The Neuroscience Behind Storytelling

Why tell a story? Because of the chemicals it naturally releases in our brains.

When people tell a moving story, our brains release cortisol and oxytocin. [Photo Credit: Paul Zak video, “The Future of Storytelling”]

When people tell a moving story, our brains release cortisol and oxytocin. [Photo Credit: Paul Zak video, “The Future of Storytelling”]

In early November, I’m participating on a panel at a medical conference in Phoenix. The topic of the panel is storytelling. While preparing, one of my peers introduced me to a terrific video by Paul Zak. It explains – in 5 min no less – the neuroscience behind storytelling. 

A professor at Claremont Graduate University, Zak is the founder of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. His video on storytelling is well worth your time if you’ve ever questioned its value. Once you watch it, you’ll know the answer. An emphatic “yes!” 

When people tell a moving story, our brains release cortisol and oxytocin. As the video explains, cortisol helps us focus our attention while oxytocin is associated with care, connection, and empathy. These two chemicals not only make stories memorable, but they cause people to take action. In this case, people who listened to a compelling story donated more money than people who didn’t. 

And that’s the catch: you must tell a compelling story. In other words, a description of an event is not a story. Nor is a laundry list of facts. Stories build up to a point of tension at their climax and, as Zak explains, often follow a universal story arc. He offers an example in the video or you can follow the story structure that I outlined in this blog by providing a setting, showing a struggle, and offering a solution.

Either way, telling a great story is required to release cortisol and oxytocin. Once you’ve done that, you, as a speaker, are more apt to move people to action.


Looking for someone to talk about storytelling in your organization? Or someone to improve public speaking at your office? Click here for more info and reach out anytime. – Rose at

Storytelling 101: Three Elements for Compelling Stories

Statistics and data won’t move your audience to action – but stories will. [Photo Credit: Annie Spratt]

Statistics and data won’t move your audience to action – but stories will. [Photo Credit: Annie Spratt]

I worked for a CEO once who didn’t know how to tell a story. She was scary smart, an inspiring leader, and capable in just about every other way. She successfully made dozens of complex, high-level decisions day in and day out. 

But telling a story? Not in her wheelhouse. 

How Did I Know?

I realized my client wasn’t a storyteller the night before she was scheduled to address about 4,000 employees. We were having a private rehearsal in a huge, hotel meeting room. I stood about 15 rows deep from the stage, coaching her for the big day.

She started off strong with a captivating intro. She quickly nailed the timing of the slides and she avoided the podium, using the space around her effectively. And despite the vacuous room, she practiced making eye contact around the room, looking at three Audience Anchors in the left, right, and center of the room.

Then she hit a wall. I had a copy of her bullet points, so I looked down at them. They said, “Tell story about playground.” The CEO began like this:

“A long time ago, my father took me to a playground. I was young, really young. One section had monkey bars that moved on a track.  You held on and sort of swung, hand over hand, from them. I was scared to cross.” 

Then the CEO stumbled, exhaled, and began talking about the competition facing her company this quarter. 

“Wait,” I thought. “What happened? Did you cross the monkey bars? What did Dad do? What about the other kids?”

I knew we had a problem. The description she had shared wasn’t a story and she’d missed a golden opportunity to connect. I called a time-out in the rehearsal and together we fleshed out that long-ago day: her standing there, facing scary blue monkey bars, and in retrospect, explaining why this story was relevant to her audience.

What Makes a Story?

Telling a story is challenging for some, overwhelming for others. That’s why I like to draw on Ty Bennett’s book, The Power of Storytelling. In it, Bennett breaks down stories into three simple elements: 

  • Set Up

  • Struggle

  • Solution

Set Up – Give the audience some context. In this case, I asked the CEO a few simple questions about her story: what grade was she in? What city was she in (and even better, what was the name of the playground)? Was it snowing, rainy, or sunny? Was the playground empty or full of laughing kids?

Struggle – What was she afraid of? How the monkey bars slid along a rusty track? Their height? The dirt below? What did she physically feel at the time (shaky legs, shortness of breath)? Did she say anything to her father or just balk, refusing to move?

Solution – What happened in the end? Did her father gently talk her across or threaten her to cross? Did the kids in line push in front of her? Did she turn back and climb down? 

