Posts Tagged ‘public speaking’
This week, I’ll focus on public speaking horror stories—mine and yours.
The goal isn’t simply to share fun stories about the public speaking nightmares we’ve all experienced (although I’ll admit that they can make for fun reading). Rather, my hope is to use those experiences to share lessons about what others should do if faced with a similar situation.
I’ll post a few of my own horror stories this week, but I’d also like to post yours!
Please leave your personal public speaking horror stories in the comments section below. In addition to sharing the story, please leave some advice for people who may face the same situation. Now that you’ve had time to think about what went wrong, what would you do differently?
I’ll post a few of your excerpts throughout the week. I look forward to learning from you!
Tags: public speaking, public speaking nightmares
Posted in Presentation Disasters | 3 Comments »
You may recognize the title of this post as a famous quote from Mark Twain. But I had never heard that quote when, in 1998, I was tasked with running the intern program for ABC News’ Nightline.
We received hundreds of applications for that year’s coveted summer internship, for which we only had four open slots. I culled the hundreds of applications down to about 20, and then conducted phone interviews with each of the finalists.
Sixteen years later, I still remember one of the phone interviews. The applicant had been performing well enough—but then I asked him a question he clearly hadn’t anticipated. He asked if he could take a few moments before answering the question. The phone then went dead. Not for three, or five, or ten seconds, but for close to fifteen.
He then answered the question. It was a good answer, but that wasn’t what impressed me. Rather, it was his confidence in pausing and thinking before rushing into an answer. Anyone with that much confidence and poise deserved a shot, I thought.
He got the job.
His approach to answering that question stood out precisely because it was unusual. But it shouldn’t be. All of us should be able to stop and think for a moment before rushing into an answer—and as my experience with this intern demonstrated, that pause can enhance an audience’s view of you.
That sounds deceptively simple. In my experience, even when I coach a presentation training client immediately before their practice Q&A session to pause before answering a question, they forget the moment it begins.
That’s understandable, because answering questions without a pause in everyday communication is reflexive, even normal. So for presentations, you have to work actively to subdue that reflex (you can also pause when answering questions in some non-live media interview settings).
The pause has many benefits for you as a speaker: It buys you time to form a better answer, it allows you to deliver that answer with greater confidence, and it often eliminates your verbal filler. It also gives your audience a moment to think, to engage with your content in their own terms.
A pause can also make you appear more thoughtful to an audience, but only if you do it the right way. Pauses can look either purposeful—and therefore be perceived as effective—or as a sign that you’re slow of thought, which is obviously a problem. The key is to be deliberate. Either say something similar to my former intern (“I’d like a moment to think about that”) or communicate the same message through your body language.
The best part of this advice? You can begin practicing this immediately, the next time someone asks you a question.
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Tags: Mark Twain, Nightline, pausing, presentation training, public speaking
Posted in Presentation Training | 1 Comment »
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.
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.”
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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Tags: Bob Marley, Chip and Dan Heath, Lend Me Your Ears, Made To Stick, Max Atkinson, presentation training, public speaking
Posted in Presentation Training | Please Comment »
Ellen Page—the actress best known for roles in Juno and Hard Candy—came out yesterday during an emotional speech to a group of LGBT teens at a Human Rights Campaign conference in Las Vegas.
The speech has received a lot of buzz since she delivered it last night, and it’s easy to see why. It’s magnificent.
Ms. Page struck the perfect tone with her speech. Yes, this platform served as her public coming out—but even so, she made sure that the focus of her comments remained on the audience. This easily could have become an indulgent, self-focused speech, but she repeatedly returned the spotlight to the people in the audience who have already come out and are dealing with the issues that involves.
It was impossible to watch Page’s speech without noticing her fear. She spoke for five minutes before coming out—and because she knew what she was leading up to, she appeared vulnerable the entire time. But that was a good thing. Audiences often perceive authentic vulnerability as a gift from the speaker, and Page served as a perfect demonstration of that.
