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.

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.


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.

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  

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  



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.)

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, or follow me 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

The Call to Action

Have a speech coming up? My advice is to start at the end with a clear, compelling Call to Action. Let me explain.

I got a frantic call last week. A woman named Sarah was giving a speech in less than a week and wasn't sure what she wanted to say. She was stuck. We talked for some time about the event and the audience. She'd been asked to share 8-10 minutes of remarks about a nonprofit she had founded 7 years earlier. The setting? A nondescript conference room. No podium. No slides. No Q&A. Soon we were talking about the audience. I pressed. Who were they? What did they care about? What motivated them?

Then came the kicker. And the reason Sarah was stuck. I asked her what she wanted the audience to do. When you're done speaking, I said, they'll clap politely. You'll gather your notes and your raincoat (yup, it's Fall here in the Pacific NW.) Then you'll walk out of the room, Sarah, but what happens next? What do you want your audience to do?

She got it.  Sarah mentioned contacting our city council and we were off! Together we hashed out a clear, concise "ask." Once we'd identified her Call to Action, we fleshed out the main arguments of Sarah's speech. Hurray! Success!  

A Call to Action

A Call to Action is a clear, concise appeal to the audience asking them to take action. To do something. How do you craft a compelling one? Here are some guidelines:

Instead of “let’s solve homelessness," say, “join our coalition.” Be specific about how you want the audience to get involved. [Photo credit: Giovanni Randisi]

Instead of “let’s solve homelessness," say, “join our coalition.” Be specific about how you want the audience to get involved. [Photo credit: Giovanni Randisi]

1)  Be explicit. A Call to Action isn't a hint or suggestion. It's not a veiled request. Nor is it a wishy-washy "ask."  Stand up tall in front of the room and own it: ask for what you want. Don't say, "You might consider looking at this petition." Instead say, "I urge you to sign this petition on XYZ today." Here's another example. It's okay to say, "Homelessness is a travesty. Together we can solve this problem." But it's better to say, "We've formed a homeless coalition and we invite you to join us at our next meeting on Tuesday. Together we can get people off our streets and into safe, affordable homes."

2)  Focus on THEM.  The Call to Action shouldn't center on the speaker. It should state how it'll help the audience. Make clear how they'll benefit. Don't say, "Your donation will help us grow our nonprofit." Instead say, "Your donation will help build playgrounds for children this summer."

3)  Use active verbs. Asking people to "think about" or "reflect" on a topic is fine for a walk in the woods, but not a speech. Be assertive. Tell them to vote or volunteer. Write a check or swipe their card. Check on their elderly neighbor, launch a neighborhood carpool, or storm the castle walls. (Maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.)  

4)  Make it easy.  If you're asking folks to volunteer, pass around a sign up list. If you’re asking them to write to their Senator, give them postcards to sign & mail. We're all pressed for time, so make it convenient for people to take action. Said differently, reduce hurdles that would prevent them from heeding your Call to Action.

Next time you’re giving a speech, don’t get stuck. Figure out your Call to Action and then work backward to build a persuasive argument. Starting at the end is often the best way to begin.

Want to learn more tips and tricks of great speakers? Please click here and scroll down to subscribe. -- Rose

The Dole Stroll -- Tips & Tricks of Great Speakers

Try the Dole Stroll

At the 1996 Republican convention, Elizabeth Dole was asked to introduce her husband who was then running for President. Her job was to "humanize" him and she used a masterful (but simple) technique to do so. She left the stage, walked among the audience, and talked about her husband in a personal, thoughtful way.   (Full speech here.)  

Take a minute to watch what was ever-after called, "The Dole Stroll." (Start clip at 1 min/15 sec)

Now, what the video doesn't capture is twofold. First, the Dole Stroll was highly choreographed. She hugs a man in a wheel chair, an African American cop, and others. Each time the crowd roars its applause. It's her "Save the Cat" moment for sure. Second, Elizabeth Dole stole the show that night. All the major news anchors covering the event went wild with praise for this "new" technique.  Sometimes using the stage differently than done in the past makes all the difference in the world. 

Your Take-Away

To do the Dole Stroll, leave the stage & walk among your audience members. Best time to try it? When you're telling a personal story. [Photo Credit: Christian Fregnan]

To do the Dole Stroll, leave the stage & walk among your audience members. Best time to try it? When you're telling a personal story. [Photo Credit: Christian Fregnan]

1)  Are you using a highly personal, moving story in your presentation? Would it break down a barrier if you moved into the audience? If so, give The Dole Stroll a try. 

2) Has the audience been sitting there listening to speaker after speaker from a big stage? Again, maybe The Dole Stroll will set you apart (and wake up the audience!).


If You Use The Dole Stroll

1) Have a handheld, backup mic ready to use. Lavaliers can go dead outside a certain range. I've talked to Elizabeth Dole personally about that night. She told me she had 3 handheld mics on the floor -- and needed to use two of them!

2) Before you speak, tell the event organizers that you plan to leave the stage. They may need to bring up the house lights or, if there's a spotlight, adjust it to follow you. Your speech will go better if the production folks know in advance what you're up to.

3) Use a transition to get you on and off the stage. Check out the video again to see how Elizabeth Dole did it.

Want to learn more "tips and tricks" of great speakers? Please scroll down to subscribe. Thanks! -- Rose