A Flip Chart Idea to Nail Your Next Presentation

Here’s an easy way to give a speech that your audience will love. 

Start with a blank flip chart. Walk before your audience and say the following. “In preparing for my speech today, I thought about what are the three questions that you would want me to answer.” State the three questions and write them down on the flip chart.

Then say, “Let me answer the first question.”  Then answer the question, making sure that you use a story to illustrate your answer. And make sure you speak with the kind of energy you would have during an animated dinner conversation with a friend. Be excited and let the passion show.

Once you’ve answered all three questions, recap the main ideas in less than 15 seconds. Stop.

I came up with this simple approach for the President of a local manufacturing firm who asked for help on a presentation to his sales force. “But I don’t want to use PowerPoint,” he told me. “I’m more of a flip chart kind of guy. And I want to just keep it simple.”

He had just been appointed as the new president and needed to introduce himself to his team.  In preparing for the presentation, he sent out an email asking the sellers to submit questions they’d like for him to answer during his presentation.  He used those questions as the basis for coming up with the three questions he would focus on during the speech.

Like any good speaker, he spent a lot of time practicing the presentation.

He nailed it and the speech was a big hit.

Great speeches don’t need to be fancy. But they do need to be simple, focused on listener issues, and contain a few stories.  Do those things, rehearse, and your audience will love you.

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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.

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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.

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Delivering a Great Speech Takes Courage

I had an English professor in college who said, “If you write a really great novel, you’re screwed.”  What he meant was that great novels are often self-revealing, leaving the writer personally and emotionally vulnerable.

I’ve often thought about that quote when advising clients about how to create a great speech. That’s because giving a great speech often takes a willingness to open up and be vulnerable. 

A CEO for a small public company called me recently asking how I could help him with a speech he must give to a trade show. I asked him to tell me about what he has done with his company.

He revealed that when he took over, the company was in terrible shape.  His executive team members weren’t speaking to each other. Customer service was in horrible shape. He knew he had to lay off some employees if he was going to save the company. 

In the 10 years since he has taken over, the company has turned around and is performing well.

It was an amazing story. But as he spoke, I became both excited and nervous. 


Because when I hear a story like that, I know that the speech could be fantasic if he’s willing to tell the real story. The reality of business is that we often can’t tell the real story. It might make the company look bad. And I understand that.

Unfortunately, there are also many business people who just aren’t willing to tell their own stories. They’re afraid of being personal, showing their true selves, looking vulnerable.

That, as the Cowardly Lion knows, takes courage.

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Why I Now Want to Attend Cal Berkeley

I want to be a Golden Bear. And my 17-year-old son Benjamin may want to also.

Yesterday, we toured the University of California at Berkeley. Benjamin is a rising senior at North Springs High School in Atlanta and he’s looking at colleges. Berkeley is on his list.

It was a beautiful day. A gorgeous campus. Perfect day to take a tour. But the real reason we were sold was Jenn, our tour guide, a third year student and terrific speaker. 

Now let’s be clear. She wasn’t particularly polished like someone who had been in business for years.  She was young, like an enthusiastic cheerleader. She had a few “likes” and “you knows” in her speech.

She wasn’t perfect. But she knew how to connect.  She was truly passionate about her school and it came through with her smile and her overall enthusiasm.   She grew on you. She was, as they say, irresistible. You couldn’t not like her.

In addition to her enthusiasm, she did another thing that great presenters do, she told stories.  As she took us around the campus, we learned about the plaque on the ground that you couldn’t step on because it’s bad luck.  We learned she is going to be studying in Chile next spring because “I’ve loved Spanish since I was in eighth grade. I want to be fluent so I’m going abroad. Now let me tell you about our study abroad program.  . . .”

We learned about which library is the best place to nap between classes. We learned about “Berkely Beach” where everyone works on their tans. We learned about the food and how “when my friends visit from other schools, they all tell me that our food is the best.” 

She also told about her favorite professors and how they have opened up her way of thinking.  We learned about the special parking spots reserved for the Nobel Prize winners. 

