Advantage Rafa: Public Speaking Lessons from The Wimbledon Tennis Championships

Public Speaking Lesson from Wimbledon

Wimbledon is upon us. And as in past years, the world is suddenly divided between two types of people: Roger fans and Rafa fans.

From a tennis perspective, I’m a Roger fan. But when it comes to public speaking, I’m a Rafa guy all the way.

Let me explain.

Roger, of course, is Roger Federer, the Swiss tennis artist. As a tennis fan and player for more than 40 years, I have never seen such a gorgeous player. And I was a ball boy for Rod Laver.

Rafa is Rafael Nadal, the Majorcan bull and the yang to Roger’s Yin. Where Roger wins with grace and amazing shots, Rafa wins with brutal consistency, never missing and wearing down his opponent. He is the ultimate grinder.

Public speaking can also be divided between a Roger and a Rafa approach.

I meet many people who aspire to a “Roger” approach to public speaking.  They want a graceful, admiration-inducing style where they move their audience with jokes and anecdotes.

I worked with a banker recently who said, “I want to learn how to be funny.”  And of course, you can learn to be funny, especially if you focus on self-deprecating anecdotes.

Similarly, I had an attorney ask me to help him learn to speak like his firm’s eloquent managing partner, a moving storyteller who spoke with incredible passion. And with work, anyone can learn to tell stories well.

But like a Roger approach to tennis, making people laugh and moving them with passionate stories is hard.  If you’re not a natural, it can take a long time to master those skills.

Most people don’t realize that there is a “Rafa” approach to public speaking, a less graceful, more prosaic way that is just as effective at connecting with audiences.  And for most people this style is more accessible.

Remember that Rafa wins with fundamentals, making first serves, keeping the ball in play, and hustling. It’s not as flashy as Federer. But it works.

The Rafa approach to public speaking also relies on fundamentals: know your audience; focus your message; and takes lots of questions.  These are simple things that anyone can do, even if you’re not a natural.

Getting to know the audience is critical.   If you’re going to speak to a group of bankers about how to avoid being sued for age discrimination, speak with key listeners in advance. Ask them about their concerns.

“But what if I don’t have time to get to know my audience in advance?”

There is no good answer to that question. You won’t connect with your audience without understanding their needs.  Getting to know the audience takes work. But it pays off.  And you don’t need “Roger-level” talent to do it.

Keeping your message simple is another “Rafa-style” fundamental that isn’t hard but pays off.  Keep your message to a few key points. That ensures that your audience doesn’t get confused.

Finally, leaving lots of time for Q&A is something we can all do to make our presentations connect better with audiences.  Last year I heard a major bank’s general counsel give a 30-minute talk. He had only five minutes of prepared “presentation.”  The rest was Q&A. His audience loved it.

So as you watch Wimbledon this fortnight, think about your approach to public speaking. Do you want to be like Roger or Rafa?

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The Value of Rehearsing Out Loud

The more time I spend helping people become better speakers, the more I realize that the best way to improve is simply to rehearse out loud.  Rehearse your speeches out loud.  Rehearse what you plan to say on a conference call out loud. Rehearse how you’re going to answer a client’s questions out loud.

Out-loud rehearsal makes you sound smooth.

I was in a workshop this week with a group of sales people who had to learn to give their company’s “elevator pitch” quickly and simply.  They had received in advance the exact three points that they were going to say.   The exercise was simply to deliver the 30-second message.

It seemed like a simple enough task for these experienced sellers.  But every time they stood, they stumbled over their words. They had to look down and remember what to say.  They would stop and ask to start over.

Finally, I said, “Let me give it a try.”

And I stood and nailed it perfectly the first time.  Everyone was impressed.

“But you’re a pro,” one person protested. “You do this all the time.”

“Perhaps,” I said. “But there is not a person in this room that couldn’t do what I just did in the next 30 minutes.  And I can prove it to you.”

I then produced my iPhone and opened my “voice memo” app, which is a built-in digital recorder.  I then played for them the rehearsals of their elevator pitch I had done in my car that morning.

“I knew that I was going to have to demonstrate this to you,” I said. “And I wanted it to come off smooth. So I practiced it until I knew I could nail it.”

You Can’t Practice In Your Head

Many people don’t know how to rehearse.  I once worked with a consultant who told me that he couldn’t understand why he was a poor presenter. “I practice all the time,” he said.

But when I probed, I found that his “rehearsal” included spending a lot of time creating slides, flipping through those slides, and then going over what he was going to say in his head.

Practicing a speech in your head is like warming up your golf swing in your head.   Speaking is a physical act. It’s done with the mouth.  You need to get your tongue and lips and vocal chords accustomed to forming the actual words.

