Prop Up Your Speech: Five Tips to Use Props Effectively

Can you use your grandfather’s telescope to talk about his dreams for a better future? Concrete items (easily seen from the back of the room) often make the best props. [Photo Credit: Uriel Soberanes]

Can you use your grandfather’s telescope to talk about his dreams for a better future? Concrete items (easily seen from the back of the room) often make the best props. [Photo Credit: Uriel Soberanes]

Scientist Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist who experienced a massive stroke in 1996. In her TED talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” she explains how she woke up one day to find her brain shutting down. “And in the course of four hours,” she says, “I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.”

Taylor’s TED talk, the seventh most popular one of all time, is extraordinary in and of itself. It’s also an excellent example of how to use a prop – in this case, a human brain – to complement your presentation.

Here are five tips we can learn from her speech.

Tip #1 – Make it Meaningful

Early in her presentation, Taylor mentions the human brain and the audience immediately leans in. As Taylor puts on medical gloves, nervous laughter and mumbling float through the room. When she turns to face the audience, everyone zeros in on the moist, gray tissue (complete with a dangling spinal cord) that she cradles in her hands.

Taylor’s prop is meaningful on several levels. First, she uses the brain in a pragmatic sense to explain the difference between the right and left hemispheres. Seeing the two clearly-divided chambers helps us understand what otherwise might have become a complicated medical explanation.

Second, the prop is meaningful because it’s unusual. How many of us have ever seen an actual human brain, even though it’s so vital for every function we perform? Just as Taylor analyzed her brain that terrible morning of the stroke, we too are focused on the brain in front of us, learning what happens when a clot forms (in her case, golf-ball sized), blood vessels explode, and our body suddenly shuts down.  

Tip #2 – Keep it Simple

No prop is fool proof, so keeping it simple is your best chance to avoid problems. That means don’t plan on attaching a cable to the ceiling or floor. Don’t use a huge tank of water or bring an animal on stage. And don’t have a robot doing complex maneuvers up and down the aisles. Unless you can test your prop in advance (and have a backup plan if it doesn’t work), you risk something big going wrong. Or worse, creating a distraction that undermines your credibility as a speaker.

Instead, select a concrete item to illustrate what you’re talking about. For example, can you use your grandfather’s telescope to talk about his dreams for a better future? The purple geode you found in 8th grade to address the pace of change? Or the silver watch, given to you by your dying Aunt, to underscore work-life balance? The best props are often concrete, physical items that provide insight into your topic.  

Tip #3 – Put it Aside

Don’t hold your prop during the entire speech. Consider Taylor’s presentation. When she was done with the brain, she placed it back on a tray and an assistant carried it off stage. In fact, she used it only for about a minute.

Bill Gates provides another good example. He used a jar of mosquitoes as a prop in his TED talk about malaria in 2009. He opened the jar, then put it on a side table while speaking. He didn’t upstage himself, but instead kept the jar handy so he could refer back to it when needed.

In addition, avoid the temptation to pass your prop around the room, which instantly diverts people’s attention, taking all eyes off of you. As an alternative, you can invite folks up to the stage to see it after your presentation. This is a great way to continue a dialogue, not to mention exchange business cards.

Tip #4 – Right-size It

I took a play-writing class a few months ago. Our teacher told us about a student play that he’d reviewed in which the entire plot rested on a tiny picture in a locket. In Act III, the “big reveal” with the locket was the cultivating moment of the entire play. The problem was, as our teacher pointed out, the picture inside the locket was about a centimeter in diameter.  In other words, too small for most folks to see it.

For your remarks, select props that are neither too big or too small. What size is that exactly? Before your talk, hold your prop up on stage and ask someone standing in the back if they can see it. (This is also a good way to check your font size on slides.)

At the 2017 MCON Conference, Diana Aviv, then head of Feeding America, used the right size prop in her speech. In a presentation about food waste, she used apples to show that 40% of all food harvested in the US ends up in landfills. Aviv’s prop? A clear glass bowl filled with ten apples. She moved four of them to another bowl, explaining why each would be rejected from the marketplace. One apple had a blemish. Another was misshapen. Others were too big or too small. The clear glass bowl and ten apples stood out on stage. Her example showed us clearly why 40% of healthy, edible food never makes it to our grocery stores.

Tip #5 – Practice with Them

What if Taylor had dropped the human brain? What if Gates struggled to open the jar of mosquitoes?

Perhaps my most important tip is to practice handling your prop beforehand. Be familiar with it. Know what you’re going to say and when you’ll say it. Most people get nervous when they’re giving a speech. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, lose the thread of your argument, and forget why the heck you’re standing there holding a wooden African mask in front of a hundred people. Those three minutes of rehearsing with your prop will pay dividends.

Conclusion

Props are under-used tools that can turn an above-average talk into an extraordinary one. When used correctly, they can be a powerful tool that amplifies your message. Select a meaningful, creative, tangible prop. Make sure it’s the right size for the venue and, when you’re done with it, put it aside or send it back stage. And above all, practice with your prop to help make your next speech unforgettable.

Have another tip about using props? What’s worked (or not) for you in the past? I’d love to hear from you at rose@rosespeechwriter.com. Thanks.

