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In the last week, we have dropped our three kids off at camp. You can learn a lot about how to greet your audience from the way counselors greet kids at the beginning of camp. The same is true from a maitre d’ at a restaurant.
Kids are nervous at the beginning of camp. They’re leaving they’re parents. They’re also uncertain about what to expect for the next several weeks of their lives. In those first moments, their minds are on high alert as they try to glean anything they can about what to expect.
The camps all know this. As a result, they all do the same thing. They show lots of enthusiasm for the kids. They want to establish the feeling that “This is going to be fun.”
When I dropped Benjamin, my 17-year-old, at Stanford (he’s spending eight weeks there studying linear algebra and computer science as well as playing Ultimate Frisbee), the kids all had to run a gauntlet of cheers, welcoming them to the eight-week program. It was fun and the kids couldn’t help but smile. Benjamin raised his arms like a victorious boxer. It established a positive tone, the exact tone the camp was trying to establish. The other two camps (Elliott, 15, went to Clemson Tennis Camp and Annie, 10, went to Gwynn Valley in Brevard NC) did the same kind of thing.
Similarly, great speakers understand the need to establish an upbeat feeling at the beginning of a presentation. Listeners to a speech are like campers. They don’t know what to expect. They’re a little anxious about whether the presentation is going to be a waste of their time. “I wonder if this presentation is going to stink like all the other ones,” is the unspoken context.
Great speakers seek to dispel that anxiety. And they do it by establishing a positive tone even before they open their mouths. They walk into the room with a spring in their step, making eye contact and wearing a postive look on their face. They’re “wearing their boots and spurs” as we like to say at Speechworks. That upbeat approach tells the audience that the speaker is confident that everyone will find the next 30 minutes of their lives valuable. It gets the audience in a positive frame of mind. Everyone relaxes.
On the other hand, you establish a far different tone when you greet your audience like the maitre d’ greeted us yesterday at the brunch spot in Brevard, NC.
We walked in around noon. The place was crowded. “We’d like a table for four,” I said.
She didn’t look at me. Instead, she looked down at her clipboard and said, “Well, you’re going to have to wait. It’s probably going to be 30 minutes.” Her tone made her sound like we might never get served. We decided to go somewhere else. Why bother with something that was starting out so negatively?
Many people start their presentations with the same low energy and sense of forboding. It’s a mistake. It makes people nervous and makes them want to leave.
You have a choice at the beginning of a presentation. You can act like an upbeat camp counselor greeting a nervous camper. Or you can act like an overworked maitre d’. From my point of view, the decision is easy.
To beat nerves, practice the first minute of your presentation three times as much as the rest. If you practice the entire thing five times, practice the first minute 15 times.
It’s critical to get off to a strong start. You’re nervous. And if you stumble at the beginning, you’re going to go downhill from there. But if you do well at the beginning, you’re going to relax. You’ll gain momentum and you’ll do fine.
A year or so ago, I was about to give a speech to a Rotary Club. And for some reason I was particularly nervous. But I knew my first line: “I’d like to start with a statistic that comes from a researcher at UCLA. . . ” I must have said that line 20 times in my head as I waited for my turn to talk.
I stood up. My heart was pounding. But I got that first line out perfectly.
The speech went great.
Practice the first minute over and over. It’ll get you off to a strong start. And you’ll overcome your nerves.
Several years ago I attended a speech by the president of a major industry association. He was speaking at a Rotary Club about the state of his business. After being introduced, he spent the first five minutes of his 20 minute speech thanking people for inviting him. That’s a quarter of his speech! And it went downhill from there.
It was a nightmare.
The problem, of course, is the “Thank yous” are wasted time for the overwhelming majority of the people listening. They want to hear what you have to say, not who has helped you along your way.
We used to tell people to dump all “Thank yous.” You’re there for your audience. Give out your “thank yous” personally in private. That should be enough to show your gratitude.
But we’ve modified that advice based on the fact that so many people ignore it. The fact is that speakers want to give some “thank yous”.