“I’m tired of hiding, and I’m tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered, and my relationship suffered. And I’m standing here today with all of you on the other side of that pain.”
Even with her vulnerability, or perhaps because of it, Ms. Page was fully connected with the audience the entire time. She remained conversational but intense, nervous but focused.
And that leads me to a technical point. Ms. Page read her speech off of a teleprompter. But unlike the 99 percent of people who sound like they’re reading off a teleprompter, she didn’t. She infused each line with meaning, punching certain words and phrases for emphasis. Her acting background certainly helped there; she knows how to communicate the emotion behind each word. That’s a critical lesson for all public speakers who use a teleprompter.
Finally, she used a wonderful speaking device that bookended her speech. It involved the word “weird.” I won’t spoil it for you, but it was a delightful moment.
To the LGBT community, for whom these coming out speeches offer hope, Ms. Page’s speech served as a wonderful moment of inspiration. I only hope we’re nearing the point when these speeches become unnecessary, anachronisms from a less-accepting time.
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Tags: Ellen Page, Human Rights Campaign, LGBT, presentation training, public speaking
Posted in Presentation Training | Please Comment »
When I was a producer at NBC and MSNBC, I did a lot of pre-interviews over the phone. The purpose of these interviews was to gauge if the person with whom I was speaking was a good fit for a story or an on-air debate segment I was producing.
No matter how knowledgeable or charismatic a potential guest was, if he or she had a thick accent, I regretfully had to pass on them. If I had a hard time understanding them, I knew my audience would as well.
Many spokespeople have accents, and not all of them are so significant that they prevent the audience from understanding. Sometimes, accents are even considered charming. However, researchers at the University of Chicago found in a 2010 study that when people have to work harder to understand a heavy accent, they regard the speaker as less credible. The study concluded:
When people listen to accented speech, the difficulty they encounter reduces “processing fluency.” But instead of perceiving the statements as more difficult to understand, they perceive them as less truthful.
“There are some people out there who try to do accent elimination,” says Judy Ravin, president and founder of the Accent Reduction Institute. “I think that’s pretty impossible. I think that some people do take offense at that, and I have to say, for good reason. An accent is part of our unique cultural identity.”
Still, if you’re a spokesperson with an accent, how do you assess if it’s taking away from your message? Ravin says there are two simple ways:
- 1. You are consistently asked to repeat yourself.
- 2. You get the feeling your audience is nodding in agreement but not understanding your message. A good way to confirm this is to ask someone to echo something you’ve said. If they get it wrong, you’re probably not getting through.
Ravin offers these easy ways to practice your English pronunciation:
- 1. Speak slowly. Everybody’s pronunciation is better when they speak slower.
- 2. Read out loud and practice saying the last sound of each word. English grammar depends heavily on how words end, which sets it apart from many other languages.
- 3. Make sure your intonation goes down before a comma or a period as you’re practicing reading aloud. This signals to the listener the end of a sentence.
- 4. At minimum, nail down the most pervasive sounds in the English language: “th,” “v and w,” “r” and the letter “o.” The letter “o” has many different pronunciations, the most common being “ah” as in prophet or option. The least common is “oh” as in no.
- 5. Practice at least 15 minutes per day five days a week. You acquire these techniques experientially.
It’s worth repeating that Ravin stresses that accent reduction isn’t accent elimination. Rather, the idea is to teach the English language sounds that don’t exist in other languages. “The objective is to maintain the cultural identity but to add to your cultural repertoire of sounds…People will still have an accent — what they won’t have is a communication barrier.”
For more free resources on accent reduction, the Accent Reduction Institute has posted its “Five Essential Techniques for Clear Speech” here.
Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.
Tags: accent, Advanced Public Speaking Tips, media training performance, media training tips, presentation training, public speaking, voice
Posted in Presentation Training | 1 Comment »
I recently read Billy Crystal’s funny new autobiography, Still Foolin Em’.
