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“The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.”
— Marcus Aurelius
The moments before a speech or presentation can be stressful. But what is it like moments before addressing hundreds of millions of people on television? I just discovered this fascinating video clip that provides some answers.
The video captures the final minutes before President Bill Clinton’s address to the nation in 1993. The person who posted it on YouTube claims that he had a ten-foot satellite dish and the best descrambler at the time. With this equipment, he was apparently able to hack into the feed from the Oval Office just minutes before Clinton spoke live to the nation. It is very interesting to watch.
In the clip, we see a somewhat annoyed Clinton looking over his script, checking the microphone, asking questions about the teleprompter and cameras, and putting up with a determined make-up girl. With everything at stake, it’s understandable that even a seasoned speaker like Clinton would be stressed. (I particularly enjoyed George Stephanopolous leaning into the shot at 1:43. An unintended precursor to photobombing?)
So yes, even presidents and other dignitaries have to rehearse, check their appearance, and make sure all of the technical logistics are working before they speak. We are all in the same boat.
“Most people are more deeply influenced by one clear, vivid, personal example than by an abundance of statistical data.”
— Elliot Aronson
Actually, it’s several phrases, but they all amount to the same thing.
Over the years, I have worked with many students in MBA and Executive MBA programmes across Europe. In one of my classes a couple of years ago, a bright young fellow was giving his formal presentation about his business idea. The presentation (and the idea) were very good.
At one point, he made an analogy with the movie, Titanic. He raised the issue by saying, “Now, we’ve all seen Titanic …”. Besides me, there were 21 students in the audience.
During the feedback session, I asked the class, “How many of you have not seen Titanic?” Seven hands went up. One third of the audience. This was a classic example of a phrase to avoid when speaking in public. Yet I hear these expressions all the time.
I am referring to phrases in which the speaker assumes (or presumes) that everyone in the audience knows, or has done, something. Phrases like:
- We’ve all seen / heard / done …
- As you undoubtedly know …
- As everyone knows …
The reason you should avoid these kinds of phrases is because maybe I don’t know / haven’t heard / didn’t realize. Maybe I haven’t seen Titanic. And by presuming that I have, maybe you’ve just unintentionally insulted me.
Of course, people will not necessarily feel insulted, but some might. Why alienate them when there is a simple alternative?
Instead of presuming that everyone is on the exact same wavelength as you, say:
- Perhaps you’ve seen …
- As you may know …
- There’s a story in the news you may have heard …
The difference is subtle but significant. You are now acknowledging that people might not know everything you know. (The reverse is also true, by the way!) In this day of massive information overload, we simply don’t have time to be up to speed on every single issue. So be sure to explain the subject in sufficient detail so that those hearing about it for the first time don’t get lost.
Can you ever presume that everyone in the audience knows the particular point you are making? Sure, in obvious situations:
- As we all know, Bill is retiring this week after 25 years of loyal service …
- As you know, sleep is a basic human need …
- As we know, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west …
But if the situation is obvious, why not dispense with the superfluous “As you know”? Indeed, the phrase can be abandoned even when the audience might not know the subject.
- Titanic is the story about the only voyage of a fated ship …
- After 25 years of loyal service, Bill is retiring this week …
- Have you ever wondered why we need to sleep every day? …
- The sun may rise in the east and set in the west, but today I want to talk about the north and the south …
- There’s a story in the news that caught my attention. It’s about …
It is always helpful to anchor your (new) ideas to something with which the audience is familiar. That is why metaphors and analogies are so powerful. Just be sure to introduce the subject in a way that takes into account those who may be unfamiliar with it.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
— John Steinbeck in East of Eden
Let’s be honest. There have been times when you checked your smartphone while sitting in the audience during a presentation. Maybe you were waiting for a message; maybe you were checking up on an important matter; maybe you just wanted to check the time. But you’ve done it. I know I have. It happens all the time.
Yet for many of us, when the shoe is on the other foot—when we are the ones on stage and we look out and see people looking at their phone screens—it bothers us. It shouldn’t. We live in a digital age and if you are going to present, you are going to have to get used to seeing smartphones and tablets in the audience.
Here are some tips to help you deal with the reality of mobile devices:
1. Don’t overthink things.
You might think that people are looking at their phones because they are not interested in what you are saying. Well, you might be right. It’s not ideal, but it happens. Especially in large audiences. You will not hold everyone’s attention all the time. (For ideas on how to keep your audience engaged, check out this post and also the final point below.)
But there could be other reasons. That woman to your left? She might be waiting to hear news about a big deal she has been working on for the past three months that could make or break her career. That fellow in the front row? Maybe his child was up all night with a fever and he is just checking in with his wife to see how things are. That woman to your right? Why, she might be on Twitter writing something like “Awesome presentation on [subject] by [@yourname]. #conferencename”
The fact is, you cannot be sure why people are on their mobile devices. So don’t worry about it. Instead, get over yourself and focus on your presentation and the people who are paying attention. If your material and delivery are good, the people who are texting or reading will, in all likelihood, come back.
