Sunday, May 31, 2009

May blooms with our top 10 tips

May burst forth with lots of speaking engagements on my calendar, and a new series on the blog about top women speakers of today (about which more below). Among the other blooming topics on the blog are introductions, pauses and silences, listening to questions, and making the case for speaker training and practicing on video. I also share with you an experience in speaker flexibility from one of my own speaking gigs this month! Read on to find the most popular posts from May:

  1. When you have to introduce a speaker, it's an opportunity. This month's most popular post gives you 5 ways to boost your intros of others. Don't forget: An introduction is just a brief way to show your speaking skills.

  2. Wonder whether you're talking too much as a speaker? Pretend I'm in your audience, and hear the 7 reasons I want speakers to talk less.

  3. When the speech hands you lemons....You can plan and practice, but a top speaker has to be ready for conditions on the ground to change. I got that reminder firsthand in May, a busy month in my speaking schedule. Read about how I made lemonade out of a lemon of a speaking situation, with lots of help from my hosts and audience.

  4. Do you dismiss video practice? Some trainees in my group sessions do, thinking they don't need it if they won't be on TV. They, and you, may be missing 9 opportunities to improve as a speaker using video, and it's easier to access than you think.

  5. Need to make the case to get training as a speaker? Give your boss (or yourself, if you're the boss) these 6 reasons why training makes even more sense in these tough economic times.

  6. Where are the top current women speakers? A reader wrote in this question after finding plenty of video and text of historic woman speakers, but few for current-day speakers. Join the many readers who have responded to my call for video of today's top women speakers, and vote in the poll on my blog. So far, the candidates suggested by readers fall into these categories....

  7. Women in politics who are top current speakers: Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and First Lady Michelle Obama are among the candidates suggested as top women speakers. I've got video and analysis of three of their recent speeches at the links underscoring their names, so you can learn from their gestures, language and approaches.

  8. Inspirational women who are top current speakers: Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori and Stacy Allison, businesswoman and mountain-climber, are frequent speakers with different presentation styles. Learn how they use them to move their audiences from the pulpit to the profit-making world.

  9. Women in science, technology and health who are top current speakers: Scientist Carolyn Bertozzi and disability advocate and athlete Aimee Mullins, an amputee, take us into explorations of our bodies in very different ways--from how sugars help the health of your body in Bertozzi's case to how 12 types of prosthetic legs help Mullins move. At the same time, they demonstrate how technological topics can create personal connections with an audience.

  10. Active listening to audience questions: Via the Power Presentations blog, here's a tip from President Obama on an effective way to listen intently to your audience's questions--all the while buying time to think of an answer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

top women speakers? Carolyn Bertozzi

I've spent much of my career working with scientists and training them to translate their work from the technical to the approachable for public audiences. So when reader Beth Schachter suggested this video of a lecture by chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, a University of California-Berkeley professor and director of its molecular foundry, I was especially pleased. With the appealing title "Sugars are actually good for you," the talk doesn't shy away from technical terms or diagrams on slides, but they're always explained in clear and simple terms. Along the way, Bertozzi manages to describe how scientists actually work, how they see the structures they're studying, and why you should care. When she explains lactose, for example, she asks how many people are lactose intolerant--then adds, "So am I." (She also notes that she's included some chemical structures in her slides for those in the audience who understand them and might appreciate them--a nice nod to a situation many scientists face, with experts and non-experts in their audiences, and a warm way of including them in her talk without letting the technical dominate her remarks.)

All that use of approachable language helps bridge the gap between the technical expert and the non-technical audience, a gap that proves insurmountable for many scientists attempting to communicate with public audiences. At the same time, Bertozzi won me over at the start by moving to one side of the lectern so her audience could see her. She uses the lectern in one of the many ways I recommend you do, simply as something to rest her elbow or hand on. It's a relaxed stance, and a relaxed delivery as a result--but it also subtly removes a barrier between scientist and audience, as if to say, "Really, we can just talk about this--it's not too technical to understand." When explaining the minute differences in cell surface sugars that determine your blood type, she notes that the differences "are insignificant to a chemist," but have dramatic effects on your immune system. She peppers the talk with analogies, a great tool for translating the technical: enzymes are like scissors, a virus comes down onto a cell like a lunar landing module. Gestures underscore those images--she's not relying on her slides to carry the day.

