A Lesson from Andre Agassi

I recently finished Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography. It is a terrific book and is one of the best autobiographies that I have ever read. I highly recommend it.


The title of the book could not be more appropriate, both for the tennis reference and for the fact that Agassi truly does open up his life—the good, the bad and the ugly—to the world. It is a well-written page turner that that will have you reflecting on your own life, even if you have never held a tennis racquet.

I ended up reading Open with pencil next to me so that I could mark passages for easy reference later on. One of the passages that caught my attention is of particular relevance for those who give presentations.

Early in the book, Agassi is describing his final preparations before what would become an epic match against Marcos Baghdatis in the 2006 US Open. Agassi describes how he would let his young kids help him mix the powders into his energy drinks. But when it was time to pack his tennis bag, that job was his and his alone.

No one but me … can pack the [water] bottles into my bag, along with my clothes and towels and books and shades and wristbands. (My rackets, as always, go in later.) No one but me touches my tennis bag, and when it’s finally packed, it stands by the door, like an assassin’s kit, a sign that the day has lurched that much closer to the witching hour.

I obsess about my bag. I keep it meticulously organized, and I make no apologies for this anal retentiveness. The bag is my briefcase, suitcase, toolbox, lunchbox, and palette. I need it just right, always. The bag is what I carry onto the court, and what I carry off, two moments when all my senses are extra acute, so I can feel every ounce of its weight. If someone were to slip a pair of argyle socks into my tennis bag, I’d feel it. The tennis bag is a lot like your heart – you have to know what’s in it all times.

Many speakers put a lot of effort into preparing their presentations and yet approach the logistical details of the presentation with much less. I used to be that way. The night before (or morning of) a presentation, I would scavenge about for the things that I thought I would need for the event—markers, cables, materials, whatever. It was a haphazard approach and one that occasionally resulted in something being forgotten and an ensuing scramble at the venue looking for a workaround. Those days are long gone.

When you present, you should have the same attitude towards logistical details that Agassi had towards his tennis bag. You should assume responsibility and leave nothing to chance. Yes, you will  have to rely on people at the speaking venue for some things, but to the extent that you can reduce that reliance to a minimum—and prepare for contingenciesyou will be in a better situation.

One thing that definitely helps is having a good checklist. After years of writing out lists of things that I needed, I decided to create a simple, but comprehensive one-page checklist that I could go through and tick the different items that I needed. It has come in very handy and I have received lots of positive feedback from others who have used it. You can download it for free here. I hope you find it useful.

Beyond the checklist, however, you should develop a routine when it comes to packing up your material the night before your presentation. I always try to pack my materials in the same way, in the same bags or cases. For me, there is a Zen-like rhythm to the process and a Zen-like peace of mind knowing that everything is in its place and that I’ll be able to find it quickly.

So, the next time you have a presentation, give my checklist a try and take a page out of Andre Agassi’s book as you prepare. Game, Set, Match!

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 175) – Robin Sharma

Robin Sharma – Canadian Leadership Expert

“Mastery comes via a monomaniacal focus on simplicity versus an addiction to complexity.”

 — Robin Sharma

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From Russia with Love

I recently returned from a trip to Novosibirsk, Siberia. I had been invited by Svetlana Komolikova, Director of the School of Rhetoric in Novosibirsk to fly out and give a three-day workshop on public speaking and presentation skills. It was a fascinating experience.


Sitting on the banks of the Ob River, one of the longest in the world, Novosibirsk (“New Siberia” in Russian) is the third most populous city in Russia and a major centre for industry, technology and learning. The city has at least 14 universities and other higher education academies.

And it was a real Siberian winter! Stepping off the plane at 6:00 a.m. and walking out into  the -25° Celsius early morning darkness was invigorating to say the least! As the snow squeaked under my feet, memories of growing up in Northern Ontario, where winters were often just as cold, flooded back.

But if the weather was cold, the reception that I received could not have been warmer. Svetlana, her husband Anton and the participants were terrific. They were engaged; they were curious; and they were willing to push themselves. The photos in the slideshow below give a little flavour of my experience.