She didn’t mention the fountain where Benjamin Braddock sat while waiting for Elaine Robinson in “The Graduate.” But I guess that was before her time.  Benjamin Asher didn’t know about that either.

Of course we did learn about the special axe that is the trophy won by the annual Stanford-Cal football game.  “It’s a fun rivalry,” she said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t win this year. But football season is lots of fun.”

Jenn showed that you don’t have to be a particularly polished to be effective and persuasive.  Just tell stories and be enthusiastic. 

Jenn got me so fired up that I went on YouTube to find a clip of the famous last minute football play in the 1982 Cal-Stanford game. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. But it’s still fun to watch. Go Bears.

On Saturday, we’re going to visit Stanford.


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Public Speaking Tip from Alcatraz Prison

The wind is blowing. We’re freezing. Our legs ache from a day of walking. And I look down at my daughter Annie and I’m amazed.  Is this 10-year-old about to start complaining about wanting to go home?  Not at all. She’s riveted by the speech she is listening to.

That’s right. My 10-year-old daughter, along with about 50 other tourists, was riveted by a speech. The speech was at Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay and was being delivered by a park ranger (Alcatraz is a national park).

He was telling the story of John Giles’s attempt to escape on July 1, 1945. Having worked in the miliary laundry, Giles had disguised himself as an Army officer and calmly boarded a military launch off the island. Unfortunately for Giles, he boarded the wrong boat. His ride was headed for nearby Angel Island, then a military base, instead of to San Francisco. He was caught and sent back to Alcatraz.

Despite the freezing cold (San Francisco is surprisingly cold this time of year), everyone, my daughter included, was riveted. This is just another example of the amazing power of stories to hold an audience.  This ranger didn’t need PowerPoint. He didn’t need handouts. He had no flipcharts. 

All he had was the story of a prisoner trying to escape. 

Think about the best presentations you’ve ever heard. They almost always have stories.

If you want to give a great presentation, tell a story.

Here’s a newsreel clip about the 1962 escape that was the subject of the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz.”


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Write Your Next Speech on a 4X4 Inch Post-it Note

Here’s a radical idea. The next time you have a create a presentation. Try creating the entire thing on a single Post-it note.   It takes some discipline. But you can do it. And it might turn out to be the best presentation of your life.

Step one: Get a Post-it note. The 4X4 inch note will do fine. But go bigger if you like.

Step two: Come up with a “hook” that will go at the beginning that illustrates the business problem your presentation addresses. If sales are down and you’re trying to help your sellers do better, you might tell a story about making dozens of calls but closing only a few deals. Just jot down a few key words that illustrate the idea for the story. You might write “Closing rates are down. Brief personal story.”

Step three: Write down three key “bumper stickers” that you really want your listeners to remember. These should be the three simple ideas that absolutely must stick in your listeners’ heads. If you’re giving a presentation on how to increase sales, your bumper stickers might be “We’re chasing too many prospects.” “Let’s narrow our prospect lists” and “Fewer total calls but more quality calls.”

Step four: Come up with some stories to support your three points. So if your first point is “We’re chasing too many prospects”, give a story illustrating the idea.  A real story from your own experience is best. Just jot down a couple of words to identify what the story is about. Let’s say that the story is about how one of the sellers last month made 50 prospect calls but only three of them were well qualified to buy. Your notes would say “50 prospect calls but only three good ones.”

Step five: Come up with a call to action.  What is the next step?  Do you want everyone to submit a sales plan in the next week?  Ask for something from the audience.

Step six: Start practicing. As you practice, you start by detailing your “Hook.”  “Today we’re going to talk about the problem we’re facing with dropping sales. In the last six months we’ve dropped to 50 percent of our plan. I’m going to talk about how we’re going to get sales back up.”  Then preview your three points by stating your three bumper stickers. Don’t go into detail yet. Just give a table of contents. Then go into detail for each of your points, telling stories you’ve noted.  As you practice, fill out the stories. Practice telling your stories over and over so that you can get them just right.  Then recap your three points and give the call to action.   Practice it five times.