Related posts: Lecterns: Use 'em or lose 'em

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

top women speakers? Jennifer Granholm

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was nominated for our list of top current-day women speakers by Karl Leif Bates, who says she "rocks the house with nary a note!" Strong words for a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general! Fortunately, the governor offers a range of videos on her Facebook page and official web page.

I especially liked a speech that's typical of a governor's repertoire, and that's hard to pull off--not because it's difficult, but because it might seem too pro forma. It's a speech in which her sole job was to "announce an up to $1 billion expansion of Hemlock Semiconductor in the Saginaw Valley area, creating up to 576 jobs. Hemlock Semiconductor is the world's leading producer of polycrystalline silicon, the stuff that makes solar panels work."  It's a speech-type that requires the thanking of many people--a task that often leaves the rest of the audience impatient to hear real content--and some hopeful words about what the new funding/building/road/community center will bring to the people of the state. Shake hands, cut ribbon, smile for cameras, repeat.

And in other hands, that might be boring. But Granholm does rock the house, using three essential speaker tools--energy, gestures and vocal variety--to make the speech sing. She's by nature an enthusiastic and energetic speaker, which goes a long way toward holding your attention. That energy is underscored with well-controlled gestures and vocalizing that emphasizes key words, accomplishments and sentiments. Watch her gesturing as a tool to learn how to do it well. Granholm uses a wide range of gestures to convey movement, direction, excitement, scope. Nearly every one of them is above the lectern and well within viewing range. Then close your eyes and listen to the audio here: She varies pitch, tone, pacing and word "pops" for emphasis, throughout the speech. Her thank-you list may be the best-paced and most genuinely worded such list I've heard in a long time; she makes you feel as if she knows nearly everyone on it, and when she doesn't, she works in how she's looking forward to meeting him.

That last factor, the genuine sound of her excitement, can't be bought or taught. Speakers who can speak from real passion will always put their points across more effectively and create a stronger bond with their audiences. And that bond, that ability to persuade, is a key factor in creating an eloquent speech.

Related posts: Using gestures effectively

Women speakers in politics

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

top women speakers? Michelle Obama

"Communities and countries and ultimately the world are only as strong as the health of their women...part of that health includes an outstanding education." That's First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking in April 2009, at a London girls' school with a plea to them to pursue education as a path to opportunity. TED has just issued this speech as part of its "Best of the Web" series of speeches, and it gives me the chance to add Obama to our growing list of top current women speakers.

In this appearance, Obama does a mix of speaking from text and speaking extemporaneously, and it's clear that the latter is her strong suit. She's said before that her campaign stump speeches were effortless because she was telling family stories she knew well, a tool she has in common with other top women speakers and uses to effect in this speech. She also demonstrates a deft touch with her audience of young schoolgirls, tailoring her remarks on education in ways that make her seem like someone who's been in their shoes. With lines like "I thought being smart was cooler than anything in the world," describing her own school habits, she's at once leveling the gap between student and First Lady and subtly underscoring where you can go with a devotion to learning. Both factors combine to create her decidedly conversational approach--and if you're a speaker, one of the best types of feedback you can get will be "that felt more like a conversation than a lecture." Another contributor to the connection: Her willingness to share personal details and perspectives, not only about herself and her views, but those of her husband, daughters, and mother, all of whom are mentioned here.

Related posts about Michelle Obama and public speaking

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

top women speakers? Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins is on our burgeoning list of today's top women speakers because reader Beth Schachter asked her friends for suggestions. Her fellow Toastmaster Merry Beekman came forward with Mullins, who has spoken twice at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, which generously makes videos available for its talks.