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Many of the participants did not speak English. Although my Russian made tremendous progress during the trip, 40-50 words is not much of a basis for a three-day seminar. So I had to work with both simultaneous and consecutive interpretation. My interpreters, Lika and Lena, were terrific but I still had to be mindful of the basics when working in such circumstances. Should you have to work with interpreters, this post that I wrote a couple of years ago might come in handy.

Also, when I teach a three-day workshop, I like to show a few short videos, both to demonstrate a speaking point and also to add some variety to the course. I could have stuck with English videos and left the heavy lifting to the interpreters, but the result would not have been nearly as effective. So I did some legwork before traveling and discovered some great resources:

It made a great impact and the participants appreciated the extra effort. I also had some of my slides translated into Russian and also sent detailed notes well in advance of the event so that they could be translated for the participants. If you have to travel to and present to an audience that speaks another language, some extra work on your part beforehand will go a long way during the event.

Finally, on the penultimate day of my trip, I had the unique experience of being a guest on a Russian TV Morning Talk Show called “раньше всех”. Pronounced “Ranshye Vsyekh”, it basically means “Earlier Than Anyone”, but I just thought of it as “Good Morning Siberia”. They found out that I was in town and so invited me to come on the show.

It was a great experience but also a challenge. As you will see in the video below, I had to focus on the hosts, Anna and Alexander, who were speaking to me in Russian. Meanwhile, Lika, the interpreter, was half whispering the words in English behind me. With my head angled slightly, I was hearing Russian in my right ear and English in my left. It really forced me to focus but was a lot of fun to do!

All in all, a fantastic experience with some wonderful people. Special thanks to Svetlana for being a wonderful host and a true professional. She found the School of Rhetoric in Novosibirsk seven years ago and is held in the highest esteem by her clients. It was a pleasure working with her. большое спасибо, Светлана и Сибирь!

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Managing Public Speaking Anxiety

I am proud to be part of a great team that gets to spend one week a year with the dynamic, motivated and clever students in the IESE Executive MBA Programme. We help them hone their public speaking skills so that they are able to communicate more effectively the great things on which they are working.

Our team is led by Conor Neill and includes Tony Anagor, Florian Mueck, Tobias Rodrigues and me. While in Barcelona, Conor interviewed us on a wide variety of public speaking issues. I will be posting those videos from time to time on this blog. I will be posting those videos from time to time on this blog.

Today’s video is about managing public speaking anxiety.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 174) – Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857 - 1924) Polish Author

Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) Polish Author and Novelist

“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”

— Joseph Conrad

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A Groundhog Day Public Speaking Lesson


He must cast a big shadow.

Happy Groundhog Day!

For those of you unfamiliar with the occasion, it is a quirky little celebration observed in Canada and the United States on the 2nd of February. According to legend, if the groundhog (see picture) wakes up and does not see his shadow, spring will come early that year. However, if the groundhog does see his shadow, he will get scared, go back into his burrow and we will have six more weeks of winter. 

Groundhog Day also happens to be the name of one of my favourite movies.

Bill Murray plays a disgruntled TV weatherman who is sent with a crew to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the Groundhog Day event. A snowstorm moves in and the crew is forced to spend a second night in Punxsutawney. When Murray wakes up the “next” day, it is Groundhog Day all over again. He continues to relive the same day over and over and only he knows it. It’s a very clever film.

Now, although Murray relives the same day over and over, the days do not unfold exactly the same way. In fact, Murray can learn something one day and then use it to his advantage the next. This is particularly useful in helping him learn about, and win the affection of, his colleague who is played by Andie Macdowell.

So what does this have to do with public speaking? Well, if you have to give the same presentation multiple times, you can (and should) learn from each experience and make the appropriate adjustments for the next time. In this way, your presentations should get better and better.

I give the same advice to young speakers when they join Toastmasters. There is no rule that says you cannot give the same speech twice. I always recommend that they give a speech, get feedback and then give the speech again after incorporating the feedback. The learning and growth are tremendous.

If you are going to give a speech or presentation and you know that you will have to give it again in the future, pay attention to what happens and get feedback from your audience members on how you can do a better job the next time around. If you do, you will.

By the way, bad news for those of you who were hoping for an early spring. Apparently the groundhog has just seen his shadow as I write. Six more weeks of winter coming up!

Photo courtesy of BlueRidgeKitties / Flickr
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