In the years following World War 2, the threat of nuclear war hung over the world. As the United States and its allies faced the Soviet Union and its allies, a Third World War was a distinct possibility.
Given the looming threat, in the 1950s, the American Government produced a civil defence film entitled Duck and Cover. It featured an animated turtle named Bert who would always retreat into his shell whenever there was a danger of an explosion.
You can see the entire 9-minute film here, but below is a shorter, edited version is below. You’ll get the idea.
Most experts agree that ducking and covering can offer some protection, depending on where one is in relation to ground zero of the blast. Nonetheless, I find the upbeat mood of the film chilling, given everything we know about the power of nuclear weapons. (Also, why would a monkey (lemur?) lie in wait to ambush a turtle with a stick of dynamite?)
While the duck-and-cover technique might offer you some protection in a nuclear war, it is counterproductive when you are on stage. And yet, people do it all the time.
How often do speakers just read slide after slide full of text? You might not have experienced this monstrosity, but I’m willing to bet that you’ve sat through at least one presentation when each slide felt like another wave pounding against your sanity.
When you fill your slides full of text or data, you force your audience to make a choice. Either they will listen to you and skip the slide or worse, they will read the slide and not focus on you. They cannot do both at the same time. And if all you do is read your slides, you will almost certainly bore your audience to tears.
Slides are a support for you. Keep them as clean as possible; use a simple animation to bring different points in one at a time so that your audience stays with you; cut out whatever you don’t need. In 2013, I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with the late, great Hans Rosling. I asked him for his biggest piece of advice for people who use slides. This is what he said:
Once you have created your slides, put them up on the screen, go to the back of the room and make sure you can read them.
If you can’t do that beforehand, display the slides on your computer screen and then take five or six paces back and make sure you can read them.
Once you can read the slides from a distance, cut out whatever you can.
And every now and then, have the screen go to black so that the audience refocuses on you.
Don’t duck and cover behind your slides!
Behind a lectern
Without questions, there are some occasions when it is appropriate to speak from behind a lectern. Examples include after-dinner speeches from a head table; speaking at a religious service such as a funeral; graduation speeches; or when you need to use a microphone and the only one available is fixed to the lectern.
But for the majority of speeches and presentations, speakers will usually have the option to wear a lapel or headset microphone and move about on stage. In such cases, I always recommend doing so. Otherwise, you are stuck behind the lectern, which becomes a barrier between you and your audience.
Yes, it takes confidence to leave the shelter of a lectern and yes, it means more work on your part to know what you are going to say. But it allows you to connect in a more meaningful way with your audience by using the stage to get closer to them. And, you can always leave notes on the lectern and check them if necessary. (For more on how to use notes, see this post and this post.)
Don’t duck and cover behind a lectern!
Too often, I see speakers who are intelligent, motivated and who have something to say. And yet, once on stage, they become a diminished version of themselves. They speak softly, almost hesitantly, like they don’t want to offend anyone. And the tone of their voice often rises at the end of each sentence, effectively turning each declarative statement into a question.
I recognize that public speaking can be a frightening experience for many people, but you have to remember that it is not about you; it is about the audience. You have put in the effort to prepare a speech or presentation. Now is the time to deliver a message that will make an impact. So you have to speak with conviction.
You have to sound like you believe in what you are saying. If you don’t, the chances that your audience will believe you are diminished. So don’t focus on yourself and don’t worry if someone in the audience might not agree with everything you say. If you are never criticized, you probably are not making much of an impact.
Public speakers can learn a lesson from a farmers.
Behind our home is a large farmer’s field. Over the years, I have seen that field grow wheat, corn, barley, sunflowers – which look amazing when they are in bloom – and other crops. This season, it appears as though the field will be left to lie fallow.
It’s important for farmers to let their fields lie fallow every now and then. Doing so gives the soil a chance to regenerate. In the short video below, I explain why this process is one that can benefit public speakers as well.
For more information about the Spectacular Speaking event that I mentioned in the video, please click on the icon below for a one-page PDF.
My wife, Julie and I recently went for a vacation in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Wonderful people, beautiful scenery, fascinating history. If you ever get the chance to visit, I highly recommend it.
