How to Avoid Memorizing Your Pitch

People memorize a speech when they write out their script word for word and then commit it to memory. Don’t do that. Put together an outline and then simply begin to practice the presentation, figuring out the exact words as you go. 


Your outline might look something like this


I.      Safety is important to you.

II.     How we’ll promote safety on the job.

III.    How our program will save you money.


Once you have the outline in place, you should think of each of the key points as lead-ins for a short section. You might begin practicing like this:


When we met with you last week, you told us that safety was going to be an important issue for you on this job. Indeed, you told us that on your last job, you had a couple of minor injuries. We certainly want to make sure that we do everything possible to ensure that everyone working on and around the job is as safe as possible. That’s why safety is JOB ONE on our worksites.


Let me talk about what we’re going to do to keep your job safe. Blah. Blah blah.


Next, I’d like to tell you about how our safety program actually will save you money. Blah blah blah.


Then you should practice delivering the presentation several times, working on honing exactly how you say everything. Every time you do it, you’ll probably say it a little differently. That’s okay. After several tries, you’ll settle into a way of speaking that sounds natural and works for you. It won’t sound memorized and you’ll be ready to deliver it in a way that connects with the audience.

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CEO Must Remember that “It’s Connection”

“I’m worried about accidentally saying something that the analysts will pounce on. As a result, I speak slowly and have lots of “uhs”. I know I sound tentative. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

Those are the the words of the CEO of a $1 billion-a-year publicly traded company. I was working with him last week in preparation for a major presentation to analysts. 

Speaking in meetings, he is charming and engaging.  He smiles and is highly animated.

But when he stands to speak about his company to Wall Street, his voice is flat and tentative. He sticks to a script all costs. As a result, he doesn’t sound confident. Of course, that’s not what you want when you’re the CEO of a $1 billion-a-year company.

I understand his dilemma. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to make a mistake and allow the analysts to pounce. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to sound dull and uncertain.

What’s a poor CEO to do? 

My advice was to loosen up and rehearse like crazy. 

He clearly needed to speak with more animation, something he could do with no problem. In fact, when we worked together, I told him to get more excited and put away his notes. He sounded highly engaging. It was an incredible transformation.

Of course, he didn’t deliver his presentation perfectly. He made a few mistakes. But his mistakes weren’t catastrophic.  And with more rehearsal, he will make even fewer mistakes.

Too many people over-rely on notes in an attempt to get the words perfect. The problem is that the search for perfection makes you come across as tentative.

Better to loosen up. Remember the goal of speaking isn’t perfection. It’s connection.

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Use a Camera to Improve Your Presentation Skills

A UCLA Psychology Professor named Albert Mehrabian did a study in 1971 of the way we communicate. He found that 55 percent of the impression that we make is based on physical things like facial energy, posture, gestures, and eye contact. He found that 38 percent of the impression we make is based on how we sound.


 That leaves 7 percent for content.

This is one of the most famous studies in the public speaking business. It is often cited for the idea that content doesn’t matter.

That’s absurd.  Content matters a lot.

But don’t disregard Dr. Mehrabian’s study.  People judge us based on how we look and how we sound. Here are four steps to improving your communication style without the help of a coach.


Step 1. The next time you give a presentation, record it with a video camera.  If you’ve never done this, it can be shocking and revealing.  Working with an attorney recently, I showed her a brief clip of her presentation before I gave her any feedback.  “Oh dear,” she said, somewhat shocked. “I look like a slug.”  The camera showed vividly how bored she looked. I often tell my clients that the camera is a far better coach than I am.  Nothing beats seeing how you appear to others.


Step 2. Look first for eye contact. If your eye contact is down at the floor or directed solely at your notes, then you have a problem that must be corrected immediately. Failure to make eye contact makes connection with your listeners impossible.  You should be having random, miniature conversations with individual members of your audience.  To practice eye contact, set up chairs around the room and make eye contact with imaginary audience members. At our offices, we have Halloween masks mounted on sticks that we place in chairs to pose as listeners.


Step 3. Listen for vocal energy. This is where most people can make the biggest improvement. You have to sound excited about your ideas. One of the most common things that clients will say when I show them their videotapes is simply, “I don’t sound enthusiastic.” To improve passion, try speaking about something you’re passionate about, forcing yourself to get overly excited. You want to sound like you’re having an animated dinner conversation with a close friend.


Step 4. Look for facial energy. While watching the videotape of yourself, turn off the volume. Do you look excited? When I first saw myself on camera, I was appalled at my flat facial energy.  I forced myself to smile for a month. My “smiler” muscles ached.  To fix facial energy, exaggerate. Do more with your eyebrows and your eyes. It may feel weird, but it will look good. As Billy Crystal said, “It is better to look good than to feel good.”


As business people, we tend to think that the only thing that matters when we talk is content. But if you want to connect with others, pay attention to how you look and sound.

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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.

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What If You Can’t Practice For A Sales Pitch?

I was conducting a presentation skills workshop for a large marketing agency recently when an account representative asked me the following question. 


“When we’re getting ready for new business pitches, we often just don’t have time to rehearse. What can we do if we just don’t have time to practice?” 