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So, Do I, Like, Sound Bad? Practical Tips to Eliminate Verbal Pauses

We all use verbal pauses when we speak: um, ah, like, and you know. Filler words like these become more pronounced during interviews or presentations. Why does this happen, even to the best speakers? In some cases, we’re nervous speaking to an audience. In others, we may be so passionate about the topic that we’re concerned we won’t do it justice. Whatever the reason, our hearts race. We talk faster than normal. And we often use bridge words to hold our place, while we think of the next thing we’re trying to say.

You don’t have to fill every silence with noise. [Photo Credit: Nycholas Benaia]

You don’t have to fill every silence with noise. [Photo Credit: Nycholas Benaia]

 Unfortunately, verbal pauses make us sound less professional at the very time we want to be at our best. Making matters worse, they are also distracting. Instead of your future boss keying in on your skill set, she may be noticing how many filler words you use.

 How can you prune um and ah from your vocabulary? By far, the best solution is to stop talking all together. In other words, use a pause instead of a filler word. You can also try speaking more slowly. Fully finish a thought and then take a deep breath. My point is that you don’t have to fill every silence with noise. Let the power of your idea sink in without further distraction.

 Here are two other ways to break this habit.

 Find an Accountability Partner – Maybe you’ve heard of Toastmasters infamous “Ah-Counter.” That’s someone who tabulates how many times you use verbal pauses. While this method is no doubt embarrassing, it gets right to the core of the problem: self- awareness. We have to recognize how many times we are using um or ah before we can fix the problem. If you don’t want to join Toastmasters, find a supportive accountability partner who can give you candid feedback next time you speak at the office staff meeting. 

 Record Yourself – Most smart phones today have a free mic app. (I often use QuickVoice or VoiceMemos.) Next time you’re giving a short presentation, ask the people in the room if it’s okay to record yourself. Then play back your remarks to see how you did. The next step is to work on trimming these from your vocabulary and, when you’re ready, record yourself again to see whether you’ve improved.

 Awareness and practice are the dual keys to getting rid of ums and ahs. For better or worse, we have dozens of opportunities every day to monitor ourselves: on the phone, talking at dinner, in meetings. Eliminating filler words will, in the end, make you a more confident, powerful speaker.

 Want to read more on this topic? Check out this article in the New York Times, then email me at rose@rosespeechwriter.com.

One Hundred Beats Per Minute

Three weeks ago, some friends mentioned they’d attended a workshop by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the famous couples counselors.  I’d heard about the Gottman Institute over the years but was surprised by something they said that night. Basically, that when your heart races, you can’t communicate clearly – or sometimes at all.

What’s the threshold for effective communication? Turns out it’s 100 beats per min. [Photo credit: Daniel Canibano]

What’s the threshold for effective communication? Turns out it’s 100 beats per min. [Photo credit: Daniel Canibano]

I saw a connection to public speaking and did what we all do when we hear something interesting. I googled it. I learned that, according the Gottman’s research, “if your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard you try.”  The Gotmmans call this “flooding,” being overwhelmed by a barrage of emotions, which makes communication with other human beings all but impossible.

As my friends spoke, I realized I’d heard about flooding before: by clients who felt paralyzed by nerves right before a speech. Looking back, I’m guessing their heart rate was likely over 100 beats per minute.

Now, in the world of couple’s counseling, Gottman recommends taking a time out. Nothing good can be achieved when you or your spouse has been flooded by emotions. That’s not an option, however, when you’re about to step onto the stage, take the microphone, and deliver a 20-minute presentation.

My recommendation for speakers is first and above all, to be proactive. In other words, be hyper-aware of how your body is dealing with stress. Are your cheeks flushed? Hands sweaty? Heart racing? If they are, do a quick self-assessment. You can check your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or other tracker. But you don’t need fancy technology – just find a quiet spot to take your pulse. Count your heart beats for ten seconds and multiple the number by 6. This will give you objective data that can serve as a kind of early warning system. If your heart rate is, in fact, creeping up toward 100 beats per minute, it’s time to act.

The next step is figuring out what works for you. Some people benefit by taking a brisk walk around the venue before they speak or working out the morning of the event. This helps them shake off excess nervous energy (cutting down on pacing and verbal pauses like “um,” “like,” or “you know”) Other people use affect labeling to quell their anxieties. This involves naming the emotion that they’re experiencing, which can help take the sting out of it.

But by far, the most effective means I’ve found to calm nerves has been mindful breathing. I wrote about this in one of my first blogs, which you can read here. In short, regulate each breath by inhaling through your nose to a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 4. Keep it up until you feel more composed. What I love about this process is that it interrupts the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for high alert “fight or flight” responses. When done correctly, it will help you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system that’s responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” functions. (For a quick overview of both, check out this article.)

In the end, public speaking is about communicating but that’s tough to do when your heart rate surges over 100 beats per minute. So check in with yourself before the next speech. Then use the right techniques to keep your nerves in check and ensure you’re at your best as you walk up to the podium.

How have you managed your fear of public speaking? Let’s talk!  – Rose (rose@rosespeechwriter.com)

You're More than a Speaker

A few months ago, I was hired by two CEOs who were new to their job. Each had a big speech on the books to external clients – folks other than their employees. Both of them contacted me because they wanted to kick off their tenure as a clear and compelling speaker.  

During our first few meetings, my conversation with each of them circled around to a common denominator. That’s what I want to talk about today. Specifically, answering the question of ‘Who you are on the stage (or who do you want to be).’