This talk, "Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs," puts a dozen unusual prosthetic legs on stage with Mullins, whose own legs were amputated below the knee in infancy, as she was born without fibular bones. From her bio:
She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run -- competing at the national and international level as a champion sprinter, and setting world records at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. At Georgetown, where she double-majored in history and diplomacy, she became the first double amputee to compete in NCAA Division 1 track and field.
She has gone on to model and act, but has become a visible proponent of advances in prosthetics.

In this talk, Mullins uses some of the techniques already noted from our top women speakers of today. She moves around the stage, using the space and her props--the prosthetics--to underscore her points and illustrate the slides further. Notice how she keeps her arms where they can be instantly useful for gesturing, bent at the elbow; it's also a relaxed look that keeps her hands free, which helps her delivery. She focuses on telling personal stories, another key to speaking without notes.

What's fascinating, too, about this talk is its discussion of beauty and disability. Mullins tackles it, and so do the commenters on this TED page featuring her speech. Here's a sample:
Such a brilliant athlete and spokeswoman for the differently abled gets it, but then why did she pose as a half-naked cat? It's ridiculous. She doesn't need photos like that to make her beautiful, and she should not seek acceptance from the skin-deep fashion industry to prove her beauty. All it said to me was that yes, even women without legs can be heavily objectified. The same industry she is so happy to be accepted in is the one that helped make her feel different in the first place! Everyone commenting on this speech admires Ms. Mullins for her true beauty, and I am afraid the mixed message of the photo shoot is trying to take credit for it. I%u2019d like to see a picture of her, fully clothed, without any prosthetics on- that would be a bold, beautiful move.

Is she helping push the diversity of what we consider beautiful, or becoming objectified? Whatever your view, she's a compelling speaker.

Related posts:

What should I do with my hands?

Another eloquent woman on disability

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

top women speakers? Hillary Clinton

Responding to my call for the top women speakers of today, reader Beth Schacter responded, "I suspect you already have Hillary [Clinton] on your list but I would like to reinforce that vote. She spoke at the Barnard graduation and my neighbor, a Barnard faculty member, was absolutely breathless in her enthusiasm for Hilliary's inspirational speech. My neighbor implied that Secretary Clinton's speech brought the entire house to both cheers and tears."

In fact, Secretary Clinton has long ranked as one of just a handful of women speakers--and even fewer women speakers of today--on the list of the 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century. That's due to her speech as First Lady at the United Nations' fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Titled "Women's Rights are Human Rights," which you can hear, see and read by following the link. It included this reminder, which includes women's right to speech:
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely -- and the right to be heard.
At the time of her U.N. speech, Clinton had revitalized the White House Council on Women, on which I was honored to serve. Her focus on putting women's issues front and center was widely lauded during her time as First Lady, but this speech--with all the rhetorical flourishes and formalities that you'd expect in a plenary speech before a delegation convened by the U.N.--was perhaps the most visible of those efforts. As I've noted before, when women speakers take the time to address women's issues, there's a special resonance and meaning underscoring their words, and this speech certainly offers a good example of that, causing a major stir at the time of its delivery.

Fast forward to this year and Barnard's 2009 commencement. You can go here to see video and read the text of Secretary Clinton's message to the graduates. This speech, to my mind, shows a bit of what Clinton has learned over the past two decades: She confesses she was startled by the world's reaction to her statement in 1995 that women's rights are human rights, because she took that for granted. In her Barnard speech, she takes the time to unpack the idea that the graduates might've taken for granted, that there's little they can do to change the world, giving them simple steps they can take using "social networking tools that you use every day to tell people you've gone to get a latte or you're going to be running late."

She concludes this speech tying herself, her mother, and her daughter to the graduates as if in one long chain of women makign a difference, a rousing conclusion:
As I was listening to Sarah Besnoff's address and how she was talking about her mother, I had to smile because I often say that in my next life I'm going to come back as my daughter. And I felt a remarkable kinship with Sarah's mother and with other mothers of my generation and those who came before, like my own mother, who was born before women could vote, that no matter how satisfying our lives have been, how we have put together pieces that add up to a whole that is so important to us and has given meaning to this journey we are on, we look at young women and we think to ourselves: This is a future that women in the history of the world have never been able to imagine, that you leave here empowered in a way that women and girls have never been before. It's exciting, but it's daunting. But I know you're up to it.
Clinton also should serve as a great example to women speakers, someone whose skills have developed with years of practice and training--something you should consider.

