012 - June 25 - 29, 2012, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Cuddy’s research found that people who adopted “high-power poses” (such as the one she’s displaying above) for two minutes prior to an evaluative situation experienced a 20 percent increase in testosterone (the “dominance” hormone) and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol (the “stress” hormone).

She also found that the reverse is true: People who adopted a “low-power pose” (such as the one displayed in the slide above Ms. Cuddy) for two minutes before an evaluative situation experienced a 10 percent drop in testosterone and a 15 percent increase in cortisol. 

Based on those results, Ms. Cuddy says that, “Our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves.” Her conclusion? Just two minutes of power posing can increase our dominance and decrease our stress.

I encourage you to watch her talk. And don’t miss the ending, in which she shares a moving personal story that explains why she doesn’t encourage you to “fake it until you make it,” but to “fake it until you become it.”

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How To Deliver Someone Else’s Presentation

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 15, 2015 – 1:40 am

Many speakers are asked to deliver a template presentation provided to them by their corporate office. They might be asked give an employee training workshop, a sales pitch, or a generic “about our company” seminar.

Oftentimes, the presentation is delivered to the speaker in the form of PowerPoint slides. If the company has its act together, the slides will have speaker’s notes filled in to help the speaker know exactly what points they’re expected to make on each slide.

That may sound like an efficient way to deliver a presentation and ensure consistency across an organization. But speakers who deliver those presentations are usually lifeless and uninspired—and that’s not their fault. Since the speakers had no ownership over the creation of the presentation, their personalities and delivery styles are nowhere to be found within it.

What can you do if you’re asked to deliver a presentation that’s already been created?

Jeans Tailor Pants Alterations

Think of a template presentation as an off-the-rack pair of pants.

When you buy a new pair of pants, you might need to tailor it by taking in the waist or shortening the cuffs. The same is true with a template presentation—you don’t have to wear it “as is.” Instead, most presentations will benefit if you make a few alterations by injecting your own personality into it while retaining its basic shape.

 

Example One

Let’s say you’re handed this slide:

Sample Slide 1

You can bring it to life by adding a personal anecdote:

“Last year, I went to Jakarta, Indonesia for the first time. It’s a city of 10 million people, and off in the northwest corner of the city, our company opened an office in a nondescript office park. When you enter the building, however, you’re immediately struck by how high tech it is. You walk down a long corridor lined with television monitors and enter an open workspace with more than 200 techs busily working at state-of-the-art work stations. The Jakarta office is just one of 12 new satellite offices we’ve opened in the past two years in cities such as Montreal, Nairobi, Buenos Aires and Glasgow, and that growth has helped our company’s revenue increase by 400 percent since early 2013.”

 

Example Two

Here’s another example. Let’s say this slide is in your deck:

Sample Slide 2

In this case, you might highlight one of the trends and infuse it with meaningful context: 

For the past year, we’ve heard a lot of talk about Facebook changing its algorithm. It used to be that a brand published a post, and the brand’s “fans”—people who had liked the page—were able to see the brand’s posts in their feed. Not anymore. Today, Facebook insists that brands buy advertising to reach their own fans. We don’t buy advertising on Facebook, so we expected our traffic to plummet. But something interesting happened. Google is still our number one referral source, but [CLICK TO ABOVE SLIDE] Facebook has remained number two. So much for losing our website visits from them—surprisingly, they’ve actually gone up. And Twitter is closing in fast, just slightly behind at number three.” 

The key to bringing a presentation someone else created to life is to look for spots to add more of yourself to it. For more ideas, read this article which offers eight great ways to begin a presentation. You can use these elements anywhere in your talk—not just in your open—and doing so will help you make someone else’s presentation sound exactly like your own.

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ESPN Anchor Stuart Scott’s Moving Speech

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 4, 2015 – 11:35 am

Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor who died of cancer today at age 49, delivered a speech in July of last year that moved me to tears.

The speech was raw and honest—it was clear that he knew death was upon him—but he used the moment to uplift others and acknowledge those who carried his fight when he couldn’t.

I particularly appreciated his words about “beating” cancer. Language matters, and I always bristle a little when I hear well-intentioned people using lines like, “She lost her battle with cancer” or “He beat cancer.” Those phrases have always implied to me that people with enough character and will can beat the disease while those lacking those traits will inevitably die. That, of course, is not the case.

Stuart Scott

Two decades ago, basketball coach Jim Valvano offered seven unforgettable words as he, too, was dying: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” In this speech, Scott added a few important lines that I hope are similarly remembered decades from now: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by why you live, how you live, and the manner in which you live.”

You’ll find his complete speech from July 2014 below.

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Four Better Ways To Speak From a Script (If You Must)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 10, 2014 – 4:01 am

Many speakers like to type out their entire speeches.