This Post-it approach requires that you narrow your message to what is really essential and then bring it to life with stories. The practice will ensure that your delivery is strong. 

A clear three-point message. Stories. Strong delivery. How can you go wrong?

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Here’s Jobs’s iPhone Speech From Yesterday

As I was playing this speech for the first time this morning in my hotel room, my wife looked over my shoulder and said, “He’s so arrogant.”

Maybe. But he ain’t dull.

As usual, Jobs is passionate. He uses visuals that are incredibly simple. And his speciality — fun demonstrations — is on full display. In this clip he does a little demo on downloading of documents. These demos comprise the kind of little stories that make a presentation fun.

Let me know if you agree with my wife.


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In Sales Pitches, Stories Equate to a “Test Drive”

When I went to buy a car a couple of years back, I walked into Honda Carland of Roswell and was greeted by a salesman. After chatting briefly, he went into a back room and returned with a set of keys to the silver Accord that had caught my eye.

“Give it a spin,” he told me. “Let me know what you think.”

The car felt great and I bought it, largely based on the test drive.

The problem with most businesses, however, is that you can’t let your client take what you sell for much of a “test drive.”  If you’re in the construction business, the client can’t walk through the building you’re going to build for them.  If you’re an attorney, the client can’t feel what it’s like to have you as their lawyer before you bring the lawsuit on their behalf.  If you sell software, the client can’t really even try out the software to any large extent because most complex software is coupled with a critical consultative element.

That’s why stories are so important in sales presentations. Stories about your successes are often the closest you can come to giving your client a “test drive.”   Tell your client a story about how you built a similar building for another client.  Or tell about how you won a similar lawsuit. Or tell about how your software saved lots of money for another client.

The best sales presentations have stories because it helps the client feel what it’s like to have you on the team. It’s like taking your business out for a test drive.

When watching the following Honda ad, think about the idea that great sellers use stories to give you the experience of what it’s like to work with them. 


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How to Give a Great Commencement Speech

With graduation season upon us, I’d like to invite you to imagine the following.  You get a call from your college president. “Hello [insert your first name]” she says. “You’ve achieved a lot in your life. We think you’d do a great job speaking to our graduates at their commencement.”

“What should I talk about?” you ask.

“Whatever you’d like,” she responds. “It would be nice if you could keep it to no more than 15 minutes.”

You agree and then hang up.

Then what? Most likely you panic.  Few things are more difficult than delivering a commencement speech.  Graduates expect these speeches to be inspirational. They want a peak experience to mark their graduation. But, unless your name is Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, or Zig Ziglar, chances are that you don’t really see yourself as an inspirational speaker. 

In fact, I’ve had several successful business people come to me anxious about how they are going to inspire graduates. Here’s what I tell them: “Forget about trying to inspire.  Instead, use your own story to tell them something that they will find helpful in achieving their goals.”

I worked recently with a very successful businessman who had been asked to speak to the MBA graduates of his business school. “I’m too young,” he told me. “I don’t really have any advice to give people. Plus it all seems a little pretentious. I really have no idea what to say that won’t come off as completely trite.”

But I asked him what these graduates were interested in. “As MBAs, most want to run a business or at least be very successful in a business.”  

I then asked him to name three things he thought were important to reaching those goals.  His answer? “Gaining the proper background and experience. Mastering the culture of your company. Passion for the work.”

I then urged him to tell some personal stories illustrating those points.  He told his own stories and those of people he knew. He then practiced like crazy, rehearsing more than a dozen times.  He did great and received lots of compliments. It was a huge success.

He succeeded by avoiding the tendency to rely on inspirational clichés. Instead, he simply thought about what the audience was interested in achieving and used his own experience to help them get there. And he delivered the message with passion.

You Tube has hundreds of commencement speeches. Most of them are terrible. The best I’ve found is still the one delivered by Steve Jobs to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005.  He made a few points and told his own story.



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