How to Hold an Audience Spellbound for An Hour

 Of all the public speaking feats, few are more difficult than holding an audience spellbound for an hour. No PowerPoint. No music.  No notes.  Just a microphone and a lectern. I mean who wants to hear anyone speak for an hour straight? 

How do you do it?  Stories. Stories. Stories.

Last night I attended a lecture by David Maraniss at the Atlanta History Center. Maraniss is on a tour promoting his book “Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World.” So far it’s gotten good reviews.  I wanted to hear him speak because I loved his biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.”

But as he was being introduced last night, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of panic. The man making the introduction told the audience that Maraniss was going to speak for 45 minutes and then take questions for 15 minutes.

I looked at my watch. Did I hear that right?  He was going to speak for 45 minutes straight before taking a single question! I looked toward the door. Is there any way to get out of here if this gets ugly? 

I speak all the time. But I almost never speak for that long without a single question. I want interaction. I once heard Colin Powell hold an audience rapt for an hour. But he was Colin Powell!  He could read the Federal Tax Code for an hour and people would be fascinated.

But this was David Maraniss. He’s an author. Authors are notorious for being dull.  I met Maraniss briefly before the lecture. Nice guy. But low key. Not the kind of personality that you would expect to hold a packed auditorium’s attention for an hour. I was worried. 

I was wrong. 

Once again Maraniss reminded me of the power of telling stories.

Maraniss was terrific. Why? It wasn’t his dynamic style. His low key style didn’t change much once he was behind the lectern.

He held everyone spellbound by telling one story after another about the 1960 Olympics. He told about how Wilma Rudolph, the legendary sprinter, was one of the true shining lights of the games. He told about how she was pursued by Cassius Clay the 18-year-old brash boxer who would someday become Muhammad Ali.

He told about Rafer Johnson and how he won the decathalon. He described how Johnson conducted himself with dignity even as he was being used by the white US establishment to downplay the racism then making headlines in the American South.  He told about interviewing Johnson recently and thinking “He’s in his seventies and is still in good enough shape to win the decathalon this summer.”

He told about Jim McKay, the legendary sportcaster, typing his scripts on a portable typewriter. In those days, when McKay hadn’t heard of a country involved in a sport, he would look it up himself using a set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

It was fascinating. I loved every minute of it.

And there was no question about what made it so interesting. Stories. Stories. Stories. 

O sure, Maraniss made a few points about how this particular Olympics was a turning point in many ways. But really, the whole thing was just a string of stories. 

How do you hold an audience for an hour?  Tell stories.  

Either that, or be Colin Powell.

The “Tribble” with PowerPoint: It can Ruin a Speech

If you’re not careful (and far too many people aren’t) PowerPoint can scuttle your presentation in the same way that tribbles almost scuttled the Starship Enterprise.


For those of you who are not Trekkies, “The Trouble with Tribbles” was an episode of the original television show “Star Trek.” In the episode, Lt. Uhura brought back to the ship a cute little furry creature known as a “tribble”. The tribbles were cute, about the size of a guinea pig. They would coo in a very endearing way when you would pet them. They were very lovable.


The trouble with tribbles was that they reproduced at a rate that took over the ship, making it hard to move and threatening the safety of the passengers.  The episode ended when Scotty, the engineer, saved the day by beaming them aboard the enemy Klingon vessel.


PowerPoint slides are like tribbles.  A few of them are fine. The problem is that many presenters tend to become so enchanted with them, that they take over the presentation.  Indeed, too many slides will literally kill your presentation and scuttle your chance of connecting with your audience.


That’s because the most important visual in the room is you, the speaker.   You want the listener looking at you, not the slides.  You want them engaging with you, discussing the issues involved in your presentation.  You don’t want them sitting in the dark, listening while you say things like “On this next slide . . . .” 


So be careful with your slides!  They can kill a presentation by overwhelming it.   Don’t let your presentation become a slide show where you’re narrating 50 slides in a thirty-minute time frame.  If you do that your slides have become tribbles.  The problem is that you won’t have Scotty to bail you out before your ship goes down.

Speaking Tip from Tennis Legend Michael Chang

What do we want to hear from Michael Chang when he is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame? 

I say we want to hear detailed stories about life on the tour and how he achieved greatness. We want to hear an interesting or insightful anecdote that we can only get from Michael Chang. Unfortunately, what we hear is the same thing we hear almost anytime someone accepts an award: cliches.

I’ve been watching reruns of this weekend’s induction ceremony for the International Tennis Hall of Fame (What can I say. I’m a tennis nut and I’ll watch almost anything broadcast on The Tennis Channel. And I mean anything. Just ask my wife.)

The featured speaker this year was Michael Chang, the legendary baseliner who won the French Open and was renowned as one of the great scramblers and fighters ever.  Of course, what we want to see from a great tennis player is easy.  We want to see Michael Chang hit an amazing passing shot. Certainly the players know that.

But it’s unclear that the players know what their audience wants to hear when they give a speech.  That’s because these acceptance speeches, like almost all such speeches, are rarely anything more than a bunch of trite truisms about hard work and gratitude. Here’s just a taste from Chang’s speech.