You’re more than just a speaker. Take time to identify your relationship to the audience. [Photo credit: Miguel Henriques}

You’re more than just a speaker. Take time to identify your relationship to the audience. [Photo credit: Miguel Henriques}

In both cases, the speakers were unsure of the image they wanted to project. They were too new to the job and unfamiliar with their organization. They had dozens of other tasks on their to-do list and hadn’t yet considered their relationship to the audience.

If a speaker is presenting herself as a peer, for example, she might call the audience “colleagues” or “friends.” She might also decide not to stand on a stage but at eye level (if everyone can see). Other options, depending on the audience and event, might be cheerleader (urging them on) or coach (kicking them in the butt).

In this case, one of my clients decided to position herself as a kind of maverick in the field. Then I asked how she wanted to be perceived. We brainstormed answers (confident? humble? accessible?) and landed on enthusiastic and hopeful.

As you work through this process, it’s important to note that I’m not talking about acting.  The best speakers are natural in all aspects of their delivery: how they use their hands or move around the stage. They aren’t trying to be someone they aren’t.

Next time you accept a speaking invitation, consider your relationship to the audience. Once you figure out who you want to “be” on the big day, you’re sure to be a more successful speaker.

Need help figuring that out? Please reach out.  – Rose (rose@rosespeechwriter.com)

Speaker as Leader -- Or Not

Every speech, whether 5 minutes or 15, shows people what kind of leader you are. And that cuts both ways.

Some speakers ramble on, stumbling through the material. They haven’t thought about their headline message or what they hope to accomplish. Compare that to speakers who have done their homework. They know their purpose from the get-go: inspire the team to meet sales targets, get buy in on the new strategic plan, or explain changes to the company’s Paid Time Off policy. These speakers have data on hand and a compelling story to share. They’ve built a cogent argument to convince even the greatest skeptics in the audience.

And they’ve practiced what they plan to say. 

Winging it is, frankly, a bad idea. [Photo credit: Designecologist]

Winging it is, frankly, a bad idea. [Photo credit: Designecologist]

If you want people to follow you or put your plan into motion, you need to read your remarks aloud before the event. That’s where you’ll learn if your sentences are way too long for a single breath. Or if you’ve strung together so many s-s-s-sibilating sounds you can’t get out. Or if the tone sounds too formal for the company picnic.

As a speechwriter and speech coach, I hear a lot of executives say they want to ‘wing it.’ Practicing in advance, they explain, will make them sound stilted or rehearsed. After 10-plus years in this business, I can tell you that’s not the case. Practicing makes them better. Much better. They come off as more relaxed, natural, and sometimes even playful because they are familiar with the material.

They practice in advance because they know they’re being evaluated as a leader. They don’t want to let their people down or risk seeming ill-prepared. And real leaders know that they don’t have the luxury of wasting other people’s time.

Click here to learn four tips for rehearsing that’ll make you a better speaker and leader.

Four Tips to Rehearse More Effectively

In the end, the stakes are just too high not to practice. [Photo credit: Charles Deluvio]

In the end, the stakes are just too high not to practice. [Photo credit: Charles Deluvio]

Your last talk to employees didn’t go well. You were nervous standing in front of them. You paced as thoughts of self-doubt crept into your voice. You kept looking down at your notes but couldn’t find your place. After a few minutes, you lost track of what you were hoping to accomplish. More than anything, you just wanted to sit down and be done.

Now that’s a bad day at the office. The only good outcome from this kind of dreadful experience is the determination I hear in a client’s voice afterwards. They resolve never to ‘wing it’ again. Never to stand in front of their people without preparing. Never to show up as a boss who can’t motivate, can’t communicate, can’t lead.

How exactly should you practice before your next talk? There are any number of approaches, but I’ve found these four steps to be particularly effective.

Rehearsing Effectively

 1. In private, practice what you’ll say from beginning to end. Re-start wherever you need to. If you stumble on a section repeatedly, change the wording.

2. Once you can deliver the entire speech without stumbling, time it. Trim it, if too long.

3. Ask two or three trusted colleagues to listen to you as you practice. Get their feedback on what was unclear and on any distracting tics you may have such as pacing or jittery hands. (An alternative is to videotape yourself on your cell phone. This is a simple way to check your posture, eye contact, and hand gestures.)

4. If possible, practice in the venue where you’ll deliver the speech. (This is essential for big speeches.) Find out if you’ll have a podium and mic. If so, what kind? (For example, a hand-held mic, podium mic, or lavalier mic?)  Ask who’s presenting before and after you, if you’ll have a bottle of water on stage, and whether they will be filming you. In short, now’s the time to get the scoop so you can be your best as a speaker and as a leader.

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Want to learn a few more practical tips for rehearsing your next presentation?  Let’s talk.  – Rose (rose@rosespeechwriter.com)

Own It & Get Over It

Over the years, I’ve shared several techniques on how to manage your nerves before a speech. (See this blog and this blog.) Today I’d like to share another one. The scientific name is ‘affect labeling’ but I use another term: ‘naming it.’

