Can We Learn from Obama’s Acceptance Speech?

When Sen. Barack Obama spoke last night, I was excited about the chance to draw lessons for today’s post.  Such a prominent speech should be a wonderful teaching opportunity about public speaking. Right?

And I enjoyed his speech, though I did find myself flipping back and forth to the US Open match featuring Rafael Nadal.

But when the speech was over I was frustrated. And it took me a while to figure out why.

Then it hit me. The fact is that there is not much practically that the average business person can learn about public speaking from giant political speeches like the one that Barack Obama delivered last night at Invesco Field in Denver.

This political theater is so far removed from what the average person has to do in his daily work life that I have a hard time seeing how it relates.

Audience is too broad and message too unfocused

Let’s start with content. Last night Barack Obama laid out a broad political agenda, attacked his opponent, and tried to inspire a nation with well-crafted language. In other words, he was addressing an incredibly broad, undefined audience and seeking to accomplish several things at once.

Great business presentations are far more focused.  If you’re giving a sales pitch, you identify specific business problem and show how you can help. If you’re giving an internal presentation, you’re moving colleagues to action by detailing a specific plan for success.

Try to do too many things, and you’re sure to fail and frustrate your audience.  Great business presentations carefully address well-defined audience needs. Obama didn’t do that last night because his audience, consisting of the American electorate, is so broad as to be almost undefined.

Too long

And then there’s the length.  Obama’s speech last night was a 44-minute one-way conversation.  While that’s perfectly appropriate for a convention speech, that usually doesn’t fly in a business meeting. People are too busy. And even if they’re not too busy, who wants to hear anyone other than Barack Obama speak for 44 minutes straight?  

The best business presentations are more like conversations, with plenty of chance for the audience to interrupt, push back, and ask questions.

And I love his style, but  . . . ,

Now let’s look at the style issues. To be sure, we can all learn from Obama’s wonderfully inspirational style. He manages to be both exciting and conversational at the same time. His voice rises and falls like a roller coaster, yet he sounds like he’s having a conversation. 

But one of the reasons people love Obama’s style is his great voice.  The man is endowed with a wonderfully smooth sound.  Too many people hear such wonderful voices and try to imitate them.  But you’ll never be a good speaker by imitating someone else. The best corporate speakers maximize their own vocal qualities by speaking with the same passion that they bring to an animated dinner conversation.

And then there’s the script

Finally, Obama was reading a script. It may not have seemed that way. But he was on the TelePrompTer.  And business speakers should never read a script. It undermines credibility.  The best business communicators speak extemporaneously from notes. Once again, the effect you’re trying for is an animated dinner conversation.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Obama gave a great speech. But it was a political speech delivered for political consumption.  

I don’t just don’t think that the VP of Sales for a software company should use it as a model for next week’s pitch.

“No-Nos” to Avoid at the Start of Your Speech

You’re standing in front of a group of fifty people. Your heart is pounding. Your palms are sweating. You’re about to begin your big presentation.  What you say next can put you on the path to success or set you off on a downward spiral that will make you and your audience miserable.

How can you ensure that you don’t start off badly?

At Speechworks, we tell our clients a few don’ts:

  • Don’t apologize.
  • Don’t tell a joke.
  • Don’t beat around the bush.

Don’t apologize

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to start by telling you that I’m not really a very good speaker. And I’m really nervous. So I hope that you’ll bear with me.”

That’s the absolute worst way to begin.  You never want to start with an apology for your own anxiety or even worse, lack of preparation (“I’m sorry I’m a little disorganized this morning but I just got word that I was supposed to speak yesterday.”)  Apologies put the audience on the defensive.  Your audience thinks, “This is going to be another bad speech that I have to endure.”  You’ve now made it more difficult to connect with your audience.

To deal with anxiety, practice like crazy. And rehearse your first line over and over so that you can get through it well.  But don’t let that first line be “I’m so nervous.”

Don’t Tell a Joke

“I’d like to start this presentation with a line that Elizabeth Taylor would tell her husbands: ‘This won’t take long’.”

I actually heard someone begin a presentation with that horrible joke.  It’s not funny or relevant to the subject matter of the presentation. And some people might find it offensive (I apologize if anyone was offended by reading the joke here.)