After ending a story, I often add an “off ramp” in a speech. By that, I mean explain why the speaker shared the story. In this case, what was the connection between the little girl’s challenge years ago and the competition the company faced today?

In this case, the CEO’s story ended with another little girl showing her how to cross the monkey bars. The speaker then used the story to talk about employees sharing their expertise with one another, something their competition happened to be doing really well.

When you’re giving a presentation, stories don’t have to be long or difficult or overly intimate. But they must have, as a minimum, three elements to succeed. And when a good story lands, you’ll know it. Among other things, they fire up the mirror neurons in your audience, helping them envision – and feel – what you’re trying to convey.

Don’t get me wrong. Data, statistics, examples, and other forms of concrete evidence will help you back up the main point. They should be integrated into your remarks where appropriate. But they rarely, if ever, create the kind of emotional connection with other people that stories do.

Looking for another great example of storytelling? Watch Abby Wambach’s 2018 commencement at Barnard. Her opening story about the ESPYs has a clear set up, struggle, and solution (plus a smooth off ramp!). Thanks & please reach out anytime. – Rose at

Block Your Talk

 In previous blog posts, I've addressed the Speaker's Triangle and three common mistakes by speakers using slides. This month, I want to offer another installment on using the space you're given for a presentation. What if you're stuck behind a long table or massive podium? What are best practices for speaking on a stage? And what should you do if there's simply no room to maneuver? 

 The Elegant Hack offers some helpful answers using theater terms such as "blocking."  Read on to learn how you can use space more effectively during your next presentation.

 Do you want to become a more compelling speaker? Reach out at

Block Your Talk

You’ve written a great talk, you’ve made your deck (or not!) and you’ve practiced. But have you considered how you’ll move while speaking?

First, you have to know what you are walking into. You’ll perform in a space that consists of a stage, a room with four walls, a floor full of seats, and a ceiling. All of these elements affect your performance. It is critical to check out the space before you give a talk, preferably 24 hours before.

The stage may be raised or low. Sometimes it’s just an empty bit of floor in front of the chairs for the audience.

It may have nothing but a stand for your laptop or full of tables and chairs.

My talk at GDC was set up for panels, and although I spoke alone, I was trapped behind a long set of tables with a podium in the middle of them (Like Stone Librande in the photo below).

I had checked out the space the day before, I was prepared to be stuck there. I knew I could move to the right of the podium, unblocking more of my body and reducing the distance to my audience, and I had found the blind spots where the audience couldn’t see me.

If you are being videotaped, you also need to find out how much you can move and stay in the camera’s view. I put tape down at the UX Lausanne talk so I knew what the edges of the stage were.


From “Director’s Homework” Ian Barry’s script copy with blocking and shot notes. Source: Elegant Hack

From “Director’s Homework” Ian Barry’s script copy with blocking and shot notes. Source: Elegant Hack

Blocking is a theater term. It refers to a plan for how an actor will move during the script. It’s particularly critical for ensemble scenes, but a theater director will make sure every actor knew exactly where they stand and how they’ll move for the entire script. It’s also used in filming movies and tv shows, as shown below.

Sketch of a speaker leaning on his podium. He looks comfortable, at least.

New presenters often cling to the podium, as if letting go would mean floating off into space.

Intermediate speakers pace. Perhaps they have heard they should get out from behind the podium and are trying to move normally. But let’s be honest, not much is normal about being on stage. With tons of nervous energy and no plans for what to do with it, speakers end up pacing like a caged jaguar. This, understandably, can make the audience anxious.

Experienced presenters walk around purposely, not continuously.

Consider your movement as part of the presentation. If you have three points, pick three places on stage you’ll give each point, and use your transition to a new spot as a subtle message to the audience you are transitioning to a new idea.

You don’t want to be a crazy person, pacing from one end of the stage to the other. Your movements should be purposeful and thought out.  I’ve seen some great talks where areas of the stage represent logic and emotion, and the center is the set up for the talk, the balance.  Or you can just walk the simple triangle I’ve demarcated above, in order to reach out to different parts of the audience. You don’t have to overthink it, just move occasionally and with purpose.

When you arrive at your point, plant yourself.


When I say plant, it means stand in a way that keeps you still, without shifting your weight, rocking or leaping into another round of pacing.

Play with both. You may find just moving a foot slightly behind you, and turning it makes you much more stable.