Affect labeling basically means identifying an emotion as you’re experiencing it. When I was growing up, my Dad accidentally backed our Plymouth Valiant out of the garage with a backseat door open. The screech of crunching medal filled the garage. Dad stopped the car, hopped out, and stared at the crease in the door. He was fuming. Clearly, someone hadn’t shut the door behind them. His anger was, of course, understandable, and he was probably more upset with himself than any of us. But I remember him being pretty darn mad. Now, in retrospect, I know that affect labeling would have quieted the storm.

Identifying our emotions (Dad saying, “I’m royally pissed off right now”) has the power to calm them. That was the finding of psychologist Matthew Lieberman who coined the term ‘affect labeling’ in 2007. You can read the whole study here. The short version is that naming your emotions disrupts the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fear, anger, and other emotions.

Affect labeling can help quiet the fear of public speaking. [Photo Credits: Wynand Uys]

Affect labeling can help quiet the fear of public speaking. [Photo Credits: Wynand Uys]

There’s now a large body of work on affect labeling. One more study worth mentioning involved spiders and people who feared them. Michelle Craske and her research team divided participants into four groups and asked them to walk toward spiders. As they did so, one group was told to label their feelings (ex: “I’m scared, anxious”). Another was asked to think of the spider as less threatening (ex: “You can’t hurt me.”). Still another group was directed to distract themselves (ex: “This is an experiment. I’ll be fine.”) and the last group was a control group (given no instructions.)

The study found that the first group – people who acknowledged their fears – had the lowest emotional reaction to the spiders than any other group. Psychology Today summed up the study, “These findings suggest that having greater emotional clarity about one's fear can help reduce the physiological manifestation of this emotion.” One more key finding of the study is that verbalizing emotions (not just thinking them) is what made the difference.

Affect labeling is a useful technique to manage those overwhelming feelings you have before speaking in public. I often ask speakers, while they are rehearsing or before they step onto the stage, to stop and reflect. What are they feeling right now? Their answer – just naming it – puts the emotion under a microscope and turns it into an object they can observe. As a result, fear and anxiety no longer grip them, no longer control them. The result? They’re able to relax and deliver a much more natural, compelling talk.

Has affect labeling worked for you? Let’s talk about managing your fear of public speaking. – Rose (rose@rosespeechwriter.com)

Speaking to a Disparate Audience

I’m often asked how best to handle an audience that includes many different types of people. In other words, how can you be effective as a speaker if you’re talking to group that’s a third government employees, a third nonprofit leaders, and a third business executives?  Should you try to address them all equally in the time you have?

Good question.

How do I reach an audience that includes many different kinds of people? Read on. [Photo credit: Denise Johnson]

How do I reach an audience that includes many different kinds of people? Read on. [Photo credit: Denise Johnson]

My answer is no. Don’t deliver three little mini-speeches. Instead, consider a typical commencement speech. Three groups of people attend graduation ceremonies:

1.     faculty and staff;

2.     parents and family members; and

3.     graduates.

Speakers at these events must mention all three of these groups of course. But in general, they spend the bulk of their time talking to their primary audience, the students.

I recommend a similar approach. First, direct some portion of your remarks to all of the major constituents in the room. (Going back to our analogy: at a commencement, it’d be a grave oversight not to acknowledge faculty/staff as well as parents/families, right?)  Second, focus your attention on your primary audience, the main group of people you want to influence. That’s who you really care about reaching. That’s who can move your agenda forward. That’s who can move the needle and make a real difference.

Now, there’s one catch. The primary audience doesn’t always equate to the greatest number of people. Yes, a graduating student body is almost always the largest of the three sub-groups listed above. But in some cases, your primary audience may be one of the smaller sub-groups present. 

Take the classic board of directors meeting. You may be speaking to 15 people in the room, but there’s really two key individuals you need to reach. Perhaps it’s the Board Chair or the Treasurer? If you can convince both of them, the other attendees will fall behind you and your project will sail forward.

Let’s go back to my opening scenario. If I were speaking to an audience that’s equal parts government, nonprofit, and business, I’d focus on the decision makers in each group. They would be my primary audience. Maybe I’d urge them to work together more effectively? Maybe I’d include examples from different cities? Maybe I’d highlight success stories and failures? Whichever route I take, it wouldn’t involve cobbling together 3 mini-speeches. The organizational structure would be cumbersome and the key message too diluted to be effective.

In the big picture, you should always put your audience first. Figure out what they are interested in hearing from you. When you speak to a disparate group of people, address all of them briefly but focus in on your primary listeners. Whether you want to inspire or challenge, inform or provoke, make sure they walk away with the message you intend to deliver.

Looking for a speech coach or speechwriter? I'd love to hear from you. Please email me at rose@rosespeechwriter.com.  

Be Clear Upfront: A Speech Isn't a Mystery Novel

Here’s a 15-second challenge for you. What process is described in the paragraph below? 

Begin by sorting items into piles by color. At the same time, set aside individual pieces that require specialized care. Leave these items until later. Load one pile at a time into the machine, add cleanser, and hit “start.” Now begins the waiting game.

The answer is doing laundry. If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t ‘get it’ until near the end of the paragraph.  

Now, what if I add a new sentence at the beginning?

Doing laundry is easy. Begin by sorting items into piles by color. At the same time, set aside individual pieces that require specialized care. Leave these items until later. Load one pile at a time into the machine, add cleanser, and hit “start.” Now begins the waiting game.

