Public Speaking Tip from Rudyard Kipling

Today is the birthday of the British writer Rudyard Kipling who said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

It’s a wonderful thought to keep in mind as the year winds to a close. The best presentations have lots of stories. Not only are they memorable. But they are entertaining.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Oprah and Daniel Pink On the Power of “Story.”

Check out this link to Oprah’s interview with Daniel Pink.  Pink is the author of a wonderful book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future. It’s about the growing importance of “right-brained” skills like story-telling and design.

The interview is wide-ranging. Below is a portion on the importance of learning how to synthesize material into stories that bring that material to life.

Oprah: Another right-brained skill you talk about is “story.” 

Daniel: We live in a world where facts are everywhere. If we wanted to know the gross domestic product of Ecuador, my kids could find that online in 15 seconds. What matters more now is the ability to put facts into context and deliver them with emotional impact. And that’s what a story does. We have in our head something called story grammar. We see the world as a series of episodes rather than logical propositions; when your spouse asks, “How was your day?” you don’t whip out a PowerPoint presentation and a pie chart. Instead, you narrate: “First, this happened, and you’ll never believe what happened after that…,” and so on. In our serious society, storytelling is seen as being soft. But people process the world through story. Companies are now using a product’s backstory as a way to differentiate items in a crowded marketplace. 

Oprah: Of course, I have a great affection for story because I make my living telling others’ stories. Story is a way to build connection. 

Daniel: Amen. That’s why business schools are slowly starting to recognize the power of narrative—if you want to lead an organization, you have to be effective in creating a compelling vision with a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

Oprah: Tell me about the skill you call “symphony.” 

Daniel: Symphony is the ability to see the big picture, connect the dots, combine disparate things into something new. It’s a signature ability that is a great predictor of star performance in the workplace. Visual artists in particular are good at seeing how the pieces come together. I experienced this myself by trying to learn to draw. The teacher showed us how to see proportions, relationships, light and shadow, negative space, and space between space—something I never noticed before! In one week, I went from not knowing how to draw to sketching a detailed portrait. It literally changed the way I see things; now I view the world in a much more holistic, symphonic way.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

How to Deliver a Great Holiday Toast

With families gathering for the holidays, you just might have to give a toast.  And if you want to do it well, think FSP: Focus, Story, Passion.

Those are the three steps to a great toast.

Focus : No one likes long rambling toasts. Make one point about the person that you’re toasting.  “I want to make a toast to our host, Jeffrey.  Jeffrey is one of the most generous people I know.”  In this case the one point is that the person is generous.  That’s better than saying  “Jeffrey is generous, funny, and friendly.” Uh, that would be three points.

Story: Great toasts give a feel for the person being toasted with a simple story.  “About a year ago, I went with Jeffrey to a Braves game and he had two extra tickets.  He saw two teenagers who didn’t look like they had any money.  So Jeffrey just gave them the tickets.  Not only that, he bought them hotdogs, sodas and popcorn.  That’s the kind of generous person he is.”  From there you simply raise your glass and say “So here’s a toast to Jeffrey and his generosity.”

Passion: The key to speaking well in any situation is speaking with intensity and passion.  So many people get up in front of people and speak in a dull monotone.  They sound like they’re reading the telephone book. Set yourself apart by practicing your toast several times and speaking with the same animation that you use when you’re relaxed and speaking excitedly with a close friend.

So when the holiday spirit strikes and it’s your turn to give a toast, think Focus, Stories, and Passion.  You’ll knock ‘em dead.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Public Speaking Tip from My English Professor

When I took a creative writing class in college, my professor had a single message that he hammered at away all semester long.

“Show. Don’t tell!”

It’s a piece of advice that you should follow if you want to learn how to tell great stories in your presentations.

“Show. Don’t Tell!” means that to make a story dramatic, you need to describe the action so that the readers can see it unfold in their minds like a movie.

Don’t say, “Bill went to a meeting and shot his enemy.”