I recently taught a course that had a unit on presenting. One of my students planted more comfortably and firmly than anyone I’ve seen. It turns out she had studied ballet, and had a variation of third position she used unconsciously. I’ve adopted this now for my planting. Left foot forward pointing where you are looking, right foot behind it at a slight angle. It’s a stable way to stand and it prohibits rocking as well as pacing, yet allows you to move forward easily when you are ready to make a point.

My previous way to plant was from yoga, and it’s still a go to. It’s called mountain pose. Stand with both feet directly under your hips. If you are rocking or swaying, your feet may be too close or far apart.

Next, sit in. This is a tai chi term for allowing your hips and legs to hold your weight in a stable pose. Often people (especially women) tend to sway back with hips tilted forward pushing the stomach and butt out. This makes you look fat. But if that’s not enough to dissuade you, I can warn you it’s also unsteady.

Tuck hips in and lift up your breast bone straightening your spine. Roll your shoulders back. You can imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you up. Practice this every morning (preferably followed by ten minutes of sun salutations) until you can slide into it naturally.

It’s important to practice standing so you are comfortable. Everyone asks, what should I do with my hands?

Let them fall loosely to your sides, then raise them when you have an appropriate gesture to emphasize a point. Practicing Mountain Pose will make letting your hands just be much easier.

You can see a perfect Mountain Pose plant in this TED talk by John McWhorter. In fact, he plants so completely, he’s almost eerily still.

When rehearsing, if you find yourself pacing, try mountain pose, then move into the modified. See what stabilizes you.

As a side benefit, if you take up yoga/tai chi, it will reduce back issues and curled shoulders brought on by our computer centered lifestyle. A bit of yoga is good for your body as well as your stage poise.

Using the Speaker's Triangle: How to Avoid Blocking the Screen

The view from the side.jpg

In my last blog post, I talked about three major mistakes people make with PowerPoint and how to avoid them. Today I’ll discuss using the space between the screen and audience more effectively via the Speaker’s Triangle.*

What’s the Speaker’s Triangle?

The Speaker’s Triangle is an area between the slides and audience. It’s on one side of the stage with the screen on the other. The space shouldn’t overlap with the projected image at all. (In other words, don’t move into the line of sight — like this picture. That projects the slide on your face and blocks it. Big no-no’s.)

Instead, stand in one of three spots in the Speaker’s Triangle. Where? It depends on what you’re saying.

Where Should I Stand?

The Speaker’s Triangle – Use the stage more effectively by standing in one of these three spots, based on the type of material you’re presenting.

The Speaker’s Triangle – Use the stage more effectively by standing in one of these three spots, based on the type of material you’re presenting.

  • Position #1 is closer to the screen than the audience.  Stand here when you’re talking about detailed material on the screen, such as a graph or map. Don’t face the screen, but gesture to the axis or location you’re addressing.

  • Position #2 is half way between the screen and the audience. Speak from this spot for the majority of your presentation.

  • Position #3 is closest to the audience. It’s a great place to tell a story or share something that’s meant to have a significant emotional impact. It’s also the best spot for answering questions during Q&A.

Common Questions
Q: Why should I spend most of my time in the middle of the Speaker’s Triangle?

A: Position #2 is a neutral spot. Being too close to the audience for the entire talk (#3) can come across as overbearing. It also eliminates the chance for you to move forward and “disclose” something personal or heartwarming. On the flip side, being too close to the screen (#1) suggests you may be relying on your slides too heavily (or worse, you’re anxious and therefore standing really far away from the audience!)

Q: What if the stage isn’t configured this way?

A:  You can still use the three general principles of the Speaker’s Triangle. The most important take-away for your presentation is to plan ahead. Before you start talking, know where you want to stand during different parts of your speech. Again, let the substance of the material guide you (or send me an email … I’ll help too).

Q: What if I need to get to the other side of the stage?

A: You can’t really. You shouldn’t walk behind the screen (ever) or across the front of it, projecting images on your face. If you’re doing Q&A after your presentation, my advice is to turn the slides off. Speakers rarely reference or need them during Q&A so frankly, they can become a distraction. With the projector turned off, you can move freely to the middle of the stage. Or better yet, you can move to the side of the space, depending on where the Q&A mics are located in the audience.

*PS - I came across the term, “Speaker’s Triangle,” about 5 years ago. If you know who coined the term, please let me know.  

