Public Speaking Tips from Passover

Tonight is the first night of Passover.  For many Jews, including me, it’s a favorite holiday because it’s a family get together. 

But it’s also a highly engaging religious service. Indeed, speakers can learn a lot about connecting with audiences from the Seder service.

First, the Seder is a lesson in the power of a story.  The entire event is centered around the story of the escape from Egypt.

Second, the Seder teaches the importance of Q&A.  One of the highlights of the event is the asking of the Four Questions. 

Third, the Seder shows the power of audience participation and interaction. There’s responsive reading and singing. There’s a mysterious open-door vigil for the ever-elusive Elijah.  There’s even a treasure hunt.

Fourth, the Seder plate is a multi-tiered lesson in the power of analogies and visual aids to help reinforce a message. 

So for your next presentation, think about a Seder. Tell stories. Leave plenty of time for questions.  Find ways to get the audience involved.  Use creative visuals aids.


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How to Make Your Listeners Love You When You Give a Speech or Sales Presentation

A study of what makes people fall in love has implications for helping speakers connect with audiences.  Specifically, the more personal stuff you reveal about yourself, the more likely your audience is to like you.

At least that’s the conclusion that we draw from a study about what makes people fall in love. 

In the study, researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook gave pairs of students scripts that urged them to reveal things about themselves in varying degrees. The pairs that revealed more about themselves tended to form closer personal bonds. In fact one pair got married.

What does all this mean for those that want to connect better with an audience?  Simple. The more you reveal about yourself during a presentation, the more the audience will like you. 

Indeed, at Speechworks, we urge our clients to tell stories about themselves as part of the presentation.  Certainly you want to tell about your own success stories. If you’re trying to persuade a client to hire your accounting firm, tell stories about your own experiences solving other similar accounting problems.

But it’s also a good idea to weave personal details about yourself in the course of the presentation.  Letting people know that you have children or are learning to play tennis are personal details that will help you connect with the audience.

Next time you have to put together a speech, let the audience in on some personal details of your life. They’ll fall in love with you.

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Paul Harvey Held Audiences by Telling Stories

Paul Harvey, who died this weekend, never used PowerPoint.  He never interacted with his audience using webinars or modern gizmos like “twitter.”

He just sat in front of a microphone, spoke with energy, and told stories. And people listened.

I used to love Paul Harvey.  Not because I agreed with his conservative politics.  I think the the obituaries have over stated that stuff.

I just loved hearing him tell stories.  When he came on the radio, I would sit in my car until his broadcast was done.  So would millions of others as they waited to hear “The rest of the story.”

And he always had something uplifting to say.

Paul Harvey said, “    I Like this quote I dislike this quote“In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.”

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How to succeed in a job interview

The New York Times today has a story about 75,000 layoffs announced yesterday worldwide.  And there doesn’t seem to be any way to spin that in a positive light. That’s just scary.

But for those folks who are now finding themselves without work, I hope that they will take the chance to do more than just polish off the resume and start the grind of interviewing for positions.  Interviews are a fine chance to work on honing communication and selling skills. And nothing will make you more successful in winning jobs and, just as important, succeeding at the job once you’re hired.

You need to improve both what you say during the interviews and how you say it.

In terms of what you say, it’s important to talk to prospective employers about your skills in terms of the value you provide.  You should enter an interview with a value statement followed by a plan to provide that value.

Here’s an example. I worked last week with a gentleman who had been laid off. He was a computer systems consultant. When I asked him what he did, he went into a long complex explanation of his expertise. I stopped him and asked him to tell me in simple terms the value he provided to a company.  After much discussion we settled on this, “I help design payroll systems that will save your organization money.”  

From there, he went on to lay out a simple plan for the value he provides.  He said there are three steps. First, he analyzes the existing system. Second, he prioritizes the challenges in light of business needs. And third, he executes a solution. He then had stories illustrating how he did each of the three steps. When prospective employers hear such clean explanations, they are able to say, “Wow, this person knows how to communicate.”  It’s impressive and unusual.

Another part of  preparing what to say in an interview is to prepare a list of questions you expect to get and rehearse the answers. We advise our clients to come up with no less than 20 possible questions.  Make sure that you’re ready with short answers, not long rambling explanations.  If someone asks you the time, don’t tell them how to build a clock. And make sure that you find a way to use the questions to tell the overall business value that you provide along with your plan for executing that value.