Notice how much easier it is to understand. Not only do you ‘get it’ right away, you know what’ll come after this topic sentence: details to reinforce it.

I came across a paragraph similar to this one when I was a young Captain teaching at the Air Force Academy. And today I still love how it underscores the importance of leading with your main idea. This holds true in both written and spoken communication. (By the way, some folks in the military summarize this idea with “BLUF” or bottom line up front.)

This paragraph also shows us what can happen if, as a speaker, you’re unclear in your intro.  Imagine the audience seated before you. If you fail to mention ‘doing laundry’ upfront, they are probably sitting there trying to figure out what you’re talking about. If you’re lucky, some of them may lean forward and strain to understand you. In most cases, however, folks will simply check out. Their social media feeds and Words with Friends are simply too tempting.

As humans, we need to know the main idea first, the details second. It’s how we’re wired. Just ask John Medina, a bioengineer from the University of Washington. In Brain Rules, he writes, “If you want to get the particulars correct, don’t start with the details. Start with the key ideas and, in hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.”

This explains why, in part, newspaper articles traditionally begin with a lede that includes key info: who, what, when, where, why. Details follow the opening paragraph in order of their importance. Small nuances that the journalist found fascinating but didn’t really fit into her article? They go at the end. The big, critical details of the story? They go at the beginning so the reader isn’t wondering what the story is about. (This is also why headline writers play a critical role. They’re trying to grab our attention and sell papers.)

Be clear upfront: a speech isn't a mystery novel. [Photo Credit: Chrisin Hume]

Be clear upfront: a speech isn't a mystery novel. [Photo Credit: Chrisin Hume]

In sum, don’t string us along. Don’t make us guess the topic. And don’t think of a speech as a Dan Brown novel.  Avoid this kind of confusion at all costs. It’s a senseless waste of your audience’s energy and tells them you haven’t prepared well enough. Instead tell us in the intro that you’ll be talking about ‘doing laundry’ (or whatever the topic), then enthrall the audience in your remarks that follow.

There are many other tricks like this one to writing a successful intro. Let's chat. Email me at rose@rosespeechwriter.com. 

 

 

The Telephone Test

In “Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions,” Josh Bernoff talks about how much time we waste slogging through terrible writing at the office. He notes, “Poor writing creates a drag on everything you do. It functions like a tax, sapping your profits, and I can quantify it. American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more.” Bernoff estimates this problem costs American businesses an astonishing $400 billion annually.

Unfortunately, bad writing often seeps into presentations as well. Consider how this speaker summarized her remarks:

“I have attempted here to socialize the personnel and financial resources needed to solve this pressing problem. I now respectfully ask for your endorsement of the proposed course of action so that we can operationalize it in coming weeks.” (Word count: 41)

If I were listening, I wouldn’t know what was being asked of me. Words like “socialize” and “operationalize” sound like committee-speak. That's a form of communication in which people are more interested in impressing co-workers than expressing an idea.

What if this speaker said this instead?

“I’ll close this afternoon by asking for your approval on this project.  We have the resources lined up and the right people in place. We need the green light from you to move ahead.” (Word count: 34)

This ending is not only more concise, it’s easier to understand. And it is written in plain language defined as “communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.” This definition, by the way, comes from Public Law 111, The Plain Writing Act of 2010, which urges government officials to write in ways that people can understand. (It’s amazing to me that the problem is so bad that we actually had to pass a law.)

How can we avoid jargon-filled, verbose writing? By using the Telephone Test, a simple tool I learned years ago from my smart colleagues at the US Air Force Academy. The Telephone Test means imagining how you’d say something on the phone.

How many times do you call your spouse and say, “After work, I’ll proceed to the aforementioned market for the items requested. Please inform me if additional items are needed.” I’m guessing never. Instead, you probably say, “I’ll pick up milk on the way home from work. Need anything else?”

The Telephone Test is an easy tool to help you communicate more clearly & concisely. [Photo Credit: rawpixel]

The Telephone Test is an easy tool to help you communicate more clearly & concisely. [Photo Credit: rawpixel]

The Telephone Test helps ensure you’re using direct words, more pronouns, and simple sentence structure. I use it when I find myself writing an overloaded sentence (20+ words) or a long bullet point.  

Another tool is plainlanguage.gov. Unlike some government websites, this one is easy to use and offers ample resources including examples, guidelines, and training. 

Before you draft that next email or speak up at a meeting, review what you’ve prepared. Can you say it in a way that’s easier to understand? More crisp? More logical?

Bernoff found that we all waste a great deal of time at the office due to bad writing. By investing more time upfront, you’ll stand out and, even better, your co-workers will actually understand what you’re trying to say.

 

What tools do you use to communicate more clearly & concisely? I’d love to hear them. Email me at rose@rosespeechwriter.com.

 

Large or Small: Audience Size Matters

My father-in-law knows I’m a speechwriter and often asks about my work. Last week, I told him I was drafting remarks for a CEO who’ll be speaking to about 2,000 people. We talked about the difference between speaking to a large audience verses a smaller one, and he asked me which I preferred.  

Audience size: Your message may not change, but how you deliver it should. [Photo credit: Toni Cuenca]

Audience size: Your message may not change, but how you deliver it should. [Photo credit: Toni Cuenca]

When people are part of an audience of 50 or more, they have the luxury of being passive. They can melt into a sea of humanity and remain anonymous. As a result, they often sit back and relax. They want to see a show on stage and expect a more polished, formal, and entertaining presentation. Audience interaction, if it happens at all, generally takes place during a designated Q&A session.