Thanks and I’d love to hear your stories about stages and slides. – Rose.  


Avoiding Death by PowerPoint: Three Common Mistakes with Slides

How many times have you sat in a dim meeting room only to be bombarded by an endless slide deck? Or attended a conference where speakers made a point of reading every bullet?

Don’t use slides as a reminder of what comes next (as in, ‘ Oh yeah — the slide w/ the stars. That’s my cue to talk about space’).  Instead figure out what you want to say, then build your slide deck. [Photo credit: Kyle Wong]

Don’t use slides as a reminder of what comes next (as in, ‘Oh yeah — the slide w/ the stars. That’s my cue to talk about space’). Instead figure out what you want to say, then build your slide deck. [Photo credit: Kyle Wong]

Death by PowerPoint is, sadly, all too common. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As a speechwriter and speech coach for nearly 15 years, I’ve sat through hundreds of talks. Here are the three most common mistakes when it comes to slides and, even better, how you can avoid making them.

Common Mistake # 1: No Go

The Scenario:  You watch a speaker walk onto the stage. He hits the clicker but it won’t advance the slides. Then the screen goes black. Someone (the IT guy?) walks onto the stage and fiddles with something on the podium. Meanwhile, the speaker becomes increasingly uncomfortable. He tries a joke or two, but it’s too late. People around you start to talk among themselves.

The Message It Sends: When AV fails, it tells the audience that the speaker doesn’t care about them. He didn’t take the 5 minutes required to test it out in advance.

The Solution: Show up early and make sure your slides will work. I’ve seen instances (especially going from a MAC to PC) where the font sizes become too small or images become blurry. If you can’t show up early (and if the slides aren’t confidential), email your deck to the event organizers. Like you, they desperately want to avoid the appearance that this is “amateur hour.”

Bonus Tip: Always carry a backup copy of your slides on a thumb drive or email them to yourself, so you’ll have them handy in a pinch.

Common Mistake #2:  Info Overload

The Scenario:  The speaker is an expert. You’re excited to hear what she has to say, but things immediately get technical – and the slides don’t help. In fact, they confuse the issue because they’re impossible to decipher. One slide shows the world’s most complicated wiring diagram. Another has an x- and y-axis with font so small it looks like Japanese rather than English. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The slides will be available later, so you pick up your phone to check email until this speaker is done.

The Message It Sends: The speaker doesn’t know how to translate this visual story for the audience. As a result, she has included way too much information on the slides. It’s not easy to translate data or stats — agreed — but the alternative of overwhelming your audience isn’t an option.

The Solution: Don’t try to tell the whole story in a single slide. Keep it simple. Breaking down your story into manageable chunks and walk the audience through a broader, more meaningful narrative. In other words, bridge the gap between what you’re saying and what (you hope!) the audience is hearing. You can check this by practicing in front of someone with roughly the same level of knowledge that your audience will likely have.

Bonus Tip: Check out this TED Talk by Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and professor of International Health. He offers a great example of how to translate complex data on global health and economic trends in a way we all can understand.

Common Mistake #3:  Too Many Slides

The Scenario:  It’s only two minutes into the presentation but you’ve already seen 25 slides. Every point the speaker makes is captured in a list of bullet points, a heartwarming image, or a funny video. Rather than focusing on the material, your mind wanders. You ask yourself how many more slides will she race through in the next 20 minutes?    

The Message It Sends: The speaker doesn’t know her material well enough. She may also be using PowerPoint as a reminder of what she needs to cover next. (Oh, it’s the slide w/ the night sky. That’s my cue to talk about space.)

The Solution: Figure out what you want to say first, then build your slide deck. That will prevent you from upstaging yourself and relying too heavily on slides. Resist the urge to “throw in” that amazing pie chart because it’s just so good.

Bonus Tip: I don’t have a good rule of thumb for how many slides you should use in say, a 20-minute presentation. What can be helpful, however, is thinking about AV as a tool to underscore your key points. Don’t upstage yourself. Slides should be an exclamation mark to what you say, not a script to keep you on track.

Looking for more guidance on using slides effectively? Here are some more tips and examples from TED Talks.  Thanks & reach out anytime. – Rose at

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.


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 Thanks.


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

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 (

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 (

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.


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

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 (

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  

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 



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 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


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  



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  

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  

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 & 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?