Next, you have to work on how you deliver your messages.  Most important is energy.  Most people speak in a rather flat monotone. But we urge people to interview with energy, smiling, gesturing and displaying excitement about the opportunity. Speak to your interviewer like you’re talking to a close friend about something you’re passionate about.  That style connects you with your friends. It will help you connect with prospective employers.

Layoffs stink and they’re frightening. But they also give you a chance to focus on how you present yourself and your value.  If you’re without a job, take this opportunity to hone how you present your ideas. You’ll enjoy the benefits long after this hard time has passed.

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To Inspire, Give Plan then Tell Story

I was working recently with the President of a small financial services company who wanted help in inspiring her top producers. 

“What should I tell them?” she asked me.

“If you want to get people fired up, lay out a plan for success, then tell a story about how that plan works,” I said.

And that’s what she did.  She told her team members that success this year would be to open 500 new accounts. Then she detailed a marketing plan to get there.  Then she told a story about how one of the team members had added more than 500 new accounts last year.  

“I could feel people getting excited as we discussed it,” she said.

There’s something about a proven path to success that gets people fired up.

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How to Put Lipstick on the PowerPoint Pig?

Presentation skills coach and fellow blogger  Olivia Mitchell has asked me and many others to comment on what, in our business, apparently passes for a controversy: how can we make PowerPoint better?  You probably missed this controversy if you are part of the following group: business people who are trying to accomplish things.

Let me summarize this distracting tempest in the graphic design teapot.  For several years, a group of graphic designers have been rightly trashing PowerPoint and the busy slides it tends to produce.

Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen, Nancy Duarte at Duarte Design, and Edward Tufte (the granddaddy of PowerPoint haters)  have been hammering on the misuse of PowerPoint for years.   Many graphic artists have pushed for a minimalist approach using big pictures and very few words. These slides are quite attractive and it’s easy to see why artists love them.  They’re very “arty” looking. 

Now comes the inevitable backlash to this minimalist approach from writer and internet marketing consultant Laura Bergells. On her PowerPoint blog, Maniactive she wrote: 

The current PowerPoint design fashion vogue is overly simplistic, and panders almost completely to the right side of the brain. Since one of our chief presentation objectives is to persuade, why is this a problem?

Using only right brain techniques to persuade is emotionally manipulative. Oh, it’s highly effective, all right, but it’s propaganda, nonetheless! Appealing only to the right side of the brain is less than truthful — it lies by omission of key facts. 

Audiences are getting more savvy.  We’re getting more suspicious. We’re asking harder questions. We’re tired of lying, half-truths, and crass emotional manipulation by corporate leaders, politicians, and news media outlets.

So there you have it. First there is a well-deserved backlash against PowerPoint’s tendency to get too complex.   Now comes a backlash to the backlash arguing that we’ve gotten too simple.

When it comes to PowerPoint, I suppose I come down in the “simpler is better” category.  And I do think that visuals are helpful. We help our clients with slides and flip charts when they are appropriate.  I use them myself in my presentations.

But ultimately my position on PowerPoint is this: it’s largely irrelevant to whether you accomplish your goals. That’s because PowerPoint and other visuals, now matter how graphically pleasing, don’t inspire audiences, sell ideas, or win business. That’s done by the speaker. If he or she has a well-crafted message that focuses simply on the listeners’ needs, and if it’s delivered well, then the presentation is going to be a success regardless of what slides you have. 

Does anyone remember the Barack Obama’s slides?  Colin Powell’s?  Ronald Reagan’s? What about Steve Jobs? Sure he uses a minimalist slide approach. But the reason he’s so good has nothing to do with his slides.  He’s great because he knows how to tell a story and deliver it. Take away his slides and he is still great. If you don’t agree, check out his much praised graduation speech at Stanford.

This debate is a symptom of a larger problem. That problem is that business people waste too much time crafting slides rather than doing what will really make their presentation succeed: seeking to understand the audience, telling a good story, and rehearsing.

Here’s what I’d like to see going forward. Let’s start creating presentations by taking out a blank sheet of paper and writing down what we want to accomplish and what our audience cares about. Then let’s decide what our core message is, deciding what three key messages we really want our audience to remember. Then let’s see if we have some interesting and relevant stories to support our points. 

Then let’s spend a little time thinking about whether slides are even necessary. If they are, then let’s spend a little time creating slides.

But let’s also keep in mind that slides don’t grow businesses. Connecting with audiences and colleagues and business partners and customers is what grows businesses. And to do that you need a clear message, a style that connects, and lot of rehearsal.

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