When people are part of a small group, they have more opportunities to interact directly with the speaker. Their time together feels more like a conversation than a presentation, so they may interrupt the speaker throughout the session. This is especially true when audience members know one another. (Think board meeting.)

Speaking to a large crowd isn’t necessarily preferable to a smaller one. What’s important is matching the message to the means of conveying it. Announcing layoffs to a crowd of 1,000 isn’t ideal. That’s why companies often do so department by department, so folks can ask questions (and get answers). On the other hand, announcing the 2018 Top Sales and Marketing Award might call for a splashy event with the biggest crowd you can muster. 

The number one rule of speechwriting and public speaking is to know your audience. Before you hit the stage, find out their average age, the sectors they represent, their political affiliation, and other information that’s relevant to the material you are presenting. If you know the audience size as well, you’ll have a better sense of what people are expecting of the speaker: a more informal, conversational event or a more formal, elevated presentation. That’ll give you a much better chance of connecting with them.

Looking for a speech coach or speechwriter? I'd love to hear from you. Please email me at rose@rosespeechwriter.com.  

 

 

Attention Audience

Grab your audience's attention from the get-go & don't let go! [Photo credit: rawpixel]

Grab your audience's attention from the get-go & don't let go! [Photo credit: rawpixel]

Every speech or presentation should start by grabbing the audience’s attention. If you don’t, then you’re speaking to an empty room. You’ve lost your listeners right out of the gate. Here are a few of my favorite ways to get (and keep) their attention:

  • A compelling story. Start with an anecdote or story that will underscore your key message. It might be about a trip to Africa or that chess match you lost in 9th grade. Well-told stories are memorable and create an emotional connection with people. (They also trigger mirror neurons, as I explained in my previous blog.)

  • A moving image. A picture is, in fact, worth a thousand words. Find an image that will draw your listener into your talk. Maybe it’s a family picture of grandma’s garden or a yearbook photo (showing off your 1970s hair style). Or you can download high-resolution photos from sites that offer copyright free images. (I often use Unsplash.)

  • A killer stat. Share a single fact that will shock your audience. For example, you might tell them that 1 in 6 children in America is food insecure, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. That’s hard to believe in a nation as prosperous as ours, right? That's an outrage ... and now your audience is with you.

Other ways to grab the audience’s attention? Ask an actual or rhetorical question. Use a prop like Bill Gates. When he talks about the Gates Foundation’s work on malaria, he opens a jar of mosquitos. (That definitely wakes people up!)

In the end, find a technique that feels right for you and makes sense given the subject matter. Grab your listener’s attention the moment you start speaking and don’t let go until you’re done.

 Have a big speech coming up & need a compelling intro? Email me at rose@rosespeechwriter.com.  

The Science Behind the Story

Why tell a story or anecdote during a presentation? They humanize the speaker and are far more memorable than a list of facts. They also help create an emotional connection with the audience.

There’s another reason story telling is so important. Neuroscience.

In the 1990s, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma, Italy were studying the motor cortex of macaque monkeys. They learned that neurons in monkey’s brains “fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object.”

Did you know that our brains don't distringuish between hearing about an action and actually doing it? [Photo credit: shreekar]

Did you know that our brains don't distringuish between hearing about an action and actually doing it? [Photo credit: shreekar]

They had discovered mirror neurons and the fact that our brains don’t distinguish between hearing about an action and physically doing an action. That’s why, when you see someone stub their toe, you wince. Or why a guy watching the NHL playoffs jumps off the couch when a goal is scored. The fan’s mirror neurons fire, convincing him that he shot that howitzer into the back of the net.

Telling a story, or even a short anecdote, activates the brains of your audience members. A list of facts or a cumbersome slide deck taps the language processing part of the brain, but stories let people live an experience as you’re sharing it.

If you’ve told your story in a compelling way, they’re more apt to follow the call to action that you’ve issued.

 I love talking about neuroscience & storytelling. Let's chat. Email rose@rosespeechwriter.com.  

Public Speaking & Your Career

[Photo credit: Brandan Church]

[Photo credit: Brandan Church]

About a month ago, an article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. It was called, “The Secret to Midcareer Success” by Michael Malone, a professor at Santa Clara University. It reminded me of something I often saw when I worked at the Pentagon as a speechwriter.

When individuals hit the rank of one- or two-star general, they had to learn a new set of skills to be successful. For example, they could no longer dive deeply into the weeds or be involved in every programmatic decision. The scope of their new responsibilities was simply too great. Instead, they had to delegate more (and of course, surround themselves with good, capable people).

Every day, thousands of people in America’s workforce make the mightiest of transitions: from doing the work themselves to managing other human beings (in some cases, thousands of them).

That transition requires what Malone calls ‘secondary skills.’ Among the most important is public speaking. “You must develop your ability to bring people together, to inspire them, to mentor them, and to lead them into the direction of your vision,” he writes. If you can’t articulate your vision and the roadmap to make it happen … if you can’t rally people to your cause, how will you ever reach your department’s targets?

