The Universal Language Of Public Speaking

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 18, 2014 – 6:02 am

In 2003, I traveled to Guatemala with a group of professional communicators from all over the world. We spent one particularly memorable day exploring the Mayan ruins in Tikal, climbing its tall structures and trekking through the forest. It was a magical experience.

But for some reason, the moment I remember best about that trip has nothing to do with the historical site. It has to do with a DJ.

Tikal Guatemala

On the last night of our trip, the conference organizers hired a disc jockey. I watched as the DJ struggled to find music that could fill the dance floor. The DJ was aware that we were an international crowd—but everything he played ended up segregating the audience.

If he played a Brazilian tune, the Brazilians would dance. If he played an American pop hit, the Americans and Europeans would dance. If he played something with an African rhythm, the Africans would dance. (Yes, a few people tried dancing to unfamiliar music, but they were the exceptions.)

Then something remarkable happened. The DJ played the first few notes of “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley—and the dance floor filled up almost immediately. The Americans joined the Chileans, the Ghanaians joined the Filipinos. 

The DJ, quite accidentally, had stumbled upon the universal language of music. Bob Marley was the one artist that, for whatever reason, united a diverse group of people from more than 15 countries. (The DJ was no dummy; he played several more Marley hits in a row.)

That made me think: What is the Bob Marley of public speaking? What is the universal language that unites audiences?

In their great book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath offer this answer:

“Find a ‘universal language,’ one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.”

The Heaths point out that while experts will understand abstractions, non-experts will not. Concrete language, full of vivid detail, reaches both audiences. It unites experts and non-experts alike. In his book Lend Me Your Ears, author Max Atkinson offers similar advice:

“More difficult is to know how to approach it if the audience is made up of a mixture of specialists and non-specialists. The safest solution is to pitch it towards the non-specialists, as the specialists in the audience will…be aware of the different levels of expertise among those present.”

International Global Panel iStockPhoto PPT

Practically speaking, what does that mean? It means anecdotes. Case studies. Stories. It means culling more abstract points out of your presentation—or supplementing them with broadly understandable examples.

Here’s an example.

Instead of saying this: “This bill got bottled up in committee.”

Say this: “The committee has 14 members. Only five of them support us. But there’s good news: that’s one more person than last year. I asked the member who changed his mind why he changed his mind, and he told me that he was deeply affected by the testimony he heard from a local resident named Trudy Hall. Last year, Trudy was diagnosed with… [insert anecdote].”

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How To Get People To Do What You Want

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 12, 2013 – 12:02 am

What’s the best way to get people—an audience, your staff, a teenager—to do what you want them to do?

If you’re like a lot of companies, leaders, or parents, you create a set of rules and policies. Do not give customers a free upgrade without supervisor approval. Get your reports in by the 15th of each month. Don’t stay out past midnight.

But those of us who have issued sets of rules know that lack of compliance is a big problem. Many people don’t like rules, so they ignore them. They lapse back into old habits. Staff members wait until the end of the month to submit their reports. Your teenager stays out until 2 a.m.

In many cases, there’s a better way to get people to do what you want them to do.

In her book The Story Factor, author Annette Simmons makes a persuasive case that stories are the best vehicle to influence other people:

“Most of the time, you won’t be present when the people you want to influence make the decisions…so how do you get them to do what you want? Story is like mental software that you supply so your listener can run it again later using new input specific to the situation…Once installed, a good story replays itself and continues to process new experiences toward the perceptions and choices you desire.”

Nordstrom, for example, doesn’t tell employees that “customer service is our top priority.” They tell new employees a story about a customer who claimed he had purchased tire chains at Nordstrom and wanted a refund (Nordstrom doesn’t sell auto parts). The salesperson gave him a refund anyway. That story is a terrific piece of mental software that salespersons can use when faced with similar customer service dilemmas.

In their book Made to Stick (highly recommended), authors Chip and Dan Heath tell a story about Southwest Airlines, which wanted to be known as “THE low-fare airline.”

“Here’s an example,” [Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher] said. “Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entrée on the Houston to Las Vegas flight…she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say?…You say, ‘Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline?…Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.”

Those stories about tire chains and chicken salads stick. As Ms. Simmons wrote, they serve as mental software that does a far superior job of getting people to act in accordance with your wishes—even when you’re not around—than most policy memos ever could.

So the next time you’re in a position to tell someone “the rules,” try framing your instructions within the context of an evocative story. Long after your policies would have been forgotten, you might find that your story remains firmly etched in their mind.

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Photo credit: Dylan Ashe, Wikimedia Commons


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Read These Books: Public Speaking, Media Training & Crisis

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 29, 2013 – 9:21 am

May 2014: This post was updated with several new books.

I’ve read dozens of books that focus on media training, crisis management, body language, and public speaking. Many of them are quite good—but a select few have become favorites.