So here’s what we say now: Thank people for 10 seconds. Pause. Then begin. If you can’t thank everyone in 10 seconds, you simply have too many people to thank. You pause because it gives the audience a clear sense that the real speech is about to begin. The pause says “So we’ve got that out of the way. Now let’s start.”
Of course, thanking people in speeches can be appropriate, such as when you’re accepting an award. But those speeches are usually incredibly boring. Think about the Academy Awards.
Speaking of Academy Awards, here’s the “Thank You Very Much” musical number from the 1970 movie “Scrooge”. In the song, the people of the town are celebrating the death of Scrooge, the miserable old miser. The song was nominated for best original song but ultimately lost to “For All We Know” from the movie “Love and Other Strangers.
Of course this “Thank You” speech works wonderfully. So you can ignore the above advice if you put your “thank yous” to music. Otherwise, keep it tight.
Today is the birthday of George Orwell. He wrote one of my favorite novels, “1984.” If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing right now and get a copy and start reading.
The man who invented “Big Brother” had a thing or two to say about what it takes to connect with audiences. Orwell said, ”The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns … instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
And he said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Just something to think about next time you have to stand up and say something.
One more thing about George Carlin. He rehearsed a lot. It was one of the things that made him great. And it’s a lesson we could all learn.
I once took a comedy class from Jeff Justice, who has been teaching stand-up in Atlanta for years (check out Jeff Justice’s Comedy Workshoppe). He taught us how to write and deliver jokes and it was a great class. But one of the things that most impressed me was his emphasis on the importance of rehearsal. The class graduation was at The Punch Line in Sandy Springs, Ga. Before letting us go live in front of an audience, he made us rehearse our five-minute bit over and over until we had the timing down perfectly.
The reason, he explained, was that comedy depends on saying the words of the joke just right. “One word out of place and it might not be funny,” he told us. “So you have to practice saying it just right.” He was right. All of us in the class learned that much of stand-up depends on perfect word order. So we practiced a lot.
Watching George Carlin, you could see that he did the same thing. His humor was extremely verbal. He was a true word lover and it was obvious that he practiced saying things a certain way to ensure that they were as funny as possible. You could watch his routine five times and it would be almost exactly the same each time.
Now, I’m not saying that you should memorize your presentations word for word. Unlike stand-up comedy, a presentation does not depend on saying every word just right. But rehearsal is extremely important. The best presenters practice a lot. They may not say things exactly the same way every time. But they do have a strong sense of the words they want to use and where. I’ve practiced my presentations so often that I say almost the same thing every time. The result is that I appear to be speaking extemporaneously.
It’s a lesson I learned from comedy. And it’s a lesson we could all learn from the late George Carlin.
Since George Carlin’s death on Sunday, the internet is flowing with links to the comic’s provocative, profane, and usually hilarious stand-up routines. As you watch the clips, don’t just focus on his controversial subjects like “The seven dirty words”. Notice what a true master he was as a speaker.
To my mind, he did three things that we can all learn from: he took positions, spoke with great focus, and connected with the audience with infectious passion.
Carlin Always Took a Position
Whether you loved Carlin or hated him, you have to say this about him: you always knew where he stood. And his clear positions on subjects was part of what made him so compelling. Whether it was religion, government, or “white people”, Carlin was willing to take a stand. Too often, I see speakers who, unlike Carlin, won’t take clean positions on subjects. They’re afraid. As a result, their presentations are dull and usually don’t serve their listeners well.
I was helping a speaker who felt that a particular business initiative should be killed. He was going to be speaking to the company’s board of directors. In his speech, he planned to simply lay out all the facts around the initiative, hoping that the board would see the light and agree. After hearing the presentation, I asked, “Why don’t you just say, ‘This project needs to end. It’s a waste of corporate resources. And here’s why?’” The speaker was afraid to be so frank. But his waffling made for a poor presentation and didn’t reflect well on him. His lack of clarity made his presentation confusing and wasn’t going to help the board.
Carlin reminded us that good speaking isn’t just about organizing thoughts and speaking with energy. It’s also about saying something pointed and taking a position. It’s about leadership.