Here’s the catch. Doubling down on the skills that helped you become successful in the first place will no longer serve you. In fact, they’ll be counterproductive. I saw it in DoD and in the civilian world: folks worked harder and longer but, over time, only became less effective.

To make the big leap to the next rung of responsibility, you’ll need to become a clear, compelling speaker in front of all kinds of audiences. My advice? Don’t wait for that promotion (or that next star on your shoulder). Start working on those skills now.

What are you doing to improve your public speaking? If the answer is ‘not much,’ let’s talk. (And if you can't access Malone's article, email me at Rose@rosespeechwriter.com & I'll send it along.)

The Gettysburg Principle

President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863. Before he spoke, Edward Everett took the stage and pontificated for 2 hours. Does anyone remember what he said? Nope. In contrast, Lincoln’s 2-minute speech has gone down in history as one of the most memorable of all times.

abe lincoln.jpg

That brings me to what speechwriter’s commonly call the Gettysburg Principle: keep it simple. Lincoln’s address is ten sentences long and includes just over 270 words. Of them, 90 percent are one or two syllables. He also used a very simple organizational structure: past, present, and future.

The next time you’re preparing to speak, replace long, complicated words with short, punchy ones. Take a minute to cut phrases that pad the speech unnecessarily. For example, instead of saying, “A large number of,” just say, “many.” Your goal should be to ‘express’ rather than ‘impress.’

What else can we learn from the Gettysburg Principle? Pick an easy-to-follow structure like chronological order, problem/solution, or cause/effect, so your audience can follow your logic easily. And finally, be respectful of other people’s time. However big or small the occasion, speak only as long as you need to get your message across clearly.

Tell me about your last speech. Did the Gettysburg Principle work for you? 

Don't Lose to the Snooze

[Photo Credit: Lance Anderson]

[Photo Credit: Lance Anderson]

How can you prevent your audience from checking out?  The answer: an emphasis cue. But first, let’s talk about why people sometimes space out while you’re speaking.

Could be that you haven’t put enough time into your presentation and it’s simply not engaging. (But let’s hope this isn’t the case!) Or maybe you didn’t do enough audience analysis and you’re talking ‘past’ them. Or then again, it just might be our crafty brains doing, well, what they naturally do.

John Medina, a molecular biologist, has studied the human brain for decades. I love his book (a NY Times bestseller no less), "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.” In it, Medina distills the latest findings in neuroscience into practical concepts that folks like us can understand. Turns out that much of what he says can make us much better speakers.

Take Medina’s Ten Minute Rule. It states that, in short, our brains need some form of stimulus about every ten minutes. When that doesn’t happen, our brains snooze, basically falling into hibernation mode. The result is deadly: people daydream, check Instagram, or the like.

You can prevent this from happening by using an emphasis cue or a single phrase that essentially says, “this is important. Listen up.” Think of the high school teacher who suddenly says, ‘This will be on the final exam.’ Yup, I’m awake now!

Examples of emphasis cues include:

  • My point is ...

  • I’ll sum up by saying …

  • What I learned at that moment was …

  • If you take one thing from my talk, let it be …

You’ll want to tailor these to your speaking style of course. Advanced speakers might also pair these with a delivery cue such as a long pause or a descriptive hand gesture. Stepping away from the podium will also jog the audience awake and put their attention back where it belongs: on your message.

Interested in more practical speaking hacks? Please click here to subscribe, email Rose@rosespeechwriter.com, or follow me on Twitter at RKing_Portland. -- Rose

Make It About Them, Not You

A wonderful way to change the focal point of your remarks – and put the emphasis where it should be – is to replace the word “I” with “you.” Here’s a classic example from Steve Jobs and the team at Apple:

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently…You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.” 

Jobs could have said “I can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing I can't do is ignore them.” By turning the tables, he invites us into the conversation.

A similar trick is to replace “I” with “we.” Check out this example from Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London. In this 2016 speech, he was advocating for BREXIT (i.e., that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union).

“Thanks to the referendum given to this country by David Cameron, we find that a door has magically opened. We can see the sunlit meadows beyond. I believe we would be mad not to take this once in a lifetime chance to walk through that door because the truth is, it is not we who have changed. It is the EU that has changed …”

[Photo Credit: Karla Alexander]

[Photo Credit: Karla Alexander]

What I like about this excerpt is how Johnson uses “we” to create allies. A “magical door” has somehow opened. If we walk through it together, he seems to say, we’ll all get to the “sunlit meadows beyond.”

Notice too that Johnson is not saying follow me. He’s asking folks to move ahead in step with him.  Whatever your thoughts on BREXIT, using “we” in this passage makes his argument more persuasive. (And, well, the vote for BREXIT passed as we all know.)

Next time you’re preparing a presentation, do that one final and supremely important edit. Search for “I” and replace it with “you” or “we.”  It may take you all of two minutes (tops!), but it’ll leave a lasting impression with your audience.

 

Try this easy trick in your next speech. For more speaking hacks, click here to subscribe, email Rose@rosespeechwriter.com, or follow me @RKing_Portland. -- Rose

Work Out, Speak Out

When I hear the term ‘working out,’ I’m more apt to think of my New Year’s resolution than public speaking. But there’s an important connection between the two. A light work out before you present will discharge that excess nervous energy that will otherwise destroy excellent remarks.