Say, “Bill walked into the office building, stepped onto the elevator and got off on the fifth floor. He walked pass the receptionist. “Hi Doris,” he said. “Is Jack in?” She nodded. Bill found conference room 5B and opened the door. Seated at the end of the table was Jack, who was opening up his briefcase. Bill produced a revolover from his pocket and aimed it at Jack. “So you thought it would be fun to tease my wife?”

The idea is that vivid description is what holds attention.

If you want to tell good stories as part of your presentation, you should do the same.

Let’s say that you want to tell a prospect of a successful building project you completed ahead of schedule. Don’t just tell them “We completed the project ahead of schedule.” 

Tell them a story that shows them how you did it.  “The owner told us that they had to get the building open in 12 months because they need to be able to start collecting rent to help make their loan payments. So of course we started as soon as possible. The problem was that on day one, my telephone rang. It was my excavator. “We just hit rock,” he said. “It’s going to take us a month to blast it out.”  So let me tell you how we proceeded . . . .

If you want to learn how to tell great stories, remember that you need to narrate it like it’s a movie.

Show. Don’t tell!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Five Storytelling Tips From Barack Obama


When Sen. Barack Obama made history last week, I wrote a post about his skills as a storyteller.  I included the above clip from YouTube, in which he tells the story of his first trip to Greenwood, S.C. and how it produced his campaign’s signature chant “Fired Up! Ready to Go!.”

I’ve thought more about the Greenwood story and I think there are five storytelling lessons we can take away.

Lesson 1: Start with the Point

Like all good storytellers, Obama begins with the point. “I want to [tell] a story that some of you know. It shows the importance of one voice. It’s a story of my first trip to Greenwood.”

In addition to ensuring that your listeners get the point, starting with the “moral” creates a mystery that drives the narrative. Knowing the story’s destination, listeners pay attention to unravel the mystery of how to get to that destination.

Let’s say that you’re an attorney giving a presentations about litigation strategies. You might start a story by saying, “I want to tell you a story that illustrates how little mistakes can lose a lawsuit.”  If your listeners want to win lawsuits, they’ll listen carefully to find out how.

Lesson 2: Narrate Chronologically.

Obama allows his story to unfold as a series of chronological events.

I fly into Greenville and get in late. It’s about midnight. I get to my hotel about 12:30. I’m exhausted. I’ve been campaigning for 10 straight days and I miss my daughters. I miss my wife. I’m dragging my suitcase into my hotel room when suddenly I get this tap on my shoulder. I look back. It’s my staff person who says, “Senator, we’ve got to wake up at 6 am tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because we have to go to Greenwood like you promised.”

Of course, Obama could have just said, “We woke up early and drove to Greenwood.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as allowing the story to unfold in movie-like fashion.

Any business person can enliven their presentations with the same narrative style. You could say, “My CFO was angry.”  Or you could say, “I went in to see my CFO to discuss our budget. Sitting behind his desk, he looked angry. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’ve decided that you’re either an idiot or are trying to make me angry. Which is it?’”

The narration is more interesting.

Lesson 3: Details make it live.

Obama includes vivid details.  Once he arrives in Greenwood, S.C. he describes meeting Edith Childs, who originated the chant “Fired up! Ready to Go!”

“She’s dressed like she’s going to church,” he said. “She’s got her church hat on.” The church hat brings the story to life.

I worked with a lawyer who told a story about an emergency hearing held in a judge’s home. He grabbed his listeners by describing the living room where the hearing occurred.

Lesson 4: Reemphasize the point.


Obama ends by reminding the listeners of the point: “One voice can change the world.” Reemphasis brings finality.


Lesson 5: Practice


Obama has told the Greenwood story many times, refining it with practice. Great story tellers rehearse a lot. Stories tighten with age.


Learn to tell a story. As Obama knows, it’s a skill that can take you a long way.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Try Giving Your Next Presentation “Naked.”

Everybody has a dream. Mine is that more people will present naked.  And why not? Presenting naked takes less preparation and, if done right, blows the audience away.

“Presenting naked” is stripping away the trappings and “layers of clothing” that presenters use to hide their insecurities.  No PowerPoint. No lectern.  No notes.  Take a flip chart if you want. But nothing else.