In one passage, Crystal recalls a night early in his stand-up comedy career on which Jack Rollins, the well-regarded producer who managed David Letterman and Robert Klein, came to see him perform. The two men went out to dinner afterward.
Rollins wasn’t impressed.
“We had settled into a booth in a quiet restaurant when Jack said, ‘I didn’t care for what you did tonight.’ I wanted to stab him with a fork. ‘Why,’ I spit out. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘the audience loved it, and you can do very well with what I saw, but I have no idea what you think about anything. You didn’t leave a tip.’
‘A tip?’ I managed to ask.
‘Yes, a little extra something you leave with the audience: you…Don’t work so safe, don’t be afraid to bomb. Come back tomorrow and don’t use any of this material; we know it works. Just talk. Let me know how you feel about things. What it’s like to be a father, what it’s like to be married, how you feel about politics—put you in your material. Leave a tip.’”
It seems to me that advice also applies to public speaking, since audiences almost universally want a sense of who you are, what you’re about, and what you believe in.
Overly scripted or memorized speeches in particular fail on this count. Too often, a “perfect” speech scores high on precision but low on connection, undermining the entire effort.
How can you leave your audience a tip by putting you in your material? Here are a few ideas:
- In a speech advocating for a specific issue, address why you got involved in the cause.
- In a sales pitch, address your initial skepticism about the product before you had an “a ha” moment which allowed you to see the brilliance in it.
- In an informational speech, mention how the topic you’re discussing applied to you or someone you know in a real-life situation. (This video of an insurance specialist discussing his personal investment in his product is a terrific example).
Here’s the bottom line: Leave the audience a “tip,” and you’ll look mah-ve-lous.
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Tags: Billy Crystal, comedy, presentation training, public speaking
Posted in Presentation Training | 2 Comments »
No matter how experienced you are as a presenter, you will occasionally speak to an audience that just doesn’t respond as positively to you as you had hoped.
As an experienced speaker, my goal is to create a “magical” experience for the audience every time out. I want to pitch a perfect game, complete every pass, and block every shot. But every once in a while, I encounter an audience that responds to me politely but without much enthusiasm.
Years ago, I used to blame the audience for that: “What a crappy audience. Bunch of idiots.” But that was only my insecurity talking. As I’ve become more secure in my speaking abilities, I never blame the audience. Doing so doesn’t help me grow as a speaker. Analyzing what I could have done differently does.
So today, I’ll offer you 10 things to consider when your speech isn’t received with the enthusiasm you would have liked. I suggest you print this list and use it the next time your presentation doesn’t meet your standards.
1. Was The Event Marketed Properly? Did you look at the invitations, printed agendas, and marketing materials before they were printed and published? If not, is it possible that the audience had a different expectation for your talk than you did?
2. Did You Miss Something In Your Research? Did you conduct research about the group, their concerns, and their level of knowledge prior to your talk? If so, did you fail to uncover important information that might have changed the focus of your talk?
3. Were They Biased Against You Before You Even Started Talking? If you’re an environmental activist speaking to a pro-business group, you might meet resistance before you even say your first word. That doesn’t mean you can’t win them over, but it means you have to forge a genuine personal connection first. Is it possible that you didn’t consider any biases they may have had against you or your industry before speaking?
4. Did The Setting Create Interference? Did something in the room interfere with your communication? Were people seated too far apart from one another? Did the microphone carry your voice sufficiently? Were people able to see the visuals? Was the room temperature comfortable?
5. Did The Audience Members Know One Another? Did members of the audience know each other, or were they strangers? If they were strangers, should you have started with something that made them feel more comfortable with one another, such as an ice breaker or a brief breakout exercise? And if they did know one another, was there any tension among them (e.g. the engineering staff resents the marketing team)?
6. Did You Fail To Ease Them In? If you were making a persuasive speech or introducing change, did you jump to your conclusion too quickly before giving audience members the information and rationale they needed first? Did you inadequately address their concerns before moving on to your recommended step?