You have to Practice Out Loud

Working with that sales team this week, I showed them how it took me five rehearsals to nail their elevator speech.   As I played back those recorded rehearsals everyone could hear how I changed the pitch slightly each time.  With each take, I was trying out the best way to say it, making adjustments based on what I heard.

Finally, I gave everyone an assignment. “I’m going to give everyone here 20 minutes. During that time, I want you all to practice this elevator pitch at least 10 times out loud. Then you’re going to come back and we’ll hear how you do.”

They all left the conference room and found their own spaces to practice.  When they returned, every one of them nailed it.

Out-loud rehearsal. Works every time.

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What To Do When Things Go Wrong In Presentation

Last month I stood up to begin a program with the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers and my fly was down.

Many things can go wrong when you speak.  I’ve faced a lot of them.  I’ve had projectors fail. My cell-phone has gone off.  Once, someone took a telephone call in the front row and didn’t get up to leave.   I’ve even had a painful gastro-intestinal attack.

But the open fly was a first and somewhat out of character. You see I’m paranoid about my zipper.  I have even developed a smooth little zipper check which I now pass along as a public service. I put my hand on my belt buckle and, with my pinkie finger, sneak a quick feel to make sure that all is well.  Works like a charm.

And it worked last month in front of the 20 women attorneys. The problem was that, to be effective, you should apply the Asher Zipper Check BEFORE you start speaking.

So how do you defuse presentation emergencies?

Don’t panic. Act fast. And realize that unexpected things can help your presentation.

Don’t Panic

Public speaking is an imperfect art.  Things go wrong.  Worry and frustration don’t help in front of an audience.

Instead of panicking, make a plan. I’ve had many projectors fail.  Recently, when the bulb went out in the middle of a presentation, I asked for a flip chart and moved on.

Act fast

Whatever you decide, be fast.  When my cell phone went off during a presentation, I apologized, turned it off, and continued.  When I had a stomach attack during a four-hour program, I said, “Let’s take a five minute break.”  I was the first out of the room.

When your zipper is down, speed is important.  In law school, one of my professors gave an entire 50-minute lecture with his fly down.  We all were snickering.  Afterwards, a classmate casually said “Hey professor, your fly is down.” He was embarrassed.

When I noticed mine was down, I remembered Dick Cavett.   During a television interview, Cavett noticed that his talk show guest’s fly was open.  Wanting to avert embarrassment, Cavett asked his guest to stand and turn his back to the audience. Cavett did the same and said, “One of us needs to zip up.”

During my presentation, I used a modified Cavett approach. I turned around to write something on the flip chart. As I wrote with my left hand, I zipped up with my right.  Now I suppose some of you ladies will let me know if I got away with it.

Unexpected things can help

Finally, remember that unexpected events provide an opportunity to build a relationship with the audience.

When I was speaking to 150 people at an insurance industry conference, someone in the front took a call on his mobile phone and started carrying on a conversation.  I ignored the guy. But he kept talking. I could see that lots of people were angry.

Finally, I stopped, smiled at the guy, paused for a long moment and said, “Dude?!”

Everyone cracked up.  The guy hustled out.  People applauded.  He helped me bond with the audience.

So if your zipper is down, don’t panic, act fast, and embrace the opportunity.

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With Speeches, a Little Goes a Long Way

I know that I should be a better person than this. But my main reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union address this week was “Why did it have to be so freakin’ long?”

I don’t have the attention span for such things.

If I were President, I would propose that all speeches be limited to 15 minutes, with half of that time devoted to Q&A. Now that would be change we could believe in.

No one Wants to Hear a Long Speech

I’m not alone on this issue. Attention spans are short.  There was a study done of college students during 50-minute lectures.  Researchers found that the students’ highest level of attention was in the first five minutes of the lecture. After that, attention levels dropped continuously until the 17th minute and leveled off.

But we don’t need a study to know that no one wants to hear you speak for more than ten minutes.  You know why you don’t watch C-SPAN?  Because most of their programming is long speeches.

During our workshops, I often ask what would happen if the CEO or managing partner decreed that no presentations could last longer than 10 minutes.   Most agree that their lives would be improved.

Short Speeches Are Better Because They’re Focused

State of the Union addresses are what I call “Death Star” presentations. They’re huge and unwieldy, saying so many things and proposing so many ideas that we need Brian Williams or Katie Couric to translate afterwards.

I don’t care what you reputation as an orator is, if your speech needs someone to come on afterwards and identify the key points for the audience, then it’s lousy.

If all speeches were kept to 15 minutes with half the time reserved for Q&A, it would force us all to ask a simple question: what do I really want my audience to remember?

I was working with a health insurance executive recently on a presentation about the value of managed health care.  Her speech was a mess and way too long.  I asked, “If you could only get your listeners to remember three “bumper stickers” what would they be?”