Related posts on Hillary Clinton

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz. (Photos of Clinton from Barnard College and television screen grab)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

9 not-to-miss reasons for video practice

Do you really need video practice to speak well? What if you're never going to be on TV? That seems to be the assumption I've encountered in a couple of recent workshops I've led on communications skills and speaking, where several young women have noted on their feedback forms that they didn't find the video practice useful "because I'll never be on camera in my work."

But I'd say to any would-be speaker: Take any opportunity you can to practice on video, even if it's on your own. You don't need to practice on video every time, but it's a great aid to the speaker, and easier than ever to do. Here are my reasons you should consider adding video practice to your speaker preparations:

  1. You'll see whether you actually look as nervous as you feel. One of the most striking experiences my trainees have in our sessions is learning that they don't, in fact, look as nervous as they their opinion and in the views of others. After all, fear is a feeling, not an expression--at least, not all the time. It's a real confidence-builder to find that out.
  2. You can see yourself. It's the one thing a speaker can't do while she's speaking. Here is what your audience sees.
  3. You can review over and over. The actual act of speaking is the work of a moment, but video lets you practice and go back to your hiccups and hesitations, as well as your fine successes, with the goal of eradicating bad habits and building better ones. Figure out what to keep and what to expel from your repertoire of skills.
  4. You can see your visual "ums": Visual ums work the same way as verbal ones, as a pause to give you time to think. But they involve an inadvertent visual--you look away from the audience, or up into the sky, or at the ground--while you are thinking. In most cases, speakers aren't aware they're using this tactic, unless they see it on video.
  5. You can hear and see your verbal ums. Video's great for capturing the minor speech disfluencies you may not notice while you're speaking, such as ums, uhs, or other repetitive phrases and breaks. The recording also will help you recall what you were thinking of in that moment, so you can break down the process and come up with better alternatives.
  6. You can find out how you gesture--or don't. If you haven't focused on your gestures, you may not realize that they're out of sight of the audience--below the level of the lectern, say, or out of camera range if you are on television. Likewise, you may be gesturing too much, which aids the fluency of your speech, but may make you look like a windmill. Or you may not be gesturing at all, or having trouble with where to put your hands. Only a video feedback session will tell.
  7. No one likes how they look, but you can learn from it. Even professionals who are on-camera every day don't like how they look and sound, so join the club. But learn from your video presence. Are you projecting well? Holding your body still and with good posture? Are your hair/outfit/face/jewelry distracting from or enhancing your words? Any time you are recorded on video, you'll learn something.
  8. Don't be surprised if you do wind up on video someday: With the explosion in online video viewing, you may well be called upon in your work to do an interview for posting on the web, or a media interview. Why not be ready for anything? Your video presence requires different skills than does an in-person speaking session, and practice will help you learn the difference.
  9. It's easy, and often free: Can't afford training? You can still practice on video on your own. Use one of the inexpensive Flip video cameras, use a web camera built into your laptop, or practice by calling your friends and family on a web-based phone service like Skype. Ask your friends to wield a Flip camera unobtrusively while you speak in public.

Related posts:

How to replace your visual ums

More information on Flip video cameras

More about using gestures

top women speakers? Stacy Allison

In my call for video examples of today's top women speakers, The Sweeney Agency, which represents speakers, suggested Stacy Allison, calling her "a powerful, inspiring speaker, always a delight." Allison is president of a residential building company in Portland, Oregon, and more famously, a mountain climber and the first American woman to climb Everest, as well as peaks in Pakistan and Russia. She's described her adventures in Beyond the Limits: A Woman's Triumph on Everest and in Many Mountains to Climb: Reflections on Competence, Courage, and Commitment.