In this post, I list some of my all-time favorites. This isn’t a comprehensive list, as there are surely great books I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. So if you have favorites that are not on this list, please leave them in the comments section below. (And if you’re an author, feel free to send me a copy of your book for possible review.)

For more information about any of these books, you can click on the book title or the image of the book cover.

 

 

PUBLIC SPEAKING

 

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds: Many communications consultants advise their clients not to use PowerPoint. I disagree with that absolutist stance, since the problem isn’t the tool, but the use of that tool. Garr Reynolds gets that, and strikes the perfect balance by offering a visually stunning guide that helps presenters design minimalistic PowerPoint slides that enhance presentations and reinforce verbal points. It’s no exaggeration to say that this book changed the definition of “best practices” for presentations that use PowerPoint.

 

 

Presentation Zen Design Second EditionPresentation Zen Design: A Simple Visual Approach to Presenting in Today’s World by Garr Reynolds: This book is the perfect companion to Presentation Zen. The key difference is that Reynolds goes into more depth about design in this book, offering practical advice about designing visually stunning slides and choosing the right colors, fonts and images. More than anything I’ve ever read, this book made me excited about design—and inspired me to completely overhaul our company’s training slides. 

 

 

Slideology Cover Slide:ology: The Art And Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte: This book offers a master’s class in visual design. Everything about this book shows Ms. Duarte’s creativity: the thoughtful layout, the compelling images, and the sharp content. Duarte offers readers hundreds of images to help guide their slides, goes into depth on color selection, and details the best way to conceive a visual presentation. If you care about presenting well-designed slides, put this book on your reading list.

 

 

Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story by Jerry Weissman: Jerry Weissman’s classic book offers a detailed, almost technical, guide to public speaking. This is the type of book you’ll want to highlight and come back to before every speech you ever deliver; although you should read it cover-to-cover, you’ll eventually get more out of it as a must-have reference title. Mr. Weissman’s examples come almost exclusively from the world of high-tech IPO road shows, but anyone in any sector can learn just as much as his tech clients.   

 

 

 

10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech by Fletcher Dean: This short volume packs a punch. In just 120 pages, Dean offers more nuggets than most books three-times the size. Among other topics, Dean offers a systematic technique for deciding when (and when not) to use PowerPoint, teaches readers how to use persuasive techniques to move an audience to action, and provides specific ideas about how to structure a speech. Although this is labeled as a book about speech writing, most of the ideas here also apply to unscripted presentations.

 

 

 

Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun: This book isn’t a public speaking book, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s not particularly granular or tactical—you won’t find much here about proper posture, slide design, or ways to begin a speech, for example. Instead, this book focuses on some of the bigger issues speakers get wrong, such as failing to maintain the audience’s attention, work a tough room, or manage their own fear. Oh, and it’s the funniest book about public speaking I’ve ever read. (Read my full review here.)

 

 

 

You Are The Message by Roger Ailes: A true classic chock full of smart thinking and “a ha!” moments. Before Roger Ailes was hired to run the Fox News Channel, he was a high-profile communications consultant (he coached Ronald Reagan in 1984 before the second presidential debate that cemented his re-election). If you want to learn how to be a more effective public speaker, this is a perfect place to begin. This book was originally released in 1989, but it’s still as fresh and relevant as anything being published today (with the exception of a few pages that offer a rather outdated view of women in the workplace).

 

 

 

 

 

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PUBLIC SPEAKING

 

Influence CialdiniInfluence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini: There’s a reason this book has sold more than two million copies. Dr. Cialdini explains six key principles of persuasion, including the Reciprocity Rule, the Consistency Principle, and Social Proof. The human truths Cialdini explores should change the way you speak to audiences—and the way you issue your call to action. Ignore these rules at your peril.   

 

 

  

 

 

 

BrainRules-Paperback_NYT-redband.inddBrain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina: Did you know that “multitasking” is a myth? Or that a speech that begins with details may be doomed to failure? Or that it may take years before information makes it to our brain’s long-term storage? All of those facts—and dozens more like it in this book—are critical to understanding the best way to present information to an audience. This is a fun book to read that will not only change your approach to public speaking, but to communication in general.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BODY LANGUAGE

 

What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro: Reading body language is notoriously difficult. Sure, some “tells” are more certain than others, but even rather obvious tells usually require other, complementary tells—known as clusters—in order to accurately assess their meaning. That’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is filled with all of the responsible caveats but is still an easy read full of fascinating tidbits. Navarro rests his conclusions on the most recent science, but impressively avoids the pitfall of weighing down the book with dense prose. (Read my full review here, and five body language tips from Navarro’s book here.)