2. Don’t ask people to put their mobile devices away.
I have seen speakers start their presentation by asking the audience members to put their mobile devices away. Bad move. It can alienate people and make you come across as condescending. And it usually doesn’t work. In extreme cases, they might react like this:
Note that the situation is different for events such as theatrical performances when the room is dark and the glow on the screen distracting. In such cases, people should be asked to put their devices away before the show begins. Otherwise, they risk actors like Patti Lupone or Kevin Spacey taking matters (or your phone) into their own hands.
3. You can ask people to mute their devices.
It is completely acceptable to ask people to mute their devices. And I am not just talking about muting the ring tone; all sounds should be turned off. It is very annoying to sit next to someone whose device “clicks” every time they type a letter. If people are going to use their mobile devices, they should be silent and unobtrusive.
Ideally, the request should come from someone other than the speaker; for example, the host of the event or the person who introduces the speaker. If nobody address the issue, a speaker has two options: make the request at the start of the talk; or wait until an issue arises and then decide whether to address it. I favour the latter option as the former takes away from your opening, which is a critical time for any talk.
4. Have short phrases that are worth sharing.
A short, memorable phrase is like manna from heaven for people who use social media. It is the digital equivalent of a 10-second soundbite on the evening news. As you prepare for your speech or presentation, think about memorable lines that people will be likely to repeat and share. Rhetorical devices are a great way to make a sentence memorable.
In fact, you can go one step further. You (or the event organizer) can create a hashtag for the event and encourage audience members to share thoughts on social media. Your message to a room of hundreds now has the potential to reach thousands or even millions.
5. Use the audience members’ devices to your advantage.
The chances are good that most people in your audience will have a smartphone, tablet or laptop with them. Why not use them to your advantage? Today, there is a wealth of apps and simple software that allow you to poll your audience and see the results in real time. If your presentation lends itself to asking the audience multiple choice questions, you might want to consider this option. Three examples can be found here, here and here. Three other examples can be found in this blog post. (The post is in Finnish, but the videos for the three services are in English.)
6. Give a great presentation or speech.
The most important advice of all. When you engage your audience with meaningful content, compelling stories, well-designed slides and solid delivery, maintaining people’s attention won’t even be an issue. The principle is straightforward and easy to express, but I cannot stress it enough. Put in the work and do a great job.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou
Stanley McChrystal is a retired United States Army General. Former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates has described him as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I (have) ever met”. His last assignment before retiring was as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.
Today, McChrystal heads the McChrystal Group, a leadership and management consultancy composed of professionals from the military, academic, business, and technology sectors. He has given an inspiring TED Talk and is the author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.
I recently listened to an interesting podcast in which McChrystal had a wide-ranging discussion with Tim Ferriss that covered tactical and psychological lessons from combat, the development of mental toughness, leadership and other issues. The podcast generated a number of questions from listeners. As a result, McChrystal did a second, shorter podcast in which he answered some of those questions.
While all of the questions, and McChrystal’s answers, were interesting, I was particularly intrigued by this one:
What are three practices from the military that civilians can use to help develop mental toughness?
Mental toughness, or grit, is an essential requirement for success. Nobody goes through life without failures and setbacks. However, the way in which we respond to failures, setbacks, disappointments, loss, etc. has a major effect on what happens afterwards. Having mental toughness helps us weather the storms so that our progress is not derailed.
McChrystal’s three recommendations are easy to understand—not so easy to do.
1. Push yourself harder than you think you’re capable of. You’ll find new depth inside yourself.
2. Put yourself (and groups) through (shared) difficulties and discomfort. When you have been through a difficult environment or situation, you feel more strongly about that which to you are committed.
3. Create some fear and overcome it. It creates resiliency.
When you think about it, each of the three recommendations involves getting out of your comfort zone (physically, mentally, professionally, etc.). And, depending on the situation, you might end up doing all three at once. For example, if you put yourself in a difficult situation, you might be afraid and you might have to push yourself harder than you think you’re capable of to overcome the challenge.
But McChrystal’s advice is sound. People experience their greatest personal growth when then move towards the things that scare them instead of running from them.
You can apply McChrystal’s recommendations to many aspects of your life, including public speaking. For many people, having to speak in public is uncomfortable, frightening or worse. Even experienced speakers can find it uncomfortable to speak in front of certain audiences, or on a new topic, or in front of a larger audience than they are used to.
How, concretely, can you act on these recommendations? Below are some ideas:
- If you have no public speaking experience or are very afraid of speaking in public, take a course or join an organization like Toastmasters. You will get experience speaking in a safe and supportive environment.
- Participate in a speech contest. The farther you advance, the bigger the audience and the more pressure you have to deal with.
- Speak at conferences on matters related to your field of expertise.
- Volunteer to give corporate presentations to your colleagues, the Board of Directors or prospective clients.
- Give a team presentation with some colleagues.
- Give a guest lecture at a university.
- Give a speech at a wedding reception.
- Take an improvisation class.
- Apply to speak at a TEDx event.
Ultimately, the more you challenge yourself with different speaking situations, the more comfortable you will become. And, when you face a setback—you forget part of your speech; the talk falls flat; the equipment doesn’t work—as is bound to happen if you speak often enough, you will be able to learn from the experience, bounce back and move on. In short, you’ll become a better speaker.
Applying Stanley McChrystal’s advice when it comes to public speaking will not only make you a better speaker, it will improve your self-esteem, your self-confidence and your resiliency. And that is something that will help you with any challenge that you face.