You can see Allison in action in this promotional video for her speaking engagements, which highlight her dynamic style: speaking without notes or a lectern, she uses body movement and gestures to emphasize her points in a dynamic way, along with her voice, favoring an enthusiastic delivery suited to an inspirational speaker. It's fitting that she underscores her themes--risk-taking and facing challenges--by taking risks and tackling challenges as a speaker. As I've noted before, telling personal stories, stories you know backwards and forwards, helps you as a speaker. Because she recalls her stories and doesn't need notes, she's freed from the lectern and able to focus on enhancing her speech with gestures, movement and vocal variety.

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz. (Photo of Allison from the Sweeney Agency.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

top women speakers? K. Jefforts Schori

In response to my call for your nominees for top current women speakers--with video, so we can share their examples--reader CorrinneAM suggested Katharine Jefforts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the first woman in that role.

Bishop Jefforts Schori was ordained in 1994, following a career as an oceanographer; she's also a licensed pilot. Today, she is "chief pastor to the Episcopal Church’s 2.4 million members in 16 countries and 110 dioceses," according to her official biography.

We're fortunate that the church is generous in sharing audio and video of its presiding bishop, as well as texts of her sermons and speeches. From March 6, 2009, there's a sermon honoring the 20-year groundbreaking ministry of Bishop Barbara Harris, bishop suffragan of Massachusetts. In it, Bishop Jefforts Schori weaves stories about herself to set up metaphors, analogies and examples that help her describe the honoree and her work advancing help for women and girls in communities around the world. To conjure Bishop Harris's struggles, starting in the Jim Crow South, she begins telling stories of climbing hills in her own childhood; to suggest the path forward, she speaks of doors that are closed, then opened. Humor laces the speech, along with active verbs that give it a strength and power it might otherwise lack. Quoting the honoree about breaking ground as a woman celebrant, she noted Harris's remark that the effort was "like eating an elephant, one bite at a time." Noting that there are more strides to be made for women in the church, Bishop Jefforts Schori then quips: "My friends, that elephant needs to be on more menus."

While having to stick to the lectern is limiting, Bishop Jefforts Schori makes full use of her non-verbal tools to command that small space: She wears a strong color in her robes; gestures above the height of the lectern (generally with her right hand); looks to all sections of her audience; and uses facial expressions, vocalizing and her eyes to add to an active appearance in a sermon spoken from one spot. By using all the visual and verbal options available to her, the limited stance and space become more like a frame for her sermon. Finally, while she's reading from a text--typical when you are honoring someone and want to get your words right--her opening remarks are spoken with only a few glances at her notes. They're spoken directly to the honoree, and from the heart.

Special note: If your speaking includes a ministry, check out Words Fitly Spoken: Public Speaking for Women in Ministry, a book tailored just to your specific speaking needs.

About this series: One of my readers noted he was having trouble finding examples (especially on video) of top women speakers of today--plenty from the past, few from today. So I'm working to compile a list of the top 10 women speakers. Please send me your nominees! I'm looking for nominees from the present day, particularly those for which video examples can be found. You can mention your nominee and any video links in the comments below; send them to me on Twitter; or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

(Official photo of the bishop from the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

where are top current women speakers?

Trainer Jess Todtfeld wrote to me to say, "I have been looking more closely for video of great female speakers. I am really surprised how many sites point to women of the past and not enough to the present." I agree with Jess: Examples--especially visual ones--of outstanding modern female speakers are sorely lacking. This could be about a lack of video, but I doubt it. I've observed before that lists like the "top 100 American political speeches," only a handful of women appear--and even fewer are our contemporaries. (On that list, only Barbara Jordan makes it to the top 10.)

So here's a call for good video examples: If you've got an eloquent woman speaker at your organization, or are a fan of a particular speech that demonstrates what current women can do as speakers, please submit video of her to info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz, or use the comments to tell us where to find it. I'll do some searching, too. Please feel free to share this request with others! I'll post the examples and am hoping we will find enough to compile our own list. No limits: These can be famous, infamous or relatively unknown speakers, but do add a few words to let us know why you think they are particularly eloquent examples.