7. Could Your Presentation Have Been Organized Better? Is it possible that you tried to say too much and over-saturated the audience? Or that your thoughts weren’t organized in a way that helped the audience follow you? Or that you didn’t give the audience a sense of where you were going with the talk, leading them to give up and tune out? Or that you simply sequenced your information badly (e.g. started with a startling fact instead of easing them with a softer story)?
8. Were You Speaking at the Right Level of Complexity? Were you speaking at the wrong level of complexity for this audience? Was your speech too simple for an experienced group or too detailed for an inexperienced one?
9. Were Your Visuals Complementary, Not Competitive? Did you drown your audience with a sea of text on PowerPoint slides? Could you have used fewer slides—or better slides—to reinforce your points in a more visual manner? Would props, flip charts, or handouts have helped you make your points more effectively?
10. Was It You? Be honest with yourself: Did you really care about this presentation and the people in your audience? Did you have even the slightest whiff of condescension toward the audience? Did you communicate your interest in the audience, focusing solely on their needs and not your own impressive bona fides? Did you prepare as much as you should have for the presentation? Did you express the passion necessary to inspire other people to care about your topic?
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Tags: presentation training, public speaking
Posted in Presentation Training | 2 Comments »
Yesterday, I wrote about a six-hour seminar I attended earlier this month with well-known public speaker and visual display expert Edward Tufte.
Dr. Tufte clearly put a lot of thought and energy into his presentation, and I learned several things from him. But his presentation was far from perfect. One major problem? His failure to give adequate breaks and space them appropriately.
First, for context, his one-day seminar costs attendees $380 (roughly 300 people attended). I gladly paid that for the opportunity to learn from him, but I expect some things in return. One of them is that he remembers that people need to use a restroom occasionally. Another is that he remembers that many people like to eat before the mid-afternoon.
The session was scheduled from 10am to 4pm. Upon arriving, I learned that the lunch break would begin at 1:15pm—later than I prefer to eat. (Had the advanced materials mentioned the late lunch time, I would known to bring something to eat.) Worse, he broke for lunch even later than advertised, at 1:35pm.
By the time we waited in long lines at nearby restaurants, lunch wasn’t served until after 2pm. I suspect that’s too late for many people.
The morning session had another problem. He started the session at 10am and didn’t call for his first break until 12:45pm–almost three hours later! I could have left the session to have gone to the bathroom, of course, although I would have missed at least five minutes of the lecture due to the far-away location of the facilities. So now I was faced with a choice: use the bathroom but miss the content I paid to learn, or stay in the session but be increasingly distracted by my biological needs.
As speakers, we must be sensitive to an audience’s biological needs and attention spans—if we want them to be able to focus on and retain our material.
Based on her review of recent research, Susan Weinschenk, a Ph.D. psychologist and author of 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, recommends giving audiences a break for at least five minutes every hour to maximize their attention spans and ability to absorb information.
In my experience, depending on the circumstance, a speaker might be able to push that a little longer. For example, if we’re videotaping a trainee, offering feedback, and watching a few sample videos, 90 minutes can fly by.
But after training hundreds of groups over the past decade, I’ve reliably observed that a few audience members begin excusing themselves to use the bathroom somewhere between the 60- to 75-minute mark. Therefore, as a general rule, I’d rarely recommend going longer than 75 minutes before offering your audience a break, even if it’s just for a quick five or ten minute “bio” break. That critical break gives people a few minutes to rest their minds, absorb what you’ve said, and refocus when the presentation resumes.
What do you think? What’s the longest you like to sit in an audience without being able to take a break? And by what time do you want the speaker to break for lunch? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Edward Tufte photo credit: Aaron Fulkerson
Tags: 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, Edward Tufte, presentation training, public speaking, Susan Weinschenk
Posted in Presentation Training | 2 Comments »