It’s easy to imagine these presenters hunched over their laptops for days, a steady stream of caffeine serving as their only companions. Despite their sleep deprivation, their hard work ultimately results in carefully-edited, near-perfect speeches.

At least their scripts look perfect. But when the speakers read their words aloud for the first time during their presentations, they sound stiffer than a newly hired phone solicitor reading the script his boss just thrust into his hands. As a result, audience members can tell that the speaker is reading and might conclude that it would have been more efficient if the speaker had just distributed the text and let them read it for themselves.  

These speakers are often dreadful to watch because they fail to remember that writing for the eye is different than writing for the ear.

Still, writing out a full speech does have certain advantages. For example, writing out a speech can help speakers create a tightly-focused organizational structure and discover a few ideas, themes, or cleverly-worded phrases that they otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.

Therefore, I’m not against writing out your entire script, since doing so might help yield valuable fruit. I’m only against delivering speeches from prepared scripts (unless you’re the head of state or a similarly important figure, for whom a single bad word choice could provoke an international incident or cause markets to plummet). 

If you must deliver a speech from a prepared text, here are four tips to consider:

1. Write Short Sentences

Long sentences may look good on paper, but they typically don’t sound natural when spoken aloud. Shorten them or separate longer lines into two or three sentences.

2. Use “Non-Reading” Delivery

When people read a speech, they tend to lose the vocal dynamics and non-verbal delivery elements they use during less formal presentations. So remember to change your pace, add a few pauses, speak more quickly in certain moments to add a dose of excitement and more slowly in others to allow the audience time to contemplate a key idea.

3. Maintain Eye Contact

Challenge yourself to maintain eye contact with the audience for at least 80 percent of your talk (you should eventually aim for closer to 100 percent, but reaching 80 percent is a laudable achievement for most speakers working off a script). Help yourself by writing short sentences and short words; doing so will allow you to look down, see the next line, look back up, and deliver the line directly to a person in your audience, an approach public speaking author James C. Humes refers to as the “See-Stop-Say” Technique. 

4. Use This Better Alternative

I usually encourage clients who are delivering a speech from a script to leave a few holes in their texts. For example, speakers should be able to open their speeches for a minute or two without a formal text. If they’re welcoming people to an annual conference, they should be able to say, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” without any notes in front of them. Same goes for your close. In the middle of your speech, you might insert a hole for a personal anecdote, which will come across with greater authenticity if you share it “off the page.” Just practice your transition back into your prepared remarks once you’ve completed the anecdote.

 

Save bedtime stories for children. Don’t read to your audiences.

 

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Turn Off Your Cell Phones, People!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 6, 2014 – 5:22 am

During MSNBC’s election coverage on Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw’s cell phone alarm started blaring while he was on the air. A seasoned pro, Brokaw played it off nicely, pretending he had received a call from his wife, who had requested that he bring home some milk.

 

Rudy Giuliani had a similar moment in 2007 during his ill-fated presidential run when he received a call from his wife during a speech to the National Rifle Association. He picked up the phone while speaking before hundreds of people, had a brief conversation with her, and continued his speech.

 

Giuliani’s stunt earned widespread ridicule from the press; even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that picking up the call was “emasculating”:

“While jaws began setting in a room of muted chuckles, Rudy played public cuckold to his third wife. Feigning amusement and affection while exchanging sweet nothings, the aspiring president utterly emasculated himself in front of a crowd whose cumulative testosterone level had the Army Corps of Engineers on alert.”

Both of those moments reminded me of a speech I saw television anchor John Stossel deliver several years ago. His phone started ringing while he was speaking to a packed ballroom; he fumbled for his phone, turned it off, and apologized to the audience for the interruption. That moment was highly distracting—it removed me from his speech and turned my attention to his phone—and highly memorable, as it’s the moment I remember best from his speech.

My advice in this post is simple—turn off your phones before a media interview or speech—but there’s one less intuitive piece of advice I’d offer. It’s not enough to put your phones on vibrate. While the audience may not hear your device ring when it’s on silent mode, you will—and the vibration itself is often enough to distract you from your comments.

 

Please turn off cell phones screen in old retro cinema

 

Writing in The New York Times, author Martin Lindstrom explains:

“So are our smartphones addictive, medically speaking? Some psychologists suggest that using our iPhones and BlackBerrys may tap into the same associative learning pathways in the brain that make other compulsive behaviors — like gambling — so addictive. As with addiction to drugs or cigarettes or food, the chemical driver of this process is the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.

Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.

In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they ‘heard’ it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also ‘saw’ it.”

Some studies show that the momentary buzz in your pocket removes you from your central task, if even for a brief moment. And when that buzz occurs, I wouldn’t be surprised to observe speakers suddenly increasing their amount of verbal filler and hesitations; since their brains are momentarily otherwise occupied, it would make sense to see their speech briefly interrupted.

Turn off your cell phones, people.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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