Now I understand that in business we’re all extremely busy. And I understand that finding time to rehearse a new business pitch is hard. 


But here is what I told him.  “I really don’t have much sympathy for people who won’t rehearse for a new business pitch. If you don’t have time to rehearse, don’t expect to win.”


What if the Atlanta Falcons Quarterback said ‘”We just don’t have time to prepare for next week’s game?”  What if Jerry Seinfeld said, “I just didn’t have time to prepare for tonight’s performance?” What if your attorney told you that “I just just didn’t have time to prepare for today’s open argument?”


If you don’t have time to rehearse, I guess I understand. But know this. One of your competitors probably wants to win enough to practice really hard. And with that in mind, they’re probably going to win.




Because teams that rehearse more win more. It’s that simple. 


I talk to decision makers all the time about the new business pitches that they hear. They always tell me the same thing. “One team came in and blew everyone else away. They were just so much smoother and better prepared than everyone else.” 


Rehearsal is something that is extremely apparent to people who watch presentations. And it’s a simple way to separate yourself from your competition.  If you don’t have time to practice, then you’re just not going to do that well.  Sorry.


Tiger Woods always found time to practice.


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To Beat Nerves, Try Passing the “Larry King” Test

Larry KingMany 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. 

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Can Anxiety Be a Compliment to Your Audience?

“Appearing nervous is fine. It conveys to the audience that you care about how well you perform in front of them; that they matter.”

Those are the words of Bill Lane, former speechwriter for GE CEO Jack Welch.  Lane has written a new book entitled “Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE Into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company.”

I’m not far into the book. But he has already delivered some nice insights about speaking. I’ve never really thought about the idea that being nervous can actually be a compliment to your audience. But it seems right.

People will forgive nervousness. As Lane says, it shows that you care. But make sure that you also show you care about rehearsing like crazy.  If you’re nervous and deliver a totally unfocused, poorly prepared message, your audience won’t be very forgiving.


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Write Your Next Speech on a 4X4 Inch Post-it Note

Here’s a radical idea. The next time you have a create a presentation. Try creating the entire thing on a single Post-it note.   It takes some discipline. But you can do it. And it might turn out to be the best presentation of your life.

Step one: Get a Post-it note. The 4X4 inch note will do fine. But go bigger if you like.

Step two: Come up with a “hook” that will go at the beginning that illustrates the business problem your presentation addresses. If sales are down and you’re trying to help your sellers do better, you might tell a story about making dozens of calls but closing only a few deals. Just jot down a few key words that illustrate the idea for the story. You might write “Closing rates are down. Brief personal story.”

Step three: Write down three key “bumper stickers” that you really want your listeners to remember. These should be the three simple ideas that absolutely must stick in your listeners’ heads. If you’re giving a presentation on how to increase sales, your bumper stickers might be “We’re chasing too many prospects.” “Let’s narrow our prospect lists” and “Fewer total calls but more quality calls.”

Step four: Come up with some stories to support your three points. So if your first point is “We’re chasing too many prospects”, give a story illustrating the idea.  A real story from your own experience is best. Just jot down a couple of words to identify what the story is about. Let’s say that the story is about how one of the sellers last month made 50 prospect calls but only three of them were well qualified to buy. Your notes would say “50 prospect calls but only three good ones.”

Step five: Come up with a call to action.  What is the next step?  Do you want everyone to submit a sales plan in the next week?  Ask for something from the audience.

Step six: Start practicing. As you practice, you start by detailing your “Hook.”  “Today we’re going to talk about the problem we’re facing with dropping sales. In the last six months we’ve dropped to 50 percent of our plan. I’m going to talk about how we’re going to get sales back up.”  Then preview your three points by stating your three bumper stickers. Don’t go into detail yet. Just give a table of contents. Then go into detail for each of your points, telling stories you’ve noted.  As you practice, fill out the stories. Practice telling your stories over and over so that you can get them just right.  Then recap your three points and give the call to action.   Practice it five times.

This Post-it approach requires that you narrow your message to what is really essential and then bring it to life with stories. The practice will ensure that your delivery is strong. 

A clear three-point message. Stories. Strong delivery. How can you go wrong?

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Five Ways to Beat Stage Fright

1. Rehearse. Practice your presentation so many times that you could do well if a bomb went off.  I practiced the speech for my son’s Bar Mitzvah 35 times. I was nervous but I did fine.

2. Remember that it’s not about you. It’s about helping your audience. Most presenters are worried about what the audience thinks about them. But presenting is not about you. It’s about how you can help the people you’re speaking to with your ideas.  Whenever I’m really nervous I say to myself “Today, I’m going to do everything I can to help these people.” It helps me. 

3. Walk around the block. Flush out the adrenaline with exercise. Billy Crystal does push ups. 

4. Work the room.  Introduce yourself to as many people as possible and make small talk. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been with your company?” Say anything that will break down the barriers between yourself and the audience.

5. Practice some more.  Don’t even talk to me about your stage fright until you’ve gotten in the habit of practicing extensively.  Can you deliver the presentation with the television on?  If you can nail the presentation with the distraction of The Larry King Show, then you’ll nail it with the distraction of your nerves.

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