Last year I was working with an executive in the field of health care. I’ll call him “Ed.” Ed had come to me because, a year earlier, he’d frozen up on stage. He said that suddenly, as he glanced at the audience, a steam roller hit him. He couldn’t breathe. A black circle filled his vision. The room telescoped in on itself, growing darker by the second.

Ever since the panic attack, Ed hadn’t been able to present without taking medication to calm his nerves beforehand. He and I worked together for a few weeks. We tested out various coping mechanisms and he made mild progress … but nothing major. That is, until the topic of running popped up in our conversation.  

Ed sat back in his chair, exhaled, and talked at length about running cross country in college. About how much he loved jogging through the woods. About how being an athlete was fundamental to his identity. And about how he’d let the demands of his job – including 40% travel – stop him in his tracks.

[Photo credit: Jenny Hill]

[Photo credit: Jenny Hill]

In the end, what helped Ed to not just face the podium, but excel as a speaker was returning to what he loved. He got back to running trails (and back on the treadmill when traveling). The result? Ed said goodbye to his anti-anxiety meds for good.

Now, to be clear: working out is, by no means, a cure all for glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. But discharging excess energy before you speak will help you manage it. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you could walk briskly around the block or do jumping jacks in your hotel room. Don’t try to exhaust yourself. Just do enough to shake off the jitters and channel that energy into your best performance yet.

I love this tip. Has it worked for you? Email me at Rose@rosespeechwriter.com or reach out on Twitter at @RKing_Portland. -- Rose

Comfort Zone & Vocal Range

One easy way to become a better speaker is to consider your vocal range: how softly and loudly you speak. If you’re like most people, you probably tend to stay in a fairly safe range of what seems acceptable. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, frankly, it can be a killer. It can put your audience to sleep. (And you don’t want to be “that” speaker who rambles in a monotone voice.)

[Photo Credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel]

[Photo Credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel]

So, what can you do? First, experiment on yourself. Most smartphones have a microphone app. When you’re practicing your remarks, record your voice for 2 minutes and then check out your volume waveforms. I just did this with a client who had a “flat line” -- zero variation in the volume of her voice. When she saw this visual, she realized she had to make a change.

Second, find at least one place in the speech where you really want to connect emotionally with the audience. Maybe it’s a story about Apollo 13 or a moving quote by JFK. Maybe it’s the call to action where you'll rally your sales force for a big end-of-year push.

Once you find that spot, consider how you can deliver your message with the greatest effect. For example, you may want to lower your voice at the story’s end and walk closer to the audience. Or maybe speak louder when you cite the end-of-year sales goals. You decide. The point is to move out of your comfort zone by extending the range of your voice.

Finally, do a quick sound check before the event. Test the mic to see how softly you can speak and still be heard in the back of the room. This seems so simple, but you’d be surprised at how many people begin by asking, “Can you hear me in back?” (And nothing says amateur hour more loudly.)

In sum, increasing your vocal range isn’t hard but it will require you to get out of your comfort zone. But it’s worth it. Turning the volume up or down at key moments won’t just avoid sounding monotone. It’ll get your audience involved in an emotional, dramatic way. Remember, your role as a presenter is to take the audience on a journey. Show them what happened. Give them a glimpse of where they’re going. Use your voice to bring them along and you'll experience the highs and lows together.

Interested in more speech hacks that work? Please click here to subscribe or follow me on Twitter at @RKing_Portland. Thanks. -- Rose

Backwards Planning

Let’s say that an email landed in your inbox asking you to speak at a local conference. Or maybe a colleague left you a voice mail, inviting you to be part of a panel next month.

What’s the first step you should take after saying “yes” to a speaking invitation?

The answer is so basic that you might overlook it – at your peril. I recommend working backwards. In other words, put the event on your calendar of course, but also add two other critical dates.

As soon as you accept a speaking invitation, get it on your calendar -- along with a few other critical dates. [Photo credit: Eric Rothermel]

As soon as you accept a speaking invitation, get it on your calendar -- along with a few other critical dates. [Photo credit: Eric Rothermel]

#1 – Move from What You’re Saying to How You’ll Say It

The first date to add is the day that you’ll stop generating content and start rehearsing the material.  In other words, this is the date when you’ll start figuring out how to share your ideas in a compelling way. It’s usually about 3 to 5 days before the event, but may vary depending on the length of your remarks. 

At that time, start asking yourself questions about delivery. For example, what slides are needed to underscore the main message?  What prop will help your audience “get it?”  How will you tell the story or use the space on the stage? You will likely fine-tune content after this date, but having it on your calendar will give you a clear target: HERE, on this exact day, you’ll make that mighty transition from what you’re going to say to how you’ll say it.

#2 – Set Aside Time to Practice

In addition to this date, I recommend blocking off chunks of time to prep and rehearse. Some folks like to set aside 2 hours at a time; others prefer shorter 30-minute blocks of time. It’s up to you and will depend on how long your presentation is. The important thing is to give yourself enough time so that you feel calm and confident on the day of the big event.

Give yourself the benefit of time by planning backwards from the get go. This will help ensure all the effort you put into crafting the content won’t be wasted. Instead, you’ll have figured out how to share it in a way that’s clear, entertaining, and persuasive.

Interested in more speaking tips? Email me at Rose@rosespeechwriter.com or follow me on Twitter at @RKing_Portland. Thanks. -- Rose