You walk out in front of your audience — fully clothed. Stop. Wait for quiet. Then you passionately lay out a stripped-down message. The bare simplicity, relevant stories, and energy blow away audiences because most speeches are so dry and complicated.

Easier said than done?  Not really.  It only takes guts and a little know-how.  Presenting naked is easy if you know how to create a listener-focused presentation, how to rehearse, how to leave room for questions, and how to speak with passion.

How to Create Your “Naked” Presentation

Most presentations stink because they fail to focus on the audience’s true needs and interests. We’ve all sat through horrifyingly bad business presentations.  The worst I can remember was when I was a utility lawyer attending a meeting with about 50 utility executives in Birmingham, Alabama.  We were there to hear a three-hour presentation on anti-trust law by a lawyer from another firm. It was horrible.  He cited dozens of cases and delved into all sorts of economic theory that may have appealed to anti-trust lawyers and professors but had no appeal to utility executives.

I could hear the Blackberry’s clicking under the tables. No one was listening because the presenter didn’t focus on what the audience really wanted or needed to know – how to avoid jail.

How to Focus a Message

Naked presentations focus like a laser on audience interests.  Here’s how to quickly focus a message. On a blank sheet of paper, write down the three most important questions that your audience needs answered. Choose your questions carefully because they are the heart of your naked presentation.  Simplify your questions as much as possible.

If you’re delivering an anti-trust presentation to utility executives, you might focus on these questions:

  • What can you say to your competition?

  • What can you do to your competition?

  • And can you say in internal e-mails about your competition?

Determine the answers to your questions

Fill out your presentation by answering the questions and telling stories to illustrate your answers.

Here’s how it might sound.

I’m here to talk about anti-trust issues in the utility business. And I’m going to talk about three things:

  • What can you say to your competition?

  • What can you do to your competition?

  • And what can you say in internal e-mails about your competition?

Let’s talk about the first issue. What can you say to your competition? 

Then write on the flip-chart two or three things that you can and can’t say to your competition.  Tell stories illustrating your point. Move on to point two.  After point three, recap the core ideas.  Leaving time for questions, you shouldn’t speak for more than 20-30 minutes.

Applying the Model to Sales Presentations

While this model won’t necessarily work for everything, it can be far better than most presentations.  How about a sales pitch? I worked with a senior vice president of sales for a large distributor of airplane parts. He had a meeting to pitch an airline on the idea of outsourcing the airline’s parts-management process to his company.  The natural tendency for many sellers is to begin the presentation with a description of the company and the service offering.  Usually those presentations are deadly boring.  

In helping him with his presentation, I asked, “What are the three simple questions that your prospect would most likely ask?”

My client thought for a moment then came up with three questions his client would have.

  • Why can you do this better than us?
  • How can this save us money?
  • How can this generate more revenue for us?

“That’s your presentation,” I said. “Just tell him that you’re going to give a presentation about how you can make his company more competitive. Then outline the three questions and answer them, telling stories about how you’ve done the same for other airlines.”

That’s what he did and he blew them away.

That’s what a great “naked presentation” does. It gives what the audience wants, nothing more. Strip it down. Tell stories. Take questions.   Dump the theoretical crap. Dump the company history.  No one cares.

Leave Plenty of time for Audience Q&A

Too many presenters leave just a few minutes at the end of their presentation for questions.  In fact, many of my clients have confessed that they limit the time for questions because they’re afraid of being stumped, embarrassed by a question, or losing control of the presentation. 

But naked presenters understand that the goal isn’t to control the audience but to help them. Questions aren’t to be feared. They’re to be embraced.  There’s no better way to connect with an audience than to allow them free rein to ask as many questions as they want.   A good “naked presentation” allows at least half of the allotted time for questions. 

Jack Welch, one of corporate America’s best communicators, sometimes will go further than that.  Sometimes he will speak at executive roundtables and deliver what I consider the ultimate “naked presentation.”  Rather than delivering a speech, he will walk into the conference room, sit down at the front and say, “So what do you want to know?” And he fields questions for the entire period. 