But this joke is typical of most “ice breakers” that begin presentations. They aren’t funny. They are usually irrelevant. And they are often offensive.  As a result, jokes make you seem amateurish.

A far better way to begin a presentation is simply to lay out for the audience a key issue that they are facing in their lives. If you start by focusing on something that’s important to the audience, they’re more likely to want to hear more.

Don’t beat around the Bush

“Before I get started this afternoon, I have a lot of people I’d like to thank for inviting me.”

If you have to thank one or two people, then do so. But remember that no one is listening or cares. It’s a waste of time.  We recommend thanking your introducer briefly, pausing, and then starting right into the meat of your message.  People’s time is valuable. Don’t waste it.

Does the iPhone Makes Public Speaking Harder?

“What do I do about people working their Blackberries during my presentation?”

That’s a question I get all the time.

Many communicators blame digital distraction like iPhones and laptops for their audiences’ failure to pay attention.

It’s as if some people think that the Blackberry has created a form of attention deficit disorder that has made it more difficult to connect with listeners.

Many training sessions now begin with the scolding plea “Please turn off your cell phones and pagers.” In the New York Times last week a law professor told of banning laptops during his lectures because he wanted to foster more “active intellectual experience.”

Yeah right Professor.  The laptops are the reason that your law students aren’t paying attention to your soul drainingly dull lecture on long arm jurisdiction.  Baloney.

Call me a contrarian. But I don’t buy the argument that speaking is more difficult in the digital age.

Lecture halls, conference calls, and meeting rooms are perfect little democracies. Audiences vote with their attention spans. If people feel the benefit, they will pay attention. If not, they won’t.

And it’s always been that way.  The only difference today is the manner in which attention spans wander.  In the old days, if you were dull, people would fantasize about the opposite sex. Today, if you are dull, people still fantasize about the opposite sex. But they also can tap out emails to their girlfriends on their Blackberries.

If you want to overcome the digital distractions, you need to give people a strong reason to pay attention.

What is Public Speaking Hygiene?

Marketing guru Seth Godin posted yesterday about a concept called “marketing hygiene.”  It’s the idea that to sell a great product, you need to create an environment that is conducive to making people buy.  For example, you may have the best tomatoes in the world, but no one will buy them from you if your grocery store has roaches all over the walls. 

Godin’s post prompted me to think about the following question: “What is public speaking hygiene?”

Put another way, what is the environment that you need to create when you speak to ensure that people pay attention and buy into your ideas?

One thing in particular comes to mind.  The message needs to be presented simply. 

Let’s say that you’ve invented a wonderful new way for your listeners to double their investment. If you present the idea amid a complex jumble of incomprensibility, then your listeners will be too distracted to get your idea.  The complexity undermines the hygienic environment and makes it less likely for your message to get through and take hold.

On the other hand, what if you deliver your message as part of a simple three-part plan?  In that case, there’s no messiness to distract from the core idea.  There are no “cockroaches on the wall” to distract.  

The simplicity creates an hygienic environment that allows your message to jump out at the listener and take center stage.

Which Pols Know How to Read Teleprompters?

With the Democratic Convention beginning today, watch for which politicians know how to read a teleprompter.  Almost certainly none will do it as well as the week’s star, Sen. Barack Obama.   Obama is a true master, maybe the best ever. Possibly better than Ronald Reagan.

What makes him so good? Simple. It doesn’t seem like he’s reading. If you go back and look at some of his primary victory speeches, you will be hard pressed to tell whether he’s reading the teleprompter. He just seems like he’s giving an extemporeneous speech.

But he’s on the prompter. It’s amazing.

So what is the key to being good on the teleprompter?

The single most important thing is to vary your speed and speak with exaggerated feeling. Most people slow down and speak in a monotone when reading a teleprompter. That makes their speech seem halting and phony.  Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton both do this.  They sound like they’re reading a theme in a high school essay competiton.

We coach our clients to pretend like they’re reading a book to a child and they’re trying to put lots of feeling into it. When you do that, you tend to read with more variety in your voice and with lots of expression. That exaggerated expression is what makes you sound real. I know that it won’t feel real when you do it. Nothing about using a teleprompter feels real for the person using it. But it will sound real.

Watch the parade of politicians this week. All of them will be trying to match Sen. Obama for his teleprompter skill. I suspect few will measure up.