Related posts:

All my posts on Barbara Jordan

Friday, May 15, 2009

speakers: 7 reasons I want you to talk less

You’d think public speaking would be all about, well, the speaking. Yet the most powerful speakers know that silence, pauses and the all-too-underrated skill of brevity—can be their most important tools. Speakers who use them strategically get and keep my attention, and those who don't tend to lose me in the torrent of words. When I'm in the audience, here are my 7 reasons I’d like speakers to talk less:

1. I bore easily. And I'm not alone. Attention spans are short, and speakers start losing audience attention precipitously after the first few minutes of a talk or presentation—unless they work to keep it. But even the best speaker benefits from keeping it short and moving to a question and answer session.
2. I want to engage in a conversation with you. For that to happen, you have to stop talking at some point. I’m not here for a lecture, and ironically, I’ll learn more if you let me participate.
3. I have questions. I want to be able to ask them. If you don’t leave time for me to check an assumption or get more information you didn’t cover, I may leave your talk frustrated instead of animated.
4. I don't want your voice to fill up all the space and time allotted. Just as print designers use white space to make the rest of the copy easy on the eyes and broadcasters use long shots and music for a visual pause and transition, you can use silence and pauses to create emphasis and drama--and give my ears a bit of a break.
5. I want to be able to ponder what you just said. Pausing lets your points sink in, and may lead to better understanding, more intelligent questions and a more satisfied audience.
6. I’ll retain more. Give me up to three key points to ponder—then stop. I’ll remember them better, and so will you. Save some for another time if you feel you’ve got a lot to say.
7. I don’t want you to make me late for something else. I have a short list of speakers who won’t see me again in their audiences because they spoke longer than the time allotted or didn’t curtail their comments enough to allow questions—and, in a couple of cases, expected the audience to sit past the stated ending time. That's a presumption you can't afford to make with me.
Speakers also benefit from speaking less, gaining better audience engagement, a more thoughtful appearance and, best of all, the sense that you're neither rushed nor nervous. (Pauses give you more time to breathe and remember where you are, too.) Just as with gestures, props and other tools, you need to plan for these pauses and silences so that they work for you.

UPDATE: This post made it into Andrew Dlugan's Six Minutes blog weekly review of the best public speaking tips and techniques. I'm always pleased to be included in this weekly roundup and recommend you check out the other excellent posts.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

when the speech hands you lemons...

I’m always coaching speakers to plan ahead, then be ready for anything on the ground. That's two different mindsets: One to get ready, rehearsing for the ideal; two, to toss that out the window and take what the situation brings. And I got a big taste of that last night in a talk I gave in New York City.

I arrived and learned that the room booked for the event was under construction, a fact omitted from all the booking conversations the organizers had had. (They'd in fact learned of it just within the hour.) The only available space was essentially a storefront space in the same building, nearly too small for the group, with tables and chairs packed in tight rows, and windows to the street so any passerby could watch us, if they cared to. Forget great lighting, and think street noise. Unlike the original space, this room also lacked a lectern, microphone, or projection. (Yes, I had slides.) Everything had to be rigged, from setting up refreshments to registering attendees. We'd planned to videotape the presentation, which involved putting a lavalier mic with a very long cord on me and putting the videographer in one of the storefront window bays. Electrical outlets were at a premium, and so was space at the front of the room. At one point, I thought I might have to stand in front of my slides. There’d been just enough notice of the room change that an organizer was able to bring a projector from his office, and it wasn’t quite compatible with my laptop—what were the odds of that happening?--so we had to prop up the cord to make sure the connection with the computer didn’t fail. One good jostle would’ve killed the slides, we feared. And, given the few electrical outlets, I had three kinds of cords at my feet, perfect for tripping over. (Yes, I was wearing high heels.)

And here’s what happened: What sounds like a speaking disaster turned out to be a great speaking experience, for me and for the audience. Turns out that getting a taste of “be ready for anything” last night was more like lemonade than lemons to me. In fact, I’m still smiling about it, and getting lots of compliments and good feedback from the audience and the organizers.