As I reflect upon my career, the words dedication, perseverance, hard work, sacrifice, faith, unity and love come to mind and you would think that I was referring to myself through all these years but in actuality, I am not.  You see, for any champion to succeed, he must have a team. A very incredible, special team.

The whole speech was filled with that stuff. It’s trite. Sorry Michael.

Now I understand that he’s accepting an award and it’s his job to thank people.  And I know that he’s a tennis player who has always done his talking with a Prince racket. And you can call me churlish if you’d like.  That’s fine. I love Michael Chang. I once sat in the stands and cheered my lungs out when he pulled out an amazing four-set battle on one of the outside courts at the US Open.  To me, he stands for the word “fight!”

And I also know that the induction ceremony is “his day.” So Michael Chang can say whatever he wants. Sure. 

But I think Chang and the rest of the world needs to understand that when you accept an award, no one wants to hear a bunch of cliches on hard work and “doing your best” that could have been lifted from a motivational book by Norman Vincent Peale.

Tell us a story! Tell us what you were thinking when you decided to serve underhanded to Ivan Lendl in the finals of the French Open. Set the scene and and tell us what options you weighed. Take us to the day when you first learned that you were faster than anyone else on the tennis courts. Take us to the hotel room when your brother and coach gave you a lecture on how to beat Jimmy Conners.  Tell us a specific anecdote that illustrates what it’s like to be Michael Chang.

So here’ s the lesson: If you have to give a speech where you accept an award, thank people. But then give at least one or two stories that the audience can only hear from you.  Tell the story about what happened late at night when no one was watching and you were sure everything was going to fail. Tell the story about the moment you realized that everything was going to succeed.

Spare us the cliches.

If You’re Told to “Slow Down”, Try Pausing Instead

Over and over we hear from clients that they have been told to “slow down.”

Slowing down your speech is almost always a mistake. Speaking slowly makes you sound tentative, unnatural, and boring.  As an example, people who read teleprompters for the first time usually read too slowly.  They sound dull. That slow pace can lull the audience to sleep.

On the other hand, people who speak quickly usually sound energetic. Of course, listeners want variety. Make your voice like a roller coaster, getting loud, soft, fast and (occassionally) slow. 

The model you should follow is that of an animated dinner conversation with a close friend on a topic that really excites you.  In that situation, you’re usually not speaking slowly, carefully weighing every word.  Speak to your audience with the same quick, fun energy.

If you’re told that you speak too fast, try this. Instead of slowing down, throw in some pauses. The pauses will give your audience a chance to “catch up” and process your ideas.

Here’s a classic clip from the old comedy team Bob and Ray. This routine is right on. It illustrates, with some exaggeration, the perils of talking slowly.



Public Speaking Lesson from a Mathemagician

Here’s an amazing presentation of mathematical dexterity by Arthur Benjamin, who bills himself as a “mathemagician.” 

What makes him so good?  Certainly, his “tricks” are amazing.

But check out his presentation style. He has a quirky, high energy style that is incredibly endearing. You can’t not like a guy who seems to be having so much fun.

Next time you want to connect with an audience, remember that if it’s apparent that you’re having fun, your audience will have fun with you.


How to Create a Great Graphs for Presentations

Great post today by Seth Godin on “The Three Laws of Great Graphs.”

I particularly like the notion that any graph should tell a single simple story.  Introduce the slide by telling the story in a single sentence. For example, “Our costs are going through the roof.” Or, “Our competitors are making inroads in the southeast.”

Once you tell the story of the slide, then you can go to the slide itself and discuss details.

Driving Employee Engagement in Times of Change

Let’s say that your company has made a major change in strategic direction. Or perhaps you’re changing the compensation plan. Or let’s say that you’ve acquired a new company.
If you fail to get employee buy-in and support, then the change is doomed to fail.
To discuss how to drive employee engagement on such challenging issues,  I recently interviewed Karlenne Trimble, a deputy-managing director at Manning Selvage and Lee, the public relations firm. 
Karlenne, who is based in Atlanta, has been involved in driving employee engagement for her clients for over 30 years. She is considered one of the nation’s experts on the issue. 
To listen to the podcast, click below. 

Five Keys to Prompting Questions in a Presentation

The best parts of most business presentations are the question and answer sessions. Of course, it’s a good idea to tell your listeners to “feel free to ask questions at any time.” But there are several strategies to ensure that your audience engages in lots of Q&A. Here are five.

