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 (rose@rosespeechwriter.com)

Speaking to a Disparate Audience

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

Good question.

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

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

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

1.     faculty and staff;

2.     parents and family members; and

3.     graduates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large or Small: Audience Size Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Science Behind the Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Speaking & Your Career

[Photo credit: Brandan Church]

[Photo credit: Brandan Church]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Lose to the Snooze

[Photo Credit: Lance Anderson]

[Photo Credit: Lance Anderson]

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of emphasis cues include:

  • My point is ...

  • I’ll sum up by saying …

  • What I learned at that moment was …

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

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

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

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