How’d that happen? Here’s the speaker’s take:
The organizers chose a timely topic and knew their audience was motivated: Many in the audience were worried about or affected by shifting employment conditions, or work independently and want to ramp up their marketing. Many, too, are adjusting to using social media as a networking and marketing tool, so they had lots of questions. That’s a powerful impetus to stay the course, even in a too-tight space. I’d have to say this audience was one of my most attentive, for which I take absolutely no credit—they had reason to want to hear the information, and the organizers knew that when they approached me with the topic.
The audience brought it. And by “it,” I mean questions. Yes, this is a group of writers and reporters and folks who aren’t shy about asking people things in public settings. (One of the organizers nicely asked whether I’d allow questions during my presentation, and my reaction was, “Of course. How would we stop them?”) They had challenging questions for me, and no amount of jerry-rigged wiring was going to stop that from happening.
The organizers are great team--and great turnaround artists. This group’s a close-knit network, and it showed last night. Several board members split up the tasks at hand and pitched in to figure out solutions, including bringing a projector and figuring out how to handle the patchwork of audio-visual equipment. As a speaker, if I’m going to run into problems, this is the group I want at my back.
I take my own advice and prepare: I knew my material, and had developed a brief message—four points on which they could focus—that served as my outline. If push came to shove, I could speak without the slides. The message meant I wasn’t using a script, so who needed a lectern, anyway?

In Washington, I hang with a lot of professionals who are frequent speakers, meeting planners and event-throwers, and it’s common for folks to leave events like this one running down everything that went wrong and tsk-tsking about it. In this case, no one had the time or inclination to do that, least of all me. Participants hung around to ask questions and help with putting the room to rights, and the organizers took me out for a convivial dinner. People were calm, nice, flexible and willing to make it work—as opposed to panicky, complaining, regretful or anxious. And that’s what made this a sweet, not sour, experience for me.

The group—Science Writers in New York—plans to upload video of the presentation soon, and I’ll update this post when they do so you can see how we did under, er, adaptive conditions. Speakers, if they call you, accept the invitation. I'm especially grateful to the SWINY board members who came up with the topic, invited me, gathered a great crowd and made me feel at ease and at home.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

hat tip: Six Minutes

When Six Minutes, Andrew Dlugan's blog on speaking and presentation skills, does its weekly roundup of top public speaking articles, I'm always delighted to be included. This week, he points to my post on tips for introducing another speaker. Take a look at his list of posts to read this week for a varied and useful array of the best public speaking bloggers. Thanks, Andrew!

Friday, May 8, 2009

memo to boss: 8 reasons I need training

In these tough economic times, you may be hesitating to ask your boss for training in public speaking and presentation skills. Here's my "memo to the boss" about why investing in speaker training's one of the best professional development investments you can make. (If you're a boss, it's even more important for leaders--so consider this a reminder list to yourself, in that case.)
  1. Right now, we can't afford to miss out on opportunities to make our case. I want to be sure I'm as effective as possible so we can continue to hold our own in winning [the budget fight/new donations/an increase in funding/the right to name our own cuts/the legislation we need/a chance to improve our base].
  2. Few training options are as versatile as speaker training, which can help me in one-on-one meetings, group meetings, in-house presentations, external communications, speeches, investor or donor presentations, customer relations, chance encounters with the CEO in an elevator, and much more. I'll be briefer and more organized when I'm communicating with you, too.
  3. Women often get fewer opportunities in public speaking, so I need the training even more. Consider it a diversity training, if you will. (Need some backup? Explain why women today have trouble getting on the program at major conferences, and have done for centuries.)
  4. If you want to advance more women to management roles, public speaking skills are essential for leadership and influence, internally and externally.
  5. I'm interested in advancing and have identified this as a skill I need to develop. I think this will help me in supervising, communicating and representing our division and company internally and externally.
  6. I'd specifically like to improve skills in [choose one, many or all]: extemporaneous speaking, handling questions and answers, media interviews, what I wear when I present, using humor in presentations, vocalizing, using gestures, delivering a long speech, delivering a short speech, using slides and technology effectively, working on my confidence as a speaker, getting ready for [insert specific major presentation or speech here], persuasive speaking.
  7. I want to find new ways to incorporate our organization's message in our external and internal presentations. We need to be more consistent and effective, and I'd like to develop ways to do that, starting with my own presentations.
  8. Really, our entire team could do a better job presenting. I'd like to be the first to try, and give you some suggestions for what we can do better as a group.
When it comes to professional development, most managers welcome it when you actively identify your skills-building needs. Why wait for someone else to define them? Here's my bonus tip: Investing in your speaking skills first makes it easier for you to make your case for developing other skills later. For information on my individual or group coaching or training, email me at inf0[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