His Messages Were Simple and Easy to Follow
Carlin also found clever ways of organizing his messages for his listeners. He usually found a neat way of putting a tight focus on each comic bit. One of his most common approaches was to use a single word or phrase as the glue for the piece. Perhaps his most famous use of this approach was his “seven dirty words” bit. He laid out the words and then proceeded to analyze every one. He did the same thing with his classic piece about “stuff” (“That’s the whole meaning of life, trying to find a place for your stuff.”). He uses the word “stuff” over and over as he goes through his ideas around how we are all so focused on our possessions.
We can use a similar approach with our own presentations. I helped a corporate presenter recently as he developed a rather complicated presentation on his company’s approach to logistics and supply chain management. The presentation gave a detailed look at how his company was moving goods around the globe. It needed focus. So we came up with the phrase “optimized flow of goods” as the key phrase. We introduced the phrase early in the presentation and came back to it throughout the presentation as a way of making it hold together.
My client probably didn’t realize that his logistics presentation had something in common with a George Carlin stand-up bit. But it did.
He Spoke with Passion
Finally, notice Carlin’s wonderful delivery. He always spoke with total commitment and passion in his voice. He used wonderful facial expressions. His entire body seemed to get a workout as he worked through his routines.
Most people in business speak with too little passion. Working yesterday with a construction company project manager, I watched silently as he spoke about his work like he was reading a telephone book. “I need you to triple your energy level,” I told him. “You seem bored. I want you to stick your finger in that light socket over there.”
Carlin’s legacy will be as a groundbreaking and controversial comedian. But let’s also remember that he got there by being a great communicator.
Finding a Clean George Carlin Clip to Post Here Was Impossible
Searching for a Carlin YouTube clip to post here, I’ve struggled to find anything that wasn’t profane. With Carlin, it’s extremely difficult, maybe impossible. The man could lay an “f-bomb” on you. I considered including no clip at all.
But I loved Carlin. He was one of my heroes. I listened to his records and memorized his routines when I was a kid.
And as a speaker, he is an example we could all follow, minus the foul language.
So here goes.
The following clip is relatively clean and is about “stuff”. WARNING!: IT DOES HAVE SOME FOUL LANGUAGE. If you don’t want to hear foul language, then don’t watch it. But you’ll be missing a wonderful bit.
Many people ask me how much they need to rehearse to overcome stagefright. One answer is “If you can pass the Larry King test, you’ll do fine.”
Turn on the television to The Larry King Show on CNN. Then, with the volume up, try delivering your presentation. If you can deliver your presentation despite the distraction, then you should have no problem delivering in spite of your anxiety.
One way to think of stagefright is as a type of distraction to be overcome while speaking. As you stand to give your presentation, you’re nervous. Your heart is pounding. Your throat is dry. All of that can wreak havoc with your mental composure.
To learn to overcome these distractions, try creating your own distractions as part of rehearsal. One such distraction can be a television program like The Larry King Show. To be able to deliver a presentation with that kind of distraction, you have to know your material cold. The “Larry King” test will determine whether you know it cold enough to be ready when the nerves hit.
When we rented a car for our San Francisco trip, we splurged and got a Garmin GPS system which we named “Theresa Brown.” Unfortunately, Theresa Brown makes the same mistake that so many public speakers make: she doesn’t put the information in the context of her listeners’ lives.
When we asked Theresa to take us to Berkeley, she began instructing us through the surface streets of San Francisco. The problem is that she asked us to turn left where there was a “No Left Turn” sign. She asked us to turn down one way streets. She asked us to go straight on a street when there was a barrier forcing us to turn right.
Theresa has a map that may be technically correct. But she often doesn’t understand our real world enough to truly help us.
So what did we do? We asked directions. That usually solved the problem instantly. We asked a homeless man how to get to the highway and he told us “Go down two blocks and turn right.”
I see so many presenters that are more like Theresa Brown than the homeless man. They deliver lots of technical information. And it’s certainly accurate. But these “Theresas” utterly fail to truly help the listeners by telling them what it all means to them and what they need to do next.
As presenters, our first job is to help our audience, not deliver data.
By the way, when you ask for directions in the city, be careful as this YouTube clip will show.