  1. Reserve half of your time for Q&A: If you have a 30-minute presentation, you should prepare no more than 15 minutes of “lecture.” Too often, Q&A is treated as an afterthought: “We’ll take questions at the end.”  But Q&A is when the audience can seek answers to its most important questions.  Why not give them plenty of time for getting those answers?
  2. Don’t put off raised hands: When someone raises a hand with a question, drop everything and answer it.  Even if the question deals with something that you will address later. You want to make it clear to the audience that you welcome questions. Putting off questions – such as putting them in the so-called “Parking lot”— sends the message that you consider questions a bother.  If the question is a little out of order, give a brief answer and tell them that you’ll deal with it more as the presentation goes forward.
  3. Keep the slides to a minimum: Having too many slides sends the message that the presentation is very tightly packed and that you probably won’t have time for questions.  The audience thinks, “Wow, this guy has 60 slides. If I ask any questions, we’ll never get out of here.”   If you have fewer and simpler slides, it sends the message that the presentation is “roomy” and has plenty of time for audience interaction.
  4. Look happy to get questions: Smile at the questioner and nod with interest.  The reason that you’re giving a presentation is to help the audience understand.  You should be thrilled when someone asks a question. Act thrilled.  You don’t have to say “great question.”  Just take the question seriously and not like it’s an interruption. Smiling at the questioner is like rewarding a dog for sitting on command.  Once rewarded, the chances are the audience will ask more.
  5. Ask yourself a question: Sometimes presenters will ask for questions and no one in the audience will raise their hand.  First, we recommend that you wait.  Often, if you sit silent for 10 seconds or so, people will begin to raise their hands.  But you can also “prime the pump” by asking the first question: “One of the most common questions we get is. . .”  That will often get the Q&A session going.



Can Senator Obama Avoid the “Too Slick” Label?

While McCain is suffering from a “Presentation Gap,” Senator Barack Obama has to be careful of one of the most common pitfalls of great speakers: coming across as too slick and failing to connect with audiences.

Indeed, Obama has already been criticized as being too much of a showman.  Washington Post political commentator Robert Samuelson has written that

Obama is largely a stage presence defined mostly by his powerful rhetoric. The trouble, at least for me, is the huge and deceptive gap between his captivating oratory and his actual views.

Samuelson is one of many who have critcized Obama for being a great speaker with not much behind the rhetoric. Just this morning, New York Times columnist accused Obama of abandoning his original positions in favor of “shifts and twists and clever panders.”  

Being “too slick” is a criticism leveled at many excellent speakers, even if they’re not in politics. 

I work with a large technology company whose CEO is known for being a truly dymanic speaker.  But the CEO’s speaking style has started to wear thin with some of his team members.  One of the company’s sales vice presidents told me that he had grown tired of the CEO’s dynamic style. “Sure he’s a great speaker,” he said. “But after a while, it just seems like a little much. I mean do you want your CEO to come across as an evangelist?”

If you’re a truly gifted performer, it’s important to remember that the speech isn’t the end.  And speaking isn’t about the speaker’s ability.  Speaking is a tool to connect with people, help them, and move them to action. If you’re so slick that you don’t connect, then you’re not going to be effective.  We often advise great performers to focus less on being slick and more on connecting. That may mean ditching clever high-blown phrasing in favor of plain language that connects and is meaningful. Usually, the great style will continue to shine though.

As I said in my last post, I’m no political expert. And I truly believe that Obama is a great speaker. But he could run into trouble if he forgets that great speakers focus on helping their audience, not on putting on an award winning performance.

How Can McCain Bridge the “Presentation Gap”?

One of the most noticeable differences between the presidential candidates is what the New York Times dubbed this weekend the “Presentation Gap.”   

Regardless of your politics, you have to admit that John McCain isn’t nearly as good a speaker as his opponent.  And with his aids working furiously to help McCain catch up to the smooth-talking Sen. Obama, I can’t help but wonder if they’re not making the situation worse.  The New York Times article noted,

Mr. McCain is working closely with aides like Brett O’Donnell, a former debate consultant for Mr. Bush, to improve his speech and performance. He is working to limit his verbal tangents and nonverbal tics. He is speaking less out of the sides of his mouth, which can produce a wiseguy twang reminiscent of the Penguin from the Batman stories, and he is relying less on his favorite semantic crutch — the phrase “my friends” — which he used repeatedly in his campaign appearances. He also appears to be trying to exercise restraint, advisers and campaign observers say, when speaking off the cuff, wisecracking in town meetings and criticizing his opponent.

Maybe what they’re doing will work. But I doubt it.  In my experience, it’s very hard to make someone a better speaker by suppressing their true personality. And that is exactly what Sen. McCain’s handlers seem intent on doing.

When we coach our clients, we don’t try to suppress parts of a personality. We try to identify the things that work and highlight them. So if a person has a very intense side to their personality, we try to bring that out more in their speeches. Why?  Because intensity is a great thing for a speaker.  If a person has a funny side, then we’ll try to bring that out.

McCain’s wisecracking, often self-deprecating, style is one of his most notable and likable qualities as a communicator.  That style is one of the things that got him to where he is. And as a communicator, it’s a great way to connect with audiences.

Of course, I have no political experience at all.  But I’m not alone in this view.  The Times story continues:

“I think the depressingly self-absorbed McCain campaign machine needs to get out of the way,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime friend and media adviser who has no role in the current operation but who still talks to Mr. McCain every few days. “They need to just let McCain be McCain.”

I think Murphy is right on. “Let McCain be McCain.”

That’s the goal of any good speaker. Be yourself.