when you introduce a speaker: take 5

Whether you're looking for another stepping-stone to practice your speaking, or you're an experienced speaker tapped to do the honors, chances are you'll wind up introducing other speakers at some point. Intros offer a chance for you to shine as a speaker in a short amount of time, and can lead to more invitations to speak. Here's the trouble: Introductions are among the most common and least-well-done aspects of public speaking. I can't tell you how often, as a speaker, I've had the person introducing me say, "Oh, I forgot to bring your bio, so I'll just say your name--how do you pronouce that again?--and then you just launch into it," or listened to them read my credentials without looking up once. Just like skipping breakfast, a weak intro is not the way to set up a speaker properly for what's to come. Instead of serving up a low-calorie version of an introduction, why not add some fiber and nutritional value with these five tips?
    1. Don't put it together at the last minute: Just as you normally don't want to give an impromptu speech, avoid crafting an impromptu introduction. You'll do better by your speaker if you take the time to jot down thoughts a few weeks ahead, revisiting them before you get to the event, and again just before you speak.
    2. Do ask the speaker for input: I advise speakers to take charge of their own introductions, including having a suite of intros suitable for many occasions. But in case your speaker doesn't (and even if she does), arrange for a short call in advance to find out more about her personal experience with the topic, what she'd like to emphasize, what's especially interesting to her about this group, or other details you can use to make the intro meatier. And yes, ask her how to pronounce her name.
    3. Don't read the bio: Reading an introduction is no better than reading a speech--and belies your lack of preparation. Remember: Audience interest is highest at the start of any talk, and you are the start of this one. So reward your audience by looking at it, and by delivering an engaging, lively introduction that packs a punch.
    4. Do add some perspective of your own: When you're standing up front to introduce a speaker, you're in effect building a chance to connect the audience with the speaker. So put yourself in that equation. Just this week, a lovely introduction of one of my speeches noted one of my awards--and the introducer added that a good friend of hers was the current holder of that prize, so she knew just what accomplishments it reflected. That kind of line holds an audience's attention precisely because it's not read off the sheet, and no one else can share it but you. (Makes the speaker feel great, too.)
    5. Don't skimp: Saying someone needs no introduction is a cop-out. Set the stage. Share some context. Even the most familiar speaker deserves some words to warm the audience to the task at hand....and if you skimp on an introduction, you're just missing your own opportunity to show your speaking skills.

Monday, May 4, 2009

how to listen to audience questions

On the Power Presentations blog, Jerry Weissman offers this thoughtful lesson you can cull from President Obama's recent prime-time news conference: How to listen to audience questions. In the world of fielding questions and answers, we often focus too much on what we want to say and not enough on the question. Not so the president. When asked a multi-part question --“During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?” -- Weissman notes that Obama:
...immediately reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a pen and said, “Let me write this down,” producing a wave of laughter from the crowd gathered in the East Room of the White House...[he] carefully listened to the question, confirmed that he had listened by restating what he heard, and then re-confirmed by writing what he heard, sending a clear message of his attentiveness.
That kind of attention, as Weissman notes, sends a powerful, confident message to your audience, adding considerably to your credibility as a speaker--and means you'll do a better job actually answering the question. Similar to my favorite time-buying phrases to use when you don't know what to say, the technique also gives you time to think about your answer.