He gets raves for his “naked” approach.

Rehearse and Deliver with Energy

“Naked presenters” also know they must do more than inform; they must sell ideas.  That means speaking with passion. And that means rehearsing out loud.  Rehearse until you can deliver like you’re having an animated dinner conversation with a close friend. Practice strong eye contact. Record yourself and make sure that you sound excited, like you’ve just discovered something wonderful.

Naked presenting is simple and authentic. It’s just you, chatting passionately without props and telling stories about the stuff that matters most to your listeners. 

Maybe someday everyone will present naked. That’s my dream.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


There are a lot of reasons why Sen. Barack Obama made history last night.  A terrible economy. A brilliantly run campaign. A message that connected with a lot of voters. The nation’s changing demographics. A genuine desire for change by a lot of Americans.

But one major reason for his victory was Obama’s extraordinary ability to communicate with listeners, connect with them, and move them. 

Much has been written about his skills as an orator. To be sure, the man has a wonderful voice. He could make the contents of a bottle of Nyquil sound interesting. And he’s got wonderful speechwriters.

But he’s also a heck of a storyteller. 

Below is a clip from YouTube that shows Sen. Obama on the campaign trail giving us all a wonderful lesson in how to tell a story.

He does what all good story tellers do. First, he sets the theme. “It’s a story that shows the importance of one voice.” Then he tells the story in a straight line, relating a simple chronological series of events. That’s the easy part.

The art is in the clever selection of details to bring the tale to life. My favorite is the description of Edith Childs’s hat.  Little details like that bring a scene to life.

Finally, he ends by reiterating the moral, how a single voice can change the world.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Stories in a Sales Pitch Give a “Taste of the Wine”

I hate buying wine because you can’t taste it until you get home.  And by then, it’s too late.

Buyers of business services have the same problem.  You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right lawyer until the judge renders the verdict. You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right architect until you have the very expensive drawings in hand. You don’t know whether you’ve hired the right contractor until you’ve spent $50 million dollars on a new office building.

That is why sellers must tell success stories as part of a sales pitch. It gives the prospect a chance to “taste the wine” before they buy.

Let’s say that you’re pitching for a chance to defend a lawsuit in a complex anti-trust matter. The company is considering three extremely prestigious law firms. 

Just looking at the resumes, won’t give a sense of how well any of the firms will perform in this particular lawsuit. But if you tell a detailed story about how you defended a similar lawsuit and won, it gives a prospect a sense of what result they can expect before they make a decision. It gives the prospect a “taste of the wine before they buy the bottle”.

Of course, other factors play into the decision. Personality and relationship are important.

But one key factor in the decision will be whether the prospect can get a feel for the result they will get prior to making a decision. Stories help give that feel.

Tell stories during your presentations. They give your listeners a “taste of the wine.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Non-TelePrompter Obama is More Engaging

Sure, Sen. Barack Obama can read a TelePrompter better than anyone else in history — better even than Ronald Reagan.  Heck, Obama has such a wonderful voice that he could read the ingredients off of a bottle of Nyquil and it would sound interesting.

But Obama is like everyone else as a speaker in one particular way. Like everyone else, he’s best when he’s talking without notes and telling stories. 

Here he is demonstrating what makes everyone come across well when giving a speech. Obama is telling a pie story without notes. He sounds like he’s having an animated conversation with friends over dinner. You can’t do that when you’re reading, even if you’re reading a TelePrompter and you’re Barack Obama.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Public Speaking Tip from Harold Pinter

“One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

Those are the words of Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, who celebrates his birthday today.

And his take on speech is somewhat cynical and perhaps true.

But the best speakers fight the urge to use speech to cover their nakedness. Indeed the best communicators understand that they are at their best when they are most personally revealing, truthful, and authentic.

If you want to give a great speech, tell personal and revealing stories about yourself, both your successes and failures.

When I talk about my own story, I always tell about how when I was an attorney, I would couldn’t answer a question without going into a longwinded explanation.  Audiences respond to such personal stories.

Don’t hide yourself with your speech. Reveal yourself.

Do that and your audiences will respond.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email