The Words Of Apology That Undermine Your Presentations

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 16, 2015 – 5:02 am

My wife and I recently had plans to leave our house earlier than usual for a Sunday morning. As I went upstairs to shower, I turned back toward her and said, “Let’s try to aim to leave around 7:30.”

As soon as I said that, I knew there would be no chance of us leaving at 7:30. I had heard my own words, which packed three hedge words into a single short sentence:

“Let’s TRY to AIM to leave AROUND 7:30.”

That choice of words suggested to me that I wasn’t particularly committed to my own idea (we ended up leaving closer to 7:50). And it made me think about all of the times I hear speakers use hedge words—or their kissing cousin, words of apology—which are the focus of this post.

Speaker Saying Just

I often hear speakers using these types of phrases:

“I’m just going to take a minute to tell you about….”

“Real quickly, I’ll explain why…”

“”I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before, but…”

Like the phrase I used when speaking to my wife, each of those phrases signal something to an audience.

The first two phrases send a message of insecurity, that the speaker doesn’t feel confident enough in his or her content or position to simply say what they had planned to. As I say to our clients, it’s going to take you the same amount of time to share that content whether you pre-apologize for it or not—so why pre-apologize? Doing so only makes you look insecure and unnecessarily threatens your credibility. 

The third sentence sends a message of either poor planning or poor framing. Instead of apologizing and barreling through the content anyway, the speaker could have either looked for a new way to share the same information or at least sold the repeated content as an asset (“For those of you who have heard this before, this will serve as a useful refresher.”).

In her post about the word “just” published last spring by PR Daily, leadership strategist Ellen Petry Leanse writes that she sees more women using these “permission” words than men. I’ve made the same observation in my own workshops. There are all sorts of cultural reasons for why that may be the case, but it can undermine an otherwise confident message nonetheless.

As Leanse says:

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that [just] was a “child” word…As such, it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control.”

Using these words or phrases of apology are not going to doom your next presentation. But it’s a good idea to remain aware of the potential message they send and work to remove them from your talks.

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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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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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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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Five Ways To Be A Great Audience Member

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 8, 2014 – 9:20 pm

In my work with public speakers, I’ve learned how important it is for me to serve as a receptive audience for them.

Although I usually try to maintain an enthusiastic expression when I watch speakers deliver a practice speech, my less-than-enthusiastic thoughts and feelings occasionally become clear to the presenter—even when I’m trying to mask them.

“You looked like you were getting bored,” the speaker might say. “I’m sorry you saw that,” I’ll reply, “I’m usually better about maintaining a poker face. But you’re right that the presentation started to drag a bit in the middle, so let’s talk about ways to keep the energy up during that section.”

Looking out into a sea of blank expressions, empty stares, or skeptical faces can be devastating for a speaker, particularly one who lacks confidence or experience.

Audience Listening To Presentation At Conference

There’s an argument to be made that it’s incumbent upon speakers to grab and maintain the attention of their audiences. That may be true—but audience members who sympathize with the plight of a speaker who’s struggling can improve the experience for the speaker and the rest of the audience. (Plus, it’s just the decent thing to do.)

Many speakers tell me that the first few minutes of a presentation are the most critical for them to feel like they’re succeeding—so having a few friendly faces looking back at them can be all the encouragement they need to hit their stride and deliver a winning presentation.

Here are five ways to be a supportive audience member:

1. Listen. Even if the speaker is delivering his or her content badly, there may be an underlying message worth hearing.

2. Exhibit supportive body language. That means maintaining eye contact, smiling when appropriate, and nodding to indicate understanding.

3. Ask questions. If the speaker asks for participation and no one else is jumping in, try to help them by asking a question. This can be particularly useful for a speaker who is failing to deliver their content in a compelling manner—the right question can draw out a more interesting response (e.g. “You mentioned earlier that the new trucking route would save customers money and time. Can you provide me with an example so I can better picture how that would work?”). 

4. Put away your smartphone. Seeing audience members who are clearly checked out is distracting at the least and often downright demoralizing.

5. Offer gentle feedback after the presentation. You can help the speaker improve by offering encouraging feedback, such as: “It really resonated with me when you shared the story about the customer who canceled our service. If you present on this topic again, you might want to spend even more time on that story, because you had my attention during that whole section of your talk.”

What would you add to this list? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Another Good Way To Break The Pattern

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 25, 2014 – 6:02 am

Earlier this week, I wrote about the importance of “breaking the pattern” when delivering a presentation.

That post discussed what you can do as a speaker to change your delivery approach frequently in order to maintain and regain your audience’s attention. But that article focused solely on the contrast you can provide during your own presentation—and there’s another key way to break the pattern that occurs when you’re speaking at a conference or multi-speaker workshop.

Before planning your own presentation at a conference, get a feel for the “default” speaking style most speakers plan to use. Hold a conference call with other speakers. Start an email chain. Talk to the conference planner.

Then, look for ways to break the default pattern.

Break The Pattern PPT iStockPhoto

Here are a few examples of providing a contrast between yourself and other speakers:

  1. If other speakers plan on using PowerPoint, consider going without it (or at least keep the screen dark for the first several minutes).
  2. If other speakers put complex technical information on the screen, consider handing out a well-designed one-page handout instead. Give the audience a few minutes to take in the content (they won’t be able to hear you until they’ve digested your content anyway), and then add context to the handout they just read.
  3. If other speakers will deliver their presentations from behind a lectern, request a lavaliere microphone and speak in front of the stage.
  4. If other speakers are dressed in business attire but your professional or personal brand is more business casual, dress in a manner consistent with your own brand (assuming, of course, that doing so would be appropriate to the occasion).
  5. If other speakers plan on taking audience questions only after they finish their prepared remarks, consider allowing questions and interacting with the audience throughout your presentation.

Doing something that breaks convention takes some boldness and courage. But the payoff for speakers who choose smart ways to stand out from their “competition”—and the battle to earn the audience’s long-term memory is competition—can be huge.

What are your favorite “pattern breakers?” Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

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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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