 

 

 

The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara and Allan Pease: A terrific starter’s guide to body language that covers all of the basics—gestures, eye contact, and deceit signals—and some unexpected material, including the hidden meaning of certain seating arrangements, physical space, and courtship displays. An easy-to-read and highly accessible book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CRISIS MANAGEMENT

 

Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control by Christopher Lehane, Mark Fabiani and Bill Guttentag: Preparing in advance for crisis is more important today than ever before. Masters helps readers do that by detailing “Ten Commandments” of damage control, the purpose of which are to help restore trust to companies in crisis. But the greatest strength of this book is its case studies. The authors went into great detail on numerous recent scandals—ranging from those affecting Toyota, British Petroleum, Penn State University, Tiger Woods, baseball’s steroid users, and a few politicians. (Read my full review here, and an excerpt here.)

 

 

 

Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management by Eric Dezenhall and John Weber: This book got a lot of attention upon its original release, as it gleefully tore much of the prevailing crisis communications “wisdom” to shreds. Among other memorable moments, the authors discuss why “getting all of the information out early” is an often-impossible task, why sometimes companies have to do reporters’ jobs for them, and why the oft-cited Tylenol “best practices” crisis response is badly outdated. If you like hearing a smartly argued counter argument, this book’s for you.

 

 

 

The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management: How to Manage the Media In the Digital Age by Jane Jordan-Meier: Jane’s straightforward prose, expert sourcing, relevant data and instructive case studies make this detailed book an easy read. Her international perspective (she cites cases in Australia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States) makes clear just how universal these crisis communications truths are. (You can read excerpts here.)

 

 

 

 

 

MEDIA TRAINING

 

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath: The Heath Brothers practice what they preach. Two years after reading their book (for the first time), I still remember many of the anecdotes they shared; those case studies make their underlying and more substantive points even stickier. Their SUCCESs formula is an easily-remembered way to create more effective messages. This is not a “media training book,” but I’ve included it in this section since much of their advice can be applied brilliantly to your media interactions. 

 

 

 

The Sound Bite Workbook by Marcia Yudkin: In her short workbook, Marcia Yudkin offers some terrific advice to help spokespersons create the all elusive “sound bite.” You can use it to create captivating quotes for the media, presentations, website taglines, and marketing messages. This book is only available for the Kindle—and at $2.99, it’s a steal.

 

 

 

 

 

The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview by Brad Phillips: Okay, so this is my book. I’m not going to review it myself, since I have an obvious conflict of interest. The book is organized as 101 two-page lessons and covers message development, media interviewing, body language and attire, and crisis communications. I hope you’ll consider adding it to your book collection. (You can read independent reviews here and view free sample lessons here.)

 

 

 

Which books have I missed? Please leave your favorites in the comments section below.


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The Elements Of Great Storytelling (And A 9-Year-Old Boy)

Written by Brad Phillips on April 15, 2012 – 7:00 am

What makes a video go viral?

A video featuring Caine, an imaginative 9-year-old boy living in East Los Angeles, spread like wildfire over the past week. It’s easy to see why.

This video features all six of the critical elements of great storytelling (more on those, below).

I’ve never posted an 11-minute video before, but this one is that good. I recommend you watch it before reading on.

In their terrific book, Made to Stick, authors Dan and Chip Heath identified six critical traits that make stories memorable. They used the acronym SUCCESs to summarize those elements (the final “s” doesn’t stand for anything.)

It’s no surprise that the video above went viral so quickly, as it had all six of the Heath Brothers’ “SUCCESs” sticky traits:

1. Simple: A boy. An idea. Some boxes. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.

2. Unexpected: This video had at least four unexpected things: An unusually creative boy. A video maker who accidentally stumbled upon the boy’s arcade. A flash mob. Caine’s surprise at the flash mob. Even though the video’s title (“9-year-old’s DIY cardboard arcade gets flashmobbed”) gave away a lot of the premise, it didn’t matter. We wanted to see how the unexpected played out.

3. Concrete: There’s one moment that stuck with me more than any other: Caine manually feeding prize tickets through a hole in the box. If there’s a second moment I remember, it’s the claw machine. If there’s a third, it’s the calculator he used to track legitimate “Fun Pass” users. All three of those details are concrete, and the story was more effective for its total absence of abstractions.

4. Credible: Totally. Not a single false note.

5. Emotional: Before my wife first showed me the video, she sheepishly admitted that it had made her cry. I mildly teased her. Then I watched it and teared up, as well. It felt deeply satisfying to see the boy’s industriousness rewarded. And the father’s pride in his son’s achievement? How wonderful to see a struggling businessman in East L.A. enjoy such rich satisfaction.

6. Stories: Back to the first “S:” a boy, an idea, some boxes. Stories can’t get stripped down much further, proving that good stories don’t require complexities to work.

Made to Stick stands at the top of my recommended reading list. You can order the hard cover here, soft cover here, Kindle edition here, or audio DVD here.

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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.

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    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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