She didn’t hesitate. “We save money.” “We improve health care quality” and “We allow coverage for a greater number of people.”  That focus allowed her to shorten her message and connect better with her listeners.

The Q&A Holds the Attention

Instead of speaking so long, leave lots of time for Q&A.  Listeners love Q&A sessions. It’s where the audience is most engaged and gets answers to their issues.  So why do we relegate questions to a couple of minutes at the end?

Jack Welch, the former GE CEO, is known as a great speaker. With small groups, he will often dispense with prepared remarks entirely and simply ask the audience, “What questions do you have?” 

I know that approach isn’t practical for all circumstances.  But Q&A should be a much more prominent part of all of our messages.

Next time you have to give a presentation, remember that no one has ever complained that a speech was too short.

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Word Czars Ban “Czar” and other Jargon

The word Czars at Lake Superior State University have declared 15 bits of 2010 jargon “shovel ready”.

“The list this year is a ‘teachable moment’ conducted free of ‘tweets,'” said a Word Banishment spokesman who was “chillaxin'” over the holidays. “‘In these economic times’, purging our language of ‘toxic assets’ is a ‘stimulus’ effort that’s ‘too big to fail.'”

Former LSSU Public Relations Director Bill Rabe and friends created “word banishment” in 1975 at a New Year’s Eve party and released the first list on New Year’s Day. Since then, LSSU has received tens of thousands of nominations for the list, which includes words and phrases from marketing, media, education, technology and more.

The banned words are listed below. To read more, go to the LSSU website.

  • CZAR
  • APP
  • OBAMA-prefix or roots?
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Public Speaking Tips from My Dog Balou


My dog Balou is a 60-pound, black-lab mix that we adopted at a PetSmart rescue day last year in Sandy Springs.   And if he could only talk and write on a flip chart, I’m sure he’d be a great public speaker. That’s because he understands how to connect with people better than most humans.

It’s about connection not perfection

First, Balou understands that you can do a lot wrong if you establish great rapport.

Balou makes lots of mistakes.  He eats the insoles out of shoes. He chewed the upholstery on our nice living room sofa. When he vomits on the kitchen floor, it’s truly disturbing.  And I won’t bother describing the foul and prodigious “gift” he left for us in the basement on Thanksgiving morning last year.  I guess we forgot to let him out the night before.

But we forgive Balou’s mistakes because we love him. When I’m working at the kitchen table, he sits at my feet. When my kids come home from school, he runs to the window and starts barking for joy.  And he does this hilarious thing with this ratty stuffed panda where . . .  Well you get the idea.

Like Balou, great public speakers understand that you can overcome mistakes with connection.  They’re not worried about forgetting a point, using an awkward phrase, or having their hair out of place. They don’t worry if the projector breaks.  They know that if they connect with the audience with energy, eye contact and stories, all will be forgiven.

My Dog Displays Lot of Passion

If Balou were a public speaker, his best trait would be his passion.   Balou has no trouble expressing his excitement. When I’m about to take him for a walk and he sees me grab his leash, he goes berserk. He leaps, twirls, and sneezes repeatedly (Sneezing is how Balou shows excitement).   That excitement is contagious and endearing.

Great speakers also show passion. I worked with an attorney that gave a presentation on how women attorneys can balance work and family.  As she spoke, her face lit up, her voice became intense, and her arms moved wildly.  Her passion was obvious and I was riveted.

Balou Makes Great Eye Contact

Balou knows that to connect with people, you need great eye contact.  If I say, “Hey Balou”, he looks up at me.   If he wants to go outside, he looks at me and barks.   When I come home from work, he shows he’s happy to see me by looking right at me and wagging his tail.

Similarly, great speakers understand that eye contact is critical. I worked with a project manager recently who had great energy but looked at his feet when he spoke.  We helped him by making him hold the eye contact for three to five seconds with individual listeners.

Balou just loves you

Finally, Balou understands that you win affection by showing affection.  We love Balou because he loves us and shows us in dozens of ways.

The same is true with great speakers. They show their affection for their audience by addressing their key concerns rather than giving a generic speech. They leave plenty of time for questions. They then answer those questions with a helpful, sincere tone.  Audiences return the love that you give.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Balou knows how to sell himself so well.  His livelihood depends on it.

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President Obama’s Speech at Fort Hood Great Example of the Power of Stories

President Obama yesterday spoke at the memorial services for those servicemen and women that died in the recent massacre at Fort Hood. In the speech, the President tells a brief story about every one of the people killed during the killing. If those stories don’t move you, nothing will.

This video is of the entire service.  The President’s remarks begin at the approximately 15 minutes into the video.

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