One day, we took a cable car to the top of Mount Srđ which overlooks the city and offers a spectacular view of the Adriatic coastline. It puts Dubrovnik in a whole new perspective. It was a good reminder that public speakers need to have then same perspective when starting to prepare for a new speech or presentation. I explain in the short video below.
Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) American Actor and 4oth President of the United States
“I learned [during my time as a radio broadcaster] the fundamental rule of public speaking. Whether on the radio, on television or to a live crowd, talk to your audience, not over their heads or through them. Just use normal everyday words. I have never lost that vision of the fellows in the barbershop sitting around and listening to the radio.“
Teranga. It is the word that best represents the values at the heart of society in Senegal. During my trip to Dakar, I experienced it on a daily basis.
There is no direct translation of teranga in English. “Hospitality” comes close but it is an incomplete translation. The best way to understand teranga is to have it explained by someone from Senegal.
Pierre Thiam is a famous Senegalese chef from Dakar. I first learned of Thiam in an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. (Definitely worth watching.)
In an interview about Senegalese cuisine, Thiam explains teranga this way:
Teranga is the word that symbolizes Senegal the best, I think. Teranga is a Wolof word that would translate to hospitality, but it’s not the right way to translate teranga.
Teranga is much more than just hospitality. It’s a value. If there’s a set of values in Senegal, teranga would be the most important one. It’s the way you treat the guest. It’s the way you treat the other, the one who is not you. That person becomes the one to whom you have to offer teranga. You have to treat him with so much respect. You have to offer him what you have. You have to invite him to sit around your bowl.
There’s always room for the other around your bowl. Why? Because we believe that the other is bringing blessings. When you share your bowl, your bowl will always be plentiful. This is the deep-rooted Senegalese belief; we believe that there’s always more. You will never lack by sharing. Actually, when you share, you guarantee yourself that tomorrow if there’s more, there’s going to be more food in your bowl. This is a country that values the wealth of a person not by how much he has, but by how much he shares, by how much he gives.
That’s what I would say to summarize what teranga means. There’s not one word that describes it, but teranga is what Senegal is. It’s something that’s really unique to my country. I’m not saying that because I’m Senegalese. It’s just this value has been instilled in us that we have to treat the other as the most important person in the world.
It’s a beautiful word and a beautiful idea. The world could certainly use more teranga.
Speakers can also learn a lesson from Pierre Tham and apply the principle of teranga in their speeches and presentations.
The audience is your guest.
You must treat the audience with so much respect.
You have to offer the audience what you have — knowledge, insight, hope, inspiration, guidance, motivation.
When you share your bowl (i.e., your message and yourself) on stage, your bowl will never be empty. There will always be more: more people who know you; more people for whom you make a difference; more speaking opportunities; more chances to leave your mark on the world.
I find the whole idea behind teranga inspirational and aspirational, and I have been thinking about it a lot.
Some places surprise you. Even if you’ve been traveling nearly non-stop for 15 years like me, there are places that snap you out of your comfortable world view, take your assumptions and your prejudices, and turn them upside down. They lead you to believe that maybe, there is hope in the world. Senegal is one of those places.
I recently had the privilege of traveling to Dakar, Senegal. There I worked with 30 officials from the United Nations (in French) to help them improve their public speaking and presentation skills. These men and women are doing important work in often difficult conditions all over Africa. It was a privilege for me to be with them.
After my workshop, I stayed a few extra days to experience a bit of the country. On one of those days, I visited an island off the north coast of Dakar, Île de Ngor.
Ngor is a beautiful, tranquil island. A great place to spend the day alone with your thoughts, ambling along sandy lanes lined with bougainvillea or sitting on the edge of rocky cliffs above the ocean.
While visiting Ngor, I shot this video to share a few reflections from my workshop.
It is important to be mindful and respectful of cultural differences when speaking in another country. But there are some principles that are universal when it comes to public speaking. Principles like connecting with your audience, structuring your talk, and using the timeless wisdom of Aristotle to move your audience to action.
A big thank you to everyone from the United Nations with whom I worked. And a big “Jërëjëf” to the people of Senegal.