If You Want to Perasuade, Say It Again and Again

If you want to get people to buy into your ideas, just say them over and over. That’s the conclusion of Stephen Garcia, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Gerald R.Ford School of Public Policy.

In a study, Garcia found that when one person expresses an opinion repeatedly the effect is the same as several people lobbying the point. Repetition evokes a sense of familiarity, making it seem that convictions are widely shared, says Garcia.

“What we think others think greatly influences our own personal thoughts, feelings and behavior,” Garcia says.  “An opinion is likely to be more widely shared the more different people express it. But surprisingly, hearing one person express an opinion repeatedly also leads to the conclusion that the opinion is more widespread relative to hearing the same opinion expressed only once.”

In a study published in The Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Garcia and other researchers at the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and Virginia Tech had about 1,000 students read fake opinions on various subjects.  The studies found that an opinion is more likely to be assumed to be the majority opinion when multiple group members express their opinion. However, they also showed that hearing just one person express the same opinion multiple times had nearly the same effect on a listener’s perception of the opinion being popular as hearing multiple people state the same opinion.

So what’s the lesson? If you want people to buy into your ideas, one key is simply to repeat the idea multiple times.


Voice Energy Lesson from Green Eggs and Ham

When it first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1991 (to commemorate the death of Dr. Suess), this classic bit was one of those television moments that everyone was talking about.

As wonderful as it still is, it’s also a great lesson in how to use your voice effectively. Notice how Rev. Jackson’s voice is like a roller coaster. The voice rises and falls, speeds up and slows down. His pauses are wonderful.

Too many people in business speak in a flat monotone. Whether or not you like his politics, I think we all have to admit that our listeners would all be much happier if more of us would try to speak with the wonderful ebb and flow of Rev. Jesse Jackson reading “Green Eggs and Ham”.

Most People Waste Networking Opportunities

If you’re going to networking events to grow your business, chances are that you’re not nearly as effective building relationships as you could be. 

That’s because most of us spend too much time at networking events chatting with friends.  That is the conclusion of a study conducted by Professors Paul Ingram and Michael Morris of Columbia Business School.

For the study, the professors staged a networking event at the business school, inviting about 100 business people. To get a precise record of who met whom during the course of the night, attendees wore a small electronic device called an nTag to track all encounters.

While most attendees knew fewer than a third of the other participants, most didn’t take full advantage of the chance to meet new people. The nTags showed that the average guest had 14 encounters during the night and that friends accounted for a disproportionate half of these encounters.

Most people fail to maximize the value of networking events because they aren’t comfortable chatting with strangers.

Of course, the key to chatting with strangers is simply to ask questions and listen.  The best networkers have a series of ice breaker questions.

“Where are you from?”

“Do you have any plans for the holidays?”

“Do you have any hobbies?”

The goal is to find a point of commonality.  Usually it only takes a few questions to find that you’re both into motorcycles or cooking or golf. From there, the conversation usually takes off.

Next time you’re at a networking event, make it a goal to spend more time chatting with strangers than friends. After all, connecting with new people is the reason the events exist

How to Prep for a Non-Presentation “Conversation”

“We just want to meet your team and get to know you.  The meeting will be a conversation. We don’t want you to prepare a presentation. See you Wednesday.”

That’s the message one of my clients received this weekend as they were invited to come and discuss a large opportunity. They want me to advise them in how to proceed.

Of course, you have to do what the prospect wants. If they don’t want a presentation, then no presentation it will be. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare. You should prepare for the questions like you’re going to be delivering a presentation.

Here is what I recommend. 

  • Pick three key messages and make sure that you find a way to weave those answers into the conversation. You will get a couple of “softballs” like “So what is your approach?” or “What are the key distinguishing factors about your firm?” Those are questions that you can turn into a mini-pitch that lays out your “story” in three key messages.
  • Gather the team and brainstorm all the possible questions you might get.  Determine who will take each question when it arises.
  • Come up with answers. Make sure that you know how to give tight answers, not rambling ones. The best answers are one or two sentences with some explanation.
  • Make sure that you establish a light fun tone for the conversation. This should be fun and everyone should exude a sense of passion for the opportunity.  The goal is to make them think your team will be a fun group to work with.
  • Practice the answers.
When a prospect says they want something informal, that can be a trap. Don’t think that you can avoid preparation. The best sellers are always rehearsing.