The First Sin of Public Speaking? Reading

“What’s the single worst thing that people do when giving presentations?”

That’s the question I received from the person seated next to me yesterday afternoon on my flight to New York City.

After thinking a moment, I settled on the following answer: “Reading your speech.”

Here’s my logic. The number one rule of speaking is to connect. And the first rule of connection is eye contact. And you can’t make eye contact if you’re reading.  So reading the the first sin. 

Of course, there are other key sins. There are the sins of failure to make a point, failure to tell stories, failure to keep the presentation as short as reasonably possible.

But the number one sign that a presentation is going to stink is if the presenter stands up and reads his presentation.

Can You Deliver Your Message in Six Words?

I’m fascinated by a website called “Six Word Memoirs.”  This is the site that invites you to submit your life story in six words. The results are interesting and often poignant, sort of like Haiku, but even shorter.    “Found myself but lost my hair.” “Followed dreams. Often broke. Still smiling.”  “Pancreatic cancer. Not dead. Now what?”

The memoirs are compiled in a book called “Not Quite What I Was Planning.”

It’s interesting and impactful to boil down your message to just six words.

Here’s something to try. Next time, you have a presentation, see if you can boil it down to six words.

Here is my message in six words. “Audiences love passion, focus and stories.”

Presentations Are Extensions of the Brand

I’ve just started reading an interesting new book called “slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations.”  It’s by Nancy Duarte, a designer who played a major role in helping Al Gore with his presentation “An Inconvenient Truth.” 

She makes the point that companies would spend much more on improving the quality of their presentations if they would consider presentations to be a part of their brand.  She writes:

Truth be told, the reason many organizations relegate slides to the bottom of marketing food chain has to do with how they approach brand.

Many companies have forgotten — or simply never realized — what branding is. Rather than a name or logo or tagline that reflects what a company thinks of itself, brand is what a company stands for in the hearts and minds of its customers: to be successful, the company must have an emotional connection with the consumer.

 Similarly, presentations all too often reflect the agenda of the presenter rather than build a connection with the audience. This is unfortunate because presentations could be considered the last branding frontier, in terms of both the attention paid to them and where they fit in the sales cycle.

In many instances presentations are the last impression a customer has of a company before closing a business deal.

Indeed, it wouldn’t take much for any company to stand out from its competitors if it paid some respect to its brand — and its audience — through presentations.

Great point.

Would You Rather Speak like Palin or Obama?


 In the car recently, my kids played a game called “Would you rather?” They’d ask silly, yet oddly compelling, questions like, “Would you rather have a pencil sharpener built into your nose or a ketchup dispenser built into your belly button?”  I went with the ketchup dispenser.


So here’s one. Let’s say that you’re about to hear a presentation from one of your partners on a proposal to grow your law practice. Would you rather he speak in a style resembling Sen. Barack Obama or Gov. Sarah Palin?


I have to go with Palin. We can learn much from both candidates about the power of speaking and how to connect with audiences. But Palin has a more user-friendly style. Her “chatting over beers” approach builds relationships and wins business.


Palin and Obama Both Show the Power of Speaking


The most fundamental lesson we can learn from both Palin and Obama is that speeches produce leaders. Obama burst onto the national scene with a speech to the 2004 Democratic convention. Palin did almost the same thing.  I was in Goldberg’s Deli when CNN announced that McCain had selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate.


“Who is Sarah Palin?” I said. A couple days later, Gov. Palin gave her speech at the Republican Convention. Now everyone either hates her or loves her.


Want to be a leader? Take a lesson from Palin and Obama. Give a great speech.


Both Speakers Rely on Personal Stories


Obama and Palin rely on speaking fundamentals that we all should apply. For example, they take positions. One of my pet peeves is business presenters that won’t take a stand. Don’t be a wimp by just laying out the facts and letting me decide.


Obama and Palin also make deft use of personal stories. Obama often discusses being the son of mixed-race parents. And Palin, in her speech, told her own story as a “hockey mom” who prays as her 19-year-old son Track, an Army infantryman, leaves for Iraq.


The best speakers in politics and business personalize issues and tell stories. I worked with the hiring partner of a law firm who told new associates about his first day as a lawyer. Personal stories are the highlight of any speech.


The biggest difference is in style


A key difference between Obama and Palin is style of delivery.  Both speak with passion we should all imitate. But Obama is the eloquent law professor while Palin is the chatty friend you meet for beers at the local tavern.


Obama’s baritone voice could make the contents of a bottle of Nyquil sound interesting.  And he has mastered the classic rhetorical flourish of repeating a catchphrase. Martin Luther King Jr. used the same device in his “I have a dream” speech.


But while Obama’s oratory can be inspiring, personally he can seem distant. One comedian quipped that he sounds like he’s running for a spot on Mount Rushmore.  His style would sound overblown in a corporate conference room.


In business, the goal is to connect with audiences in a personal way and build relationships. Highfalutin rhetoric doesn’t win clients.


By contrast, Palin, in her speech, relied on a style that we could all model. She was chatty and plainspoken. Her most quoted line was, “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?  Lipstick.”  You just know that she’s used that one with friends in casual conversation.


We tell our clients to speak like they’re having an animated dinner conversation with a friend. That “chatting over beers” style helps you connect in a personal way and build the relationships that build businesses.


Both Palin and Obama are wonderful speakers. But if you’re looking for a style to help you connect with audiences and grow your business, Palin’s the one.

Dare to Be Great for the “Management Council”

In a workshop yesterday, one of the participants started to deliver a presentation on a key business topic.  After about 30 seconds, I stopped him.

“You need to ramp it up,” I told him. “You sound flat. Dull.”

“But this is a presentation would be delivered to the management council,” he told me.

I stared at him dumfounded. He seemed to think that he needed to be dull because his audience was the senior leadership of the company. 

I understand his thinking. He felt like he needed to put on his most conservative “big boy” persona when speaking to senior leaders.

But I disagree with that thinking.  The “Management Council” hears presentations all day. And that means they spend much of their lives listening to disorganized data dumps delivered in flat monotones. Of all people, these folks yearn for energetic and exciting presentations.

If you want to impress the “Management Council”, give them something that will make them sit up and take notice.

Ramp up the energy and deliver a focused message that will get them excited.

I know that this takes courage. More is at stake when you’re presenting to the “Management Council.”  It’s tempting to play it safe and be dull. But more is to be gained as well.

Dare to be great.

Wanna Be a Leader? Learn to Give a Speech

Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin is one of the most polarizing figures to come along in American politics in years.

But whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit this, she shows the power of well-delivered speech.  Two weeks ago, no one had heard of her. When she was nominated by John McCain as his running mate, she drew interest. 

But when she stood in front of the nation and delivered a speech (and she delivered it extremely well), she suddenly became a national leader worth either revering or hating. 

If you want people to notice you and you’re ideas, stand up and give a speech. Few things can transform you into a leader quicker.

Public Speaking Lesson from the Tennis Court

In his book Mental Tennis, Vic Braden gives a wonderful lesson in how to improve in tennis that I think about often in regard to presentation skills.

When it comes to improvement, most players start thinking in terms of thousands of changes, and of course the whole idea becomes overwhelming. But in fact, frequently all you have to do is solve one or two problems and you become a whole new tennis player. Think about that: if you straighten out one single stroke you can improve your game enormously. 

The same is true with public speaking. By solving just one or two challenges, you can dramatically improve your ability as a public speaker.  Maybe you need to speak with more energy. If that’s the case, then work on speaking with passion for a month. Maybe you need to have more focus to your messages. If so, then never give a message without making sure that you have three clear messages.  If you need to tell more stories, then work on getting good stories for your presentations.

Pick one part of your speaking “game” and work on it. Once you fix it, then pick another. Before you know it, you’ll dramatically improve your ability to connect with listeners.

Persuasion Tip From the Volkswagen Beetle

When the Volkswagen Beetle was introduced to the U.S. market about 50 years ago, the marketers had a problem. How do you get Americans to buy it?  It was a goofy little machine.  Americans were used to driving big luxurious land-yachts.

What the VW marketers did was counterintuitive. They highlighted the car’s faults, pointing out that the Beetle was ugly and small.  It was a stroke of genius.

By coming clean about the car’s weaknesses, VW built credibility for it’s claims about the Beetle’s key strength, reliability. As a result, the car sold like crazy.

The ads for the VW Beetle emphasized both strengths and weaknesses. The car’s advertisments used lines like “Ugly is only skin deep” and “It will stay uglier longer”.  

What does this have to do with persuasion and public speaking?  If you want to sell an idea, be sure to highlight the negatives of your position.  Candor about weaknesses builds a relationship with an audience. It’s that positive relationship that ultimate gets people to buy into your ideas.

Don LaFontaine, the “Voice of God”, Dies

Don LaFontaine, one of the most prolific voice over artists ever, died Monday. You knew him as the guy who did voice-overs for countless movies and television trailors like “24”, “Terminator 2”, and “The Simpsons Movie.”

He had sound so distinctive and sought after that he was referred to as the “voice of God.”  But as speakers, we can also learn from his wonderful ability to put inflection in everything he said.  His voice was never flat, but rode up and down like a roller coaster, making everything he said sound interesting and exciting.

Read his obituary in the New York Times.

And listen to his voice on the famous Geico television advertisement. When watching the ad, notice two things. First, notice the flat voice from the Geico customer. It’s the typical monotone that so many people in business use when speaking in presentations. Then notice how LaFontaine ads drama by making his voice go up and down, punctuating certain words for emphasis.  The dramatic music helps too. 

We can’t all have LaFontaine’s deep baritone voice. But we can all learn to speak with lots of expression.


Persuasion Tip from the Wizard of Oz

Remember why Dorothy and her gang were off to see the Wizard?

It was “because, because, because, because, because of the wonderful things he does.”

It turns out that the word “because” is incredibly persuasive when answering questions and making requests.

In the new book “Yes: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive”  authors Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin, and Robert Cialdini, detail an interesting study of the persuasive power of simply using the word “because” when giving a reason.

In the study, a stranger would approach a someone waiting in line to make a photocopy and ask “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”  In that case, 60 percent of the people allowed the stranger to cut in line.

But if the stranger gave a reason (“May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush”), 94 percent allowed the stranger to jump ahead and make copies.

Here’s the interesting part. In a third trial, the stranger made the following request: “May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies.”  It was a meaningless reason! Yet the compliance rate was 93 percent.

The point is that the simple use of the word ‘because” increased compliance, even if the reason wasn’t particularly meaningful.

Now I’m not saying that you should give meaningless reasons in response to questions or when making requests. Of course you should have a meaningful reason.

But giving a reason – any reason